All too often, survival horror titles perform poorly in some areas, but it's somehow acceptable because that's the trade-off for being survival horror. If the experience is tense and scary, it seems like everything else is forgivable. That's a very important "if" however, because if it doesn't deliver on the horror front, you're suddenly left with a game that just performs poorly.
After having almost two hours of hands-on time with The Evil Within, it's perilously close to falling into this category.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I was thrust into two levels at varying points of the story. Chapter 4 and Chapter 8 were the two sections shown, and both were ineffective at providing any scares, any true adrenaline-pumping moments, or really anything even noteworthy. For what it's worth, maybe I was missing the context of the previous parts of the game that might give others an overarching sense of fear. As isolated incidents, they were just dull.
It's a shame because The Evil Within does a fairly decent job at cultivating an atmosphere that lends itself to a survival horror game. The gritty filter over the visuals and the methodical music set up the pins. Nothing ever knocked them down.
Chapter 4 takes place in a hospice, and was an odd environment to get our first taste of the game. The level's set up to be somewhat open-ended, and the game did a poor job of giving direction as to what the current objective was and where it was necessary to go. After some wandering about and eventually putting a bullet in the head of an evil doctor, it funneled me back outside to three zombies wandering around a burning pile of wreckage. It was here that I died thrice, only to be returned to the start of the demo each and every time.
An annoyingly unpredictable checkpoint system would be a continuing theme of both slices of the demo we were shown. At one point in Chapter 8, there's a set piece that requires you shoot a not-so-obvious button before being pulled into two giant blades. Speaking with others attending the event, dying here negated approximately 20 minutes of progress; I was lucky enough to twitch to it my first time.
Going back to the scene in Chapter 4 with the undead around the fire, despite being entirely avoidable (to my immense ire upon finding out), it served as a good training grounds to how The Evil Within's combat works. Gunplay is typically the way to go, as melee attacks will just slow enemies down. However, there are some bigger weapons scattered about, such as hatchets, that will finish them off. Additionally, using a match to set fire to the body is the only way to ensure that they won't get back up. Being a survival horror game, there are limited resources, making the inclusion of a stealth kill incredibly valuable, as it uses nothing.
Trying to pick off these three zombies one-by-one proved to be incredibly frustrating. There was no clear indicator of what made enemies detect you. Sometimes I'd crouch in the shadows and bushes, patiently waiting for one to turn around on his path when it'd see me out of nowhere and come lumbering toward me. Other times, I'd be brazenly attacking one in front of another, but it wouldn't react at all.
To compound issues, at no point did anything control well. Running around was a chore, especially navigating the game's many hallways and doors. Shooting was unimpressive, as the aiming reticule never felt like it moved fluidly. It's never fun to wrestle with a game's controls, but it can be overlooked under the right circumstances. The Evil Within didn't fit this criteria.
By the time I progressed through the level and was mysteriously dropped into a sewer full of blood, I had gotten a feel for the tricks up The Evil Within's sleeve. It's one-third jump scares, one-third paranormal uneasiness, and one-third disturbing visuals. But, it's zero parts scary. As some monster lady summoned about 15 zombies in the area with all the grace of PlayStation 2 graphics, I was not at all concerned about the supposedly terrifying prospect of being that outnumbered, but entirely dreading fighting that many enemies using that shoddy combat system.
Chapter 8 fared a bit better because it had the benefit of multiple paths to take, but each one necessary to the completion of the level. Enemies came in smaller numbers, and everything was just generally more manageable. However, an apparition named Ruvik would appear on occasion, and if she touched you, she'd knock you down to just a sliver of health. I generally just ignored her when she showed up, as I thought these bits were scripted. It turns out these were random encounters. Another person told me that she spawned when he was in a tiny room with another enemy, unfairly leading to an inevitable death -- a death that set him back 15 minutes. It's bad enough replaying extended sections of a game; having to do that when it's not fun is just downright miserable.
We're at a point where I honestly don't know what can be done to salvage The Evil Within. It's commonly known that at preview events, publishers try to put their best foot forward and show the most impressive parts of their game. If this is the best that The Evil Within has to offer, I can't see how it doesn't flatline. Maybe the benefit of being told the story in its entirety can be the saving grace, but that's a puncher's chance. Otherwise, it's looking like it'll be entirely forgettable.
Watch Sebastian stumble around a lot in this Evil Within trailer out of TGS 2014
3:00 PM on 09.17.2014