Not A Review: The Evil Within

IMG_0050-1This is not a review of The Evil Within. I didn’t finish the game and I most likely won’t, so obviously no score will be attached to this post (if I had to give it one, a 1 or 2 out of 5 seems reasonable). I played until I became infuriated and realized I have much better things that I can be doing with my time. That was about 11 hours in. I felt pretty shitty about the game for basically all 11 of those hours. It’s not good.

Shinji Mikami made a pretty great game back in 2005 called Resident Evil 4. It, in large part, changed the way we think about shooting in video games — Resident Evil 4 was one of the first really great attempts at the more modern over-the-shoulder third-person shooters we see today. The story was nonsensical and campy, but the atmosphere and shooting were so great nobody really noticed. The one complaint, going back to Resident Evil 4 today, is that you can’t move while aiming. It’s a deliberate choice — one that forces you to commit to your actions and stand your ground. It creates a layer of tension to shooting: Will I be able to kill this zombie before he gets too close? It’s a complaint, but a deliberate design decision right for the times — and a holdover from the classic Resident Evil games. It was a terrific game back in 2005.

The Evil Within is the spiritual successor to the design decisions Mikami made with Resident Evil 4 before his exodus from Capcom. It wants to be modern, but also a nostalgic piece too reminiscent to Resident Evil 4. It tries its damnedest to be the best of two worlds but fails miserably in both respects. The Evil Within suffers from an identity crisis of trying too hard and never trying hard enough. It is a paradoxical mess of a video game that only serves to frustrate and annoy.

You play as hard-boiled, recovering alcoholic, seen-some-serious-shit ace detective Sebastian Castellanos investigating the recent mass murder at a mental hospital. He has a troubled past clouded by booze and the deaths of his wife and daughter, so you know he means business. Through a series of unfortunate events, grizzled Castellanos finds himself trapped inside the mental hospital! But will he ever get out alive? I won’t ever know.

IMG_0054-0The first task for players in The Evil Within requires you to sneak around poorly designed stealth sequences with incredibly limited tutorials. Once you have weapons, stealth becomes an entirely useless mechanic, so I have no earthly idea why anyone thought it was a good idea to keep this section in here. In fact, the sequence is pretty laughably awful. At one point I had to hide in a locker (something I had recently done a lot of in Alien: Isolation) and wait for this chainsaw-wielding, murderous butcher to give up on chasing me. He kept walking back and forth in front of the locker, revving the chainsaw with incredibly limited and shockingly poor sound design. It should be noted, after this chapter I never had the option to hide in a locker again (instead lockers held equipment).

Resident Evil 4 had some pretty great shooting. There was no reticle, instead you had the tiny red dot sight to judge your aiming. It was tense and precise, but the aim also stuttered quite a bit (an appreciated touch). The Evil Within‘s gunplay is flat-out worse than a game that came out in 2005. It’s awful. Multiple times I aimed directly at a zombie’s head, with no sway present on my weapon at all (an important note), and when I pulled the trigger, the bullet whizzed towards said zombie’s head only to seemingly teleport around him and send out a puff of dust on the concrete wall behind him. This happened multiple times with various enemies in various locations. It’s like an artificial dice roll to make the weapon upgrades seem more beneficial. I missed despite being accurate — that’s really bad. Games should give their players accurate feedback, especially ones that limit your resources so heavily.

As the game continues, the actual shooting becomes less frustrating (thanks to the upgrades, I guess), but the combat encounters themselves only become increasingly more vexing. In many instances, I was placed in a combat arena of sorts and forced to kill all the zombies in that area before continuing. It placed some weird artificial barrier to progress that needn’t exist. The most jarring of these areas came in a chapter where Castellanos was trying to get to a church for some completely strange and unknown reason — because the visions said so? Castellanos and his partner (that for the life of me I cannot remember the name of probably Jeffery or Jimmy or something incredibly generic like that) have to face off against waves and waves of shambling zombie enemies with the stringent amount of ammo at hand. It is infuriating to run around the boxed in area casually dodging enemies until you can take them all out.

IMG_0052-0Not to mention the increasingly frustrating boss battles scattered throughout the chapters. Most of these boss encounters require some precise dodging and attack timing to take out, which makes their one-hit-kill attacks all the more exacerbating. In one particularly ill-conceived boss battle, I had to dodge the attacks of an multi-limbed monster skittering very close to the ground while looking up to shoot valves that (hopefully) redirect fire down onto the creature. What ended up happening most of the time was the boss would skitter on the ground and not make a lot of noise (there’s that sound design problem again) before pounding my face in as I wrestle with the imprecise aiming and timing to try and burn it.

You can’t see much of the ground in The Evil Within thanks to the extreme letter-boxing employed (which was given the option of total removal in a recent PC update). It is a pretty annoying aspect ratio — the widest I’ve ever seen in a game — that tends to obfuscate relevant detail the player needs, especially in cases like described above, or when climbing up or down ladders. It’s just highly inconvenient.

The aspect ratio isn’t helped by the gloriously awful camera that never seems to make up its mind on where it wants to center your character onscreen. At certain points Castellanos’ frame fills most of the screen, others he’s far off to the side, others still the camera seems to just have a mind of its own. This swimmy camera never feels precise enough (leading to the similar aiming difficulties, since makes it it is so hard to be precise in you shots) swishing around as you hope to look around you.

Probably one of the best things I can say about The Evil Within relates to its enemy design. They are clever and sometimes pretty damn creepy. The multi-armed skittering woman is a scary creature design, complete with the terrifying Ju-On: The Grudge hair covering her face. Another notable creature has a safe for a head that he bangs on before attacking you. You can’t rely on headshots and are best served running from him. Even the normal zombies have a bit of a twist on them: they may still be weak to headshots, but they still shamble forward even with half of their face missing or split open. Those zombies unease the player because they don’t follow the norms of design — much like how modern day horror enemies usually have a twist to them. A lot of the tension in horror games comes from navigating the unknown.

AsylumUnderground_03_wLegalHowever, The Evil Within traffics so heavily in the tropes of psychological horror that nothing is ever truly unknown to the player. Obviously the characters of The Evil Within are in some sort of echo-chamber of shared dreams trying to escape. And obviously the game will toy with your expectations of what is reality, but ultimately nothing will matter because they’ve been in the dream the whole time — twist! Obviously Castellanos is haunted by some form of his past, and the past of the others in his shared dream state. But, frankly, I just don’t give enough of a crap about anything in it’s been there, done that narrative. I’ve seen it time and again.

The environments and overlying tissue connecting The Evil Within irk me. After each chapter you are pulled out of the environment you are in, either by a spooky blood arm grabbing you or you just falling through the walls, and end up in a new place. One minute you’ll be walking around an eerie mansion reminiscent of the first Resident Evil, the next you’ll be in a field of sunflowers. Or you’ll be in a church and be pulled into a mental hospital by some unknown force. These jarring transitions point to one of the larger systemic problems with The Evil Within: there is no connective tissue. It’s all gobbledygook psychological nonsense leading you down increasingly boring environments. It’s like the developers had a Wheel of Tropes they would spin before creating the next area and decided any natural transitions could just be explained away by spooky blood arms grabbing you.

Leak7_wLegalWithin the environments themselves, you start to just see the same tired tricks from old school horror. Spooky industrial complexes with rusty pipes and peeling wallpaper. Or a mental hospital with peeling wallpaper and blood oozing from the walls. Lots of blood oozing from walls in The Evil Within — it’s annoying. Mental hospitals are a tired and outdated trope for horror games. Stop doing it. The Evil Within goes full force with the mental hospital trope, having that be your base of operations for saves and upgrades. Oh right, when you get upgrades you sit in a chair and have a machine lobotomize you. Real fucking clever, video game.

This is not a review of The Evil Within. I did not finish the game. I won’t finish the game. I played it for 11 hours and decided enough was enough. It wasn’t worth it. These problems stuck with me so forcefully I had to write why I didn’t finish the game and why I think it is pretty awful. This is not a natural occurance for me, usually I will beat the games I start. But lately I’ve gotten tired of working through nonsense and found that I was much happier without spending any more time inside The Evil Within. If you like it, that’s great. I don’t. I won’t. Goodbye, The Evil Within, it was shitty knowing you.