To provide a little background, I am not typically the type to play straight horror games, though I am known to get down on some survival horror. The Evil Within has a look and a feel, though, that drew me in and made me curious. To date, the only pure horror game that I have completed had a two-year-old child as the protagonist; you might imagine it’s not something I am used to. I couldn’t get past the first couple areas of Amnesia as they proved too freaky for me. I have only heard a few things about this game, so my understanding of just what I am getting myself into is minimal at best.
So The Evil Within starts with some standard scene-setting. Three detectives head into a hospital to investigate a recent police situation, but when they arrive everyone is dead and there are a lot of questions. In standard man-cop fashion, the woman is left to guard the entrance while the other two search the gruesome scene. In the security room at the back you find a visibly shaken doctor and the security footage. A momentary glimpse at the live footage shows three cops being killed by some kind of being which then looks at the camera, disappears then reappears behind you. That was actually kind of neat.
Initially I couldn’t really place it, but the game had a look, a feel a sort of residual ambiance of something vaguely familiar, lingering on the edge of identification. When my character comes to, he is looking at the floor of a basement and his dangling hands. He watches feckless as some hulking man (?) mechanically kills someone off-screen then hefts a torso to a table, where he starts hacking it apart like a butcher. By swinging, I can manage to get a hold of a knife sticking out of another hanging corpse and cut myself down.
Sebastian Castellanos as a main character is pretty neat. He has a gruff look and a stylish appearance seemingly pulled out of a noir film, and even has a sort of prickly manliness that gives the player a bold swagger in his handling. You do more than you might otherwise feel capable of doing because you have faith in the character. In the beginning sequence, Castellanos has to steal keys to escape the man butcher and beat a hasty retreat, but the game quickly shows you what you’ve gotten yourself into. In his haste to escape along a catwalk, Castellanos triggers an alarm – presumably set by the man-butcher – and the aggressor appears behind him, strangling a chainsaw’s throttle into a deranged howl. Castellanos immediately starts to run, but I was already mashing the ‘w’ key to go forward.
You get two rooms before the man-butcher manages to catch your right calf with the chainsaw, tearing your leg so you’re forced to a hobble. He stops chasing you, though, and pumps the pedal on some infernal machine. A gate closes you off from the aggressor, but you find yourself in a new trap: closing in from the walls are tumbling rows of blades, preparing to rend you into rough-ground hamburger.
From the outset, The Evil Within feels like one of those haunted house walkthroughs that go up around Halloween nationwide: everything is a little exaggerated, violence is constantly threatened and, where it is completed, it is extreme to the point of being outlandish. When Castellanos comes to, he is hanging like refrigerated meat on a hook in what seems to be a ghoulish processing plant, and your escape from the whirling walls of blades comes in the form of a hatch full of ground human remains. Once in, you slide to the bottom of a run-off chute full of spikes and human remains into a massive vat full of what seems to be blood. I get this is horror, but a vat of blood? Really? That’s just foul.
Still, this game has a way of portraying the chase that seems pretty well-done. When Castellanos looked back, he saw the blurred outline of the man-butcher with a chainsaw and earlier we never really got a good look at more than its back. Keeping the enemy fully understood but still vague and unknown is difficult, and this game is doing a good job so far. Its brand of horror, for those that find the gore off-putting, still comes through for those that get adrenaline pumped. One thing that I did notice from the beginning is that this game gives you a taste of capability while still making you feel helpless. You get a combat knife from the start, but try to confront your foe and he just takes you apart like a poorly-made china doll.
The Evil Within has also taken notes from other successful games of its genre, crafting a pretty powerful ambiance that threatens to drag you in at any moment. One thing I noticed is the use of film grain and a panoramic view, cultivating a sense of surrealistic, pulp-fictional look. It looks like a movie, and this helps with the way everything is presented. The game also doesn’t stay in one claustrophobic place the entire time, but pulls the player through a vast world of bizarre confusion. Of course, some things do grate on the nerves a bit and not in a way that adds to the overall gameplay. The Evil Within has a restrictive camera view. For me, Castellanos himself takes up a good chunk of the screen and, often, what you see is based on the situation. In quiet times of stealth and slow-movement, your view is fairly close on the protagonist. This brings you in with him, as if you are there with him. As things heat up, the view pulls out and you can see more, and, in situations like the blade-walls, your view is pulled out enough that you can see just how bad the situation is. It sucks in that it restricts your freedom of view, but in a way it keeps you on course and creates a hegemony of gaze that induces a sort of incarceration-frenzy. A lot of times, however, it just pisses me off and gets me killed.
Graphics are effective, music always conveys the right emotion and varies with the circumstances, but the style is one I couldn’t determine or verify until it hit me. Some characters, settings and art all looks somehow Japanese. It is a tough thing to place a finger on, especially if you are a fan of anime and JRPGs. I have never been able to get into anime or Asian-style games, so I am pretty sensitive to it. You can say there is nothing to that statement, but Asian games and art have a distinct style that leave the player feeling like something is out of place. Then someone told me: this is developed by the hand of Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series. Everything clicked into place and I felt like I had a revelation. I like the style and the feeling of the game, it just felt unmistakably different than most games by Bethesda Softworks because it has a heavy influence from another master developer.
But there are still a number of features that are undeniably Bethesda. Take for instance the skill system. Yea, in a horror game, there is a skill system and even a crafting system. Throughout the game you will pick up jars of green gel, which are used in this surreal sequence that your character keeps coming back to. Castellanos is in a hospital and he wakes up for some kind of treatment. You save your game and you walk into a room, sit down and the nurse – who seems like a thin, blurry image of a woman – presses a button that straps you in and uses the gel to perform electroshock therapy… I think. To get here, you travel through mirrors and wake up back in your bed. Yea, everything about this game is pretty surreal. If you are not a fan of either, The Evil Within takes a few pages out of the book of more recent entries in the horror genre. If you are being chased by enemies, you can always dive into a hiding spot with a scant view of the outside until they slip out of view. Sitting there listening to the dissonant harmony of your breathing and heartbeat, it has a sort of vulnerable tension that this game balances well. Occasionally the game will put you into action sequences during cut-scenes, but that allows for a break from the constant horror of the gameplay. It lets the player sit back and enjoy the next set-up for a horror sequence if it does occasionally come off a tad campy and out-of-place.
While I haven’t gotten very far, I have managed to level up my character a bit. More gel means higher stats, so keep an eye out for the weird ooze. So far I’ve yet to encounter the crafting system. I do know that you use trap parts to construct weapons and items, which can be obtained from killing enemies or disarming traps. Bethesda has a unique way of putting its own spin on games and making them more organized and comely, but does everything really need a crafting and leveling system? I have never played Resident Evil, though, so I have no pretext here. Do those games have similar systems, or are they more like third-person adventure games than RPGs? Either way, I do have a couple simple requests for these guys. Please let me skip the opening intro. The length of the opening makes me want to keep the game perpetually loaded up. It’s that bad. Also, please stop porting games to the PC so sloppily! If you have a choice between playing this game on a computer or a console, opt console because this is another game that is structured toward consoles. Might sound dumb to you, but it matters to a lot of PC gamers and The Evil Within suffers from the same menu and operational transgressions that typically plague console-PC ports. It’s not bad enough that I would say avoid it altogether if you are a PC gamer. It is still a good play, but the game is better served in a certain format, and that is on a console. It’s definitely worth a play, though, and I get the feeling fans of Resident Evil will have a new game to get all worked up over. Even if you aren’t a fan of that series, this game has plenty more to offer. Well, back to it, then.