Wot I Think: The Evil Within

At its best, The Evil Within is the sequel that Resident Evil 4 deserved and that subsequent viral not-zombie games failed to be. That’s reason enough to recommend the game to anyone who believes Resident Evil 4 is a fine thing to emulate, and that is probably true of everyone who has played Resident Evil 4. There’s much to celebrate in Mikami’s return to survival horror but the course of true terror does not run smooth. Here’s wot I think.

This isn’t a reskin though. It’s not even a deskin, despite the amount of human jelly and brain-mush on display. The Evil Within has more action, fighting and shooting than some might deem to be entirely proper in a survival horror scenario, but it cuts much closer to the fear bone than Resident Evil 4 and on a more consistent basis.

Chapter one sets the scene and contains almost every moment you’ll have seen in pre-release trailers. The shots of a city segmenting itself as the world seems to be vomiting up its own innards? That’s in the first half hour. The chainsaw-wielding brute chasing the lead character through an asylum packed with unlikely slaughter salons and bladed traps? First five minutes.

As the game unfolds, it teeters on the brink of flat out stating that it’s a greatest horror hits collection and I’d have preferred it to topple over fully into Cabin in the Woods territory, showing the edges of a meta-frame. It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the story but it’s not particularly important and more or less manages to spoil itself, curdling like a gutchunk in a mad scientist’s lab.

There’s a lot of that. Gutchunks and brains in jars. This is a game in which collecting brains suspended in a vial of green gel is the way to level up your character. Grab all of the brains! Stuff the gloopy gel in your pockets – it’ll only end up being dumped on nineties kids if you don’t. Once you have enough gunge, stare at a mirror for long enough and you’ll wake up in an asylum, which is a figment of your imagination/insanity. There, you can save your game, read a newspaper and have the gel injected into your brain, which will enable you to carry more bullets or run for a bit longer.

What a silly, silly game it is. An early level has a massive gate blocking the way. Clear out the enemies and investigate the chain that holds it in place and detective Sebastian Castellanos observes that the only thing that might be able to clear the way is a chainsaw. Thankfully, the sadistic chap with the chainsaw is chained inside a barn nearby. Time to make his acquaintance.

The Evil Within is packed with nonsense. The typical enemy has a rusty nail sticking out of one nostril and a barbed wire hat, and they all shamble, shriek and groan like angry drunks at a Living Dead convention. Resident Evil 4’s rural village is out, replaced by a fog-shrouded gothic equivalent. Flashes of lightning, blood-stained labcoats and rooms full of congealing blood and bits of sick.

Resident Evil 4’s bleached village once basked in the sun, or had at least been touched by its light. The Evil Within tore the sun out of the sky a long time ago, and probably replaced it with a screaming eyeball.

It’s a gory mash-up of grungy, grimy, splatterhouse, video nasty odds and ends. And here’s the thing – it works. The settings are just close enough to full-on kitsch to let me believe anything might happen next, but the things that go bump in the everlasting night are absolutely horrible.

The Evil Within is scary. It’s not the kind of scary that’s going to keep you up at night, it’s the kind of scary that you’ll want to play long into the night, gasping and laughing with relief. You’ll think to yourself, ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me?’ as a box-headed bastard lobs explosives at you, but you’ll run, sneak and hide when he comes calling for you all the same. The creatures are so grotesque and unnatural that you do not want them to touch you under any circumstances, which is why the game’s pendulum swings between combat and stealth are so well-measured and effective.

When you’re sneaking, squatting in the dirt, every movement and noise is like the throb of a final heartbeat. The animation of your character adds to the tension – he’s all fidgety, glancing from side to side as if there’s something lurking even when there isn’t – and the creatures move unpredictably. They chase after bottles that you lob and smash, sure, but they lollop from place to place rather than marching in regimented fashion. Again, it’s the animation that sells the creepiness and erratic nature rather than the motion itself.

Combat is effective as well. Play on the harder of the two initial difficulties (you have to complete the game to unlock ‘hard’) and ammunition is in short supply, as are the parts needed to create crossbow bolts (fired from the Agony Crossbow, natch). Those parts are mostly found by disabling traps, which are a hugely important part of the game’s structure. Rush around the place and you’ll end up wearing bear traps for shoes and triggering the occasional explosive – sneak and you can dismantle traps and keep the parts to make explosive/poison/flaming bolts, or harpoons.

The various bolts allow for different approaches to combat. Bosses aside – and some of them are naff – it’s probably possible to complete most sections without getting into a big scrap. Sneak, stab, move along. If that’s your game, you could leave traps active, circumvent them and lead enemies toward them. The areas are small but they’re brilliant little playgrounds with plenty of room for emergent moments.

The Evil Within is a better horror game than Resident Evil 4 but it’s not a better game. For one thing, too many of the beats are familiar. The first time a baddy burst through a window to chase me in Resi 4, I almost cacked myself. When the same thing happens here…well, I almost cack myself, but I also nod in recognition.

And then there’s the camera. I hate talking about technical issues because it means they’ve managed to obscure other things that are far more important to me, but The Evil Within managed to piss me off even when I was enjoying it. First of all, there’s the engine. Stephen King once described Kubrick’s The Shining as a beautiful car without an engine – The Evil Within is a beautiful car with an engine scavenged from a rider mower. It’s the id Tech Engine 5, so it’s a powerful mower to be sure, but it seems horribly unsuited to the third person game and I’ve been plagued by more texture pop-in than I experienced while playing Wolfenstein earlier this year, on the same hardware.

You might have seen people talking about the black bars already, which force an extreme letterbox view. Rab mentioned it in his write-up of the game’s first three chapters. I agree that the limited visibility makes for claustrophobic moments but it feels like a device to be used sparingly rather than for the entire running length of the game (around 15 hours for me). Too often, I felt like I was playing the game on an iPhone screen that was glued to my monitor.

screenshot with black bars in place

To make things worse, whenever you start sneaking, the camera zooms toward your backside like an overeager proctologist. It may be a tool to limit the player’s power, by restricting the view severely, but that doesn’t quite fit with the explosive agony bolts strapped to my back, and it ended up making me bluster through entire chapters rather than enduring the blinkered field of view. Like many a found footage horror film, The Evil Within will completely alienate some people because its camerawork can be a hindrance.

Where the game innovates it is almost uniformly excellent. Boxes of matches are needed to eliminate fallen creatures but enemies don’t go quietly into the night – they thrash and scream, they leap to their feet and grab at your face as they burn. And they can be used as traps as well, adding to the controlled chaos of each area. Lead a horde to a dark corner, fell one with a shotgun blast to the face, and use his corpse as kindling to reduce them all to ash.

Creepy, surreal, intense and occasionally very clever indeed, The Evil Within isn’t undone by its ludicrous setting – it embraces it to wonderful effect, always ready to add another layer of bizarre hand-stitched horror. But the overall experience is frustrating, never managing to fully escape that narrow field of view, making me feel as boxed in as the game’s posterboy.

The Evil Within is out now.

19 Comments

  1. mikmanner says:

    Incredible the effect an FOV has on the feel of a game, it is worth keeping an eye on this forum where people are working on fixes to remove the black bars AND alter the FOV – also handily making the game work on triple screen setups and 21:9 monitors. link to flawlesswidescreen.org

    Example: link to abload.de

    I’ve only played a little of it but am really enjoying it, the freaky long haired, screaming Laura beast has amazing sounds.

  2. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I’m glad you touched on the match element, as it’s a great part of the game. It really does feel like a decision each and every time on whether to set fire to the downed enemies or not. Sometimes you stumble across downed enemies that you can torch, and I’ve sat and thought, “If this baddie gets up, will it hinder me in any way?” I’m probably not doing a great job explaining the decision-making part of it, but couple that with the infrequency of finding matches and deciding which one to burn and when takes on a whole other element of the game.

    I do agree about the camera, however. The black bars would be fine to me, but the extreme closeness of the camera to Sebastian makes it harder to see things, and doesn’t make it feel cinematic to me. Still, I’m loving the game. I imagine this is going to be a very divisive game for most people: you’ll love it or hate it, without much room in-between.

    • subedii says:

      I love the game, hate the technical limitations.

      Here’s a subjective recommendation up front: It’s probably better to play this with a gamepad. Generally I play 3rd person action games with KBAM (It’s hard to think of any that I haven’t really), but the FOV combined with the ridiculous black bars can be seriously straining on my eyes (that said, I suspect I’m more sensitive to this than most). Probably doesn’t help that I’m on a 16:10 instead of 16:9 monitor. Unlocking the bars doesn’t help, because all that does is zoom the game in further (and possibly still causes more slowdown?). So you really want to be sitting away from the monitor if you want to play. That and the KBAM controls do tend to feel kind of janky and sticky compared to other TPS games for some reason I can’t quite quantify yet. If nothing else, I’d recommend changing the default keybindings (and even this is awkward).

      Even films limit at 2.39:1, this plays at freaking 2.5:1. I’ll be honest, I believe this has FAR more to do with limiting the amount of picture the game has to display than any sort of “cinematic” effect (console side currently struggles a bit even with 30 FPS).

      Fortunately I’ve been able to play the game at 60 FPS without any issues as far as I could tell. Turned off SSAO, but I didn’t really notice any difference. However, for all that the game really is unoptimised for PC and ought to play better than it does (Digital Foundry over at Eurogamer just released a rundown on the PC port. Verdict: Not too great).

      All of THAT out of the way, I’ve really liked playing the game itself (haven’t gotten too far yet). It’s just such a shame that it comes in such an annoying wrapper. I mean I’ve put up with worse. Heck, I actually played through the ORIGINAL port of RE4 (man now THAT was terrible), so goodness knows I tend to be able to put up with more than most. So all I can really say is be aware of what you’d be buying into.

  3. killias2 says:

    I saw “bits of sick” and instantly knew where the link was going. +10,000,000 points for any and all Darkplace references.

    • Jac says:

      I thought i was alone in this world. Now if only this game had a horny giant eye on legs.

    • apocraphyn says:

      I guess it’s official, then – Adam is now the undisputed King of RPS. It was already pretty cemented through his stellar writing alone, but, as you said, any reference to Darkplace instantly confers +10,000,000 points.

  4. XhomeB says:

    So, apart from the awful camera and FOV (bummer…)… It’s actually somewhat OKish?
    What about level design? One of the reasons I enjoyed, say, Alone in the Dark or the first Resident Evil (can’t wait for the PC version of REmake) so much was the feeling I was exploring actual places – these titles were linear in terms of progression, of course, but open enough not to break the illusion (clever backtracking and gradually unlocking new areas helped establish that oh-so-important sense of place).

  5. qwagor says:

    I’m one of the unfortunate bastards with full AMD setup, so id-Tech 5 game is a definite avoid at all costs…

    • Eight Rooks says:

      AMD CPU and GPU here (FX8350, an old 1GB 6870) and I’ve had no technical problems whatsoever besides the game not being very well optimised.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Wolfenstein actually behaved quite nicely on my 270X and after the patches RAGE ran wonderful as well.
      Its not the engine that is anti-AMD per se, its just a question of getting drivers and interfaces lined up.

      This game here however does not seem or feel like the poster child for good tech support or PC integration, so its a seperate issue. Just don’t blame the two other actually fine shooters for it. :p

  6. Eight Rooks says:

    Yes, it’s actually good. Mind you, I still wonder about this whole business of “This game has Done A Thing First – it is the blueprint for everything else to follow and none shall e’er eclipse its glory”. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game like that, to be honest. Resident Evil 4 certainly wasn’t a game like that for me. Evil Within is better, for my money. No tank controls, for one. I don’t really care how often I’ve seen a cliche before if it’s been done well. Certainly not to the point I feel I have to point out, every time, “but you’ve seen this before”. Sometimes TEW could do them better – there really should have been just one chainsaw guy – but Christ, the first Resi had enemies jumping in through windows, and I wouldn’t go back and play that if you paid me. The majority of TEW’s enemies are smarter, harder to fight, and look a damn sight more interesting.

    And it’s daft, but rarely full-on camp – no Resi game has ever been as unsettling as this, IMO. Certainly not 4, or the originals. It’s no Silent Hill, true, but it’s definitely Mikami trying to go psychological and succeeding more often than I’d ever expected. Up to chapter 10 and it’s certainly worked its way under my skin.

    Also, while the black bars certainly deserve criticism I can’t help but feel you’re playing it up too much – yes, yes, it’s unoptimised and so on but it’s still perfectly playable for me, turning the bars off (or down, at least) every time I load it up. The FOV and the zoom become much less of a problem once you can see that much more of the screen. It’s a black mark, but not a reason to avoid the game.

    It’s still not as purely enjoyable as Resi 6, though. Oh, I went there. (Not remotely as well written, either.) God, I miss the melee system and the stamina bar from 6 so badly. I honestly find myself wishing I was unable to punch enemies at all in TEW – it just gets you killed all too often – and stealth becomes so much of a pain later on it hardly seems worth the effort. It’s a good game, and I’m very glad I bought it/that I’m actually enjoying it, but there have been quite a few moments the bad side of survival horror rears its ugly head, the arbitrary difficulty spikes, the silly handicaps, the bullet sponge enemies, the hero being useless, the long stretches with no checkpoints or opportunity to save… it’s still a lot of fun, but it does feel like it should have come out a few years back, when it would have blown everyone’s minds.

  7. Hex says:

    Well it’s nice to see late 2014 is having such a nice string of good releases. Wasteland 2 is about as good as it gets for me, and wot with Endless Legend, and all these other fun sounding games I’m not even going to be able to try until the Xmas Sale of 2015…well! Yippee!

    (And I have so much stuff to look forward to next year as it is! Killing Floor 2, Massive Chalice, the Mandate, effing…the list goes on and on. The Banner Saga Chapter 2, the Darkest Dungeon, Satellite Reign, and I’m sure I’m forgetting more than I’m remembering.)

    Merry xmas! Merry xmas to us all!

  8. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I don’t really mind the aspect ratio tbh, I don’t really have any complaints 3 chapters in. It does what it say on the tin and then some, it’s RE4-2 with lots of extra smart stuff.

  9. Tom Walker says:

    So it’s great apart from the forced aspect ratio and FOV. So that’s an easy fix that they’ll patch in after world+dog complains about it, right? Right?!

    If you’re looking at this to see how your game did at review, Bethesda, note that I (and therefore many like me, no doubt) will buy it when I see that this patch exists.

    • Hex says:

      Hey you stole my lobster claws.

      How do people replace these randomly-assigned images, anyway?

      • JimmyG says:

        You just need to visit the Gravatar homepage and sign in with your account details, I think. It’s been a while for me. I think my picture came with me from my WordPress account, but … I think WordPress stuff is also Gravatar-linked, so, yeah. See if that does it for ya.

        • Tinotoin says:

          I’d wondered that too – and unfortunately don’t see any option to change it. although I quite like my wibbly fang monster thing…

  10. HogOfSerendipity says:

    “and they all shamble, shriek and groan like angry drunks at a Living Dead convention.”
    I could swear that said ‘ducks’ just a second a go…

  11. John Richardson says:

    Enter as a launch option for the game within steam:
    +com_allowconsole 1

    When the game menu has loaded, hit the insert key for the console.
    Enter:
    R_forceaspectratio (1-2.5)

    The number at the end denotes the amount of screen cut off by the bars.
    I use 1.8 as a happy medium between full screen and the ‘cinematic’ feel they are going for.