The Evil Within Review (Xbox One)
A lot of things have changed since the glory days of Resident Evil, particularly in the realm of virtual horror. As such, it was great news for many survival horror fans to hear Shinji Mikami, one of the masters of the genre, would be returning to the space he helped push to the forefront of gaming many years ago. Unfortunately, Mikami's ideas of what makes a strong survival horror title have not altered much over the course of the last decade. As a result, The Evil Within ends up feeling like the worst kind of throwback--one that feels stale, uninspired and most disappointingly, boring.
Detective Sebastian Castellanos, along with his two partners, are called to the scene at a mental hospital in Krimson City. There the trio discovers there's been what appears to be a horrible massacre. Upon further investigation, the officers are hit with a massive psychic attack, and are thrown into an alternate world infected with monsters and creatures of various deformities. It all makes relative sense at the start. It's only once The Evil Within's story actually progresses beyond the introduction that it becomes a convoluted mess of cliche. To make things even more confusing, the main antagonist, Ruvik, has the ability to completely rework the world however he see fits, whenever he sees fit. There's almost no consistency from moment to moment, in characterization or in location, and while the shifting realities do keep you on your toes, it also makes The Evil Within feel completely disjointed.
The feeling of unease carries over to how you play The Evil Within as well. Early on, The Evil Within spends a lot of time pushing stealth gameplay through the beginning chapters. It's quite terrible. Sneaking around and avoiding enemies is awkward and clumsy, and it's made even more troublesome by the decision to put The Evil Within in anamorphic widescreen. It's supposed to enhance the cinematic feel of terror, but all it does is annoy the hell out of you because you can't see a damned thing. Having all the visuals constricted to just a percentage of the screen in the age of flat-screen HDTVs is almost nonsensical. Just take a look at the screenshot above. That's not been cropped for the sake of story. That's the viewscreen you have to work with. Instead of elevating the mood and presentation, this decision severely hampers efforts to be aware of your surroundings, reduces your ability to enjoy what little creativity is there in world and character design, and makes playing Evil Within a chore.
Fortunately, most of the stealth tactics forced on you early in the game get thrown completely out the window the deeper you progress in The Evil Within's narrative. While you can still attempt to be stealthy, the upgrade mechanic included completely ignores stealth, making action and weaponry the focal point of The Evil Within's gameplay for the great majority of your time in-game. You can upgrade weapons and health, and your stockpiles of ammo or matches, but not a single upgrade exists for sneaking around. If The Evil Within was serious at all about stealth being a viable option, you would think there would have been at least one way to improve your skill set in that area. Then again, most of the upgrades possible do very little to make Castellanos a better character, or improve the sluggish gunplay. And you can upgrade your ammo reserves all you want, but there's such a tremendous lack of useable items in the game world, it almost makes no difference.
When you are forced into gunplay with standard fare like shotguns and handguns, it definitely feels like each weapon offers an inadequate amount of punch. Evil Within introduces a crossbow with a rudimentary crafting system for bolts. It's definitely the most powerful weapon in the game, and comes in handy during the few major boss encounters where you are supposed to fight a creature head-on. Many of the bigger encounters in The Evil Within require you to avoid the boss all together, and instead use environmental traps to buy yourself time to escape from the room or the chase. You could try to test your mettle, but burning all that valuable ammunition is ill-advised.
In regards to the boss encounters, that's definitely one place where The Evil Within does provide a bit of a spark. Creatures like the horribly disfigured spider-lady and the grotesque abomination of mental patients fused into one beast are imaginative and terrifying. However, it's the Keeper (that guy with the safe for a head) that rules the roost. Even the main villain Ruvik pales in comparison to the panic you'll feel whenever the Keeper is stalking you. He's massive, creepy and brings the hurt. Of course, the bosses tend to stand out because the standard monsters populating most of The Evil Within's world are so dull. Creeptastic farmers. Undead cops. Lumbering chainsaw psychopaths. It's all very been there, done that, and the base monsters just aren't well designed.
The Evil Within also relies too much on buckets of blood and guts to cover up its poor presentation. The darkness of most stages helps keep the visuals passable for the most part, but there's a lot of texture pop-in and animations and effects aren't impressive either. For a game that strangely puts a lot of emphasis on burning up corpses, the fire effects do look decent, but most deaths (either yours or the enemy's) result in an explosion of body parts. There's nothing wrong with gory deaths. However, the mood and atmosphere and shock of this kind of gross loses all relevancy just a few hours into the game. You become inundated with the violence so much, it's just tiresome and dull.
What could have been a return to form for one of the genre's masters feels like a greatest hits album without any actual hits. The story is a mess, the enemies are slight variations on creatures even Mikami has used before in the past, and the gameplay is trapped in time. The Evil Within is a major disappointment, and even the most devout Mikami fans will have a hard time finding any redeeming qualities.
This review was completed with a purchased retail copy of The Evil Within for Xbox One.