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.
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.