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LONG BLOG

REVIEW: The Evil Within (PS4)

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The Evil Within

Playing through The Evil Within has been a real rollercoaster ride, not just in terms of narrative and action set pieces, but also in terms of quality, pacing, and difficulty. The short version of this review is that while this game is good, *very* good in fact and I enjoyed playing it, it’s also a complete mess of design ideas that sometimes work together beautifully and sometimes butt up against each other and cause some sections to feel awkward and frustrating. Going by the name Psycho Break in its native Japan, a much better name for this game in my opinion… and one I’ll be using from now on, this is a long awaited return to traditional survival horror by one of the *true* masters; Shinji Mikami. Many people have compared it to Resident Evil 4, and this association with a classic of the genre is perhaps what was intended with the name change, but Psycho Break often has as much in common with the Silent Hill games as it does Mikami’s previous work. You’ll also find references and homages to other survival horror games past and present, and it feels like a “best of” collection of ideas, settings and gameplay elements. I’ve been rather upfront with my feelings, and if you scroll to the bottom of this review you’ll see a “Very Good” rating of 7.5/10. The reason I’m telling you this now is because while discussing this game I’m going to be dropping a lot of spoilers, something I don’t normally do. You have been warned, and if you haven’t already played through the game, you might want to stop reading this and go try The Evil Within, or Psycho Break, or ‘Survival Horror The Game’.

Blamm!!

For most of the game you’ll be getting thrown from situation to situation without a clue to exactly what the f**k is going on. You play as protagonist Sebastian Castellanos, a grizzled veteran cop who’s responding to a multiple homicide at a mental institution with his partner Joseph and a rookie called Kidman. Upon their arrival at the scene, the trio find that a supernatural entity has been killing everyone and they are pulled into a never-ending series of nightmare scenarios. In gameplay terms this means that each chapter of the game takes place in a completely different location and often a different time period to chapters immediately preceding or following, which can often be confusing despite the awesome ways that the sections transition into each other. The actual story that ties this all together is revealed slowly through the occasional cut-scene and badly-acted dialogue, but to really understand the whole thing you’re going to have to read the different newspaper clippings and diary entries in Sebastian’s police notebook. It’s a shame that the storytelling is so obtuse, because the idea of being trapped inside a networked consciousness, shared between mental patients at an asylum, and controlled by a maniacal doctor with mental health issues of his own is actually a good idea for a horror videogame! Oh, that’s what’s really going on by the way, I did warn you about spoilers, and it explains why everything is so nightmarish and crazy all the time. As I said, Psycho Break is the perfect name for this game, and it does feel like you’re taking part in a large scale psychotic breakdown. This is further reinforced by the “safe rooms” you’ll find scattered around chapters, and which lead back to the mental asylum where you can save your game, upgrade Sebastian’s abilities, and unlock secret lockers using collectible hidden keys.

WFT!?

The “safe rooms” are signified by a blood stained blue door and, more noticeably, by the sound of ‘Clair de Lune’ playing on an old gramophone; you’ll learn to *love* and crave the melody of that song as it means finally you can relax for a few minutes.  As the game progresses, the state of the asylum gets more and more decrepit and disturbed, reflecting Sebastian’s failing state of mind as he is put through some of the most horrific encounters imaginable. Chapters in the game take you to many of the classic survival horror locations, such as rustic villages filled with crazed undead, spooky mansions full of traps, derelict subway tunnels, mad-scientist laboratories, etc. Each punctuated with boss fights and scenarios involving fighting off waves of enemies; the gameplay here is very much like Resident Evil 4, no surprise considering the director. What is more surprising are the psychological horror segments, short as they are, which often feel more like creeping around in the dark ala’ Silent Hill 2, and these are often what lead to the mind-warping and awesome-to-watch transitions from one location to another. Go through a door and the corridor might stretch out to infinity, fill with gushing blood, then gravity shifts and you’re falling down the corridor through the muck, only to land crashing onto the floor of a forest at night. Crazy. Much of the enemies you will face are the typical zombie-like bullet sponges survival horror is known for, but there are several extremely powerful evil creatures that will hunt you through levels over-and-over again until a chapter where they are eventually killed for real.

Spooky...

This is actually where some of the game’s biggest missteps happen and Psycho Break can plummet from awesome to crushingly frustrating in one foul swoop. For instance, when I first fired the game up I thought it was good but nothing special, then after a few chapters it really grew on me and I was having *loads* of fun, right through to around Chapter 10...when I hit a brick-wall of frustratingly powerful enemy encounters. When you run into one of these situations the game is terrible at signposting what you must do in order to not only survive but also to progress to the next section, leaving you little choice but to be killed over-and-over again retrying the same section because at first you couldn’t see the little switch on the ceiling that you needed to shoot (while a hideous beast is chasing after you). Once you know what you’re doing you then have to find the split-second timing required to do it, all whilst avoiding enemies that will instantly kill you if they touch you, only to then have to repeat the exact same process in the next room. Failure sends you back to the checkpoint, which is probably before the first of many nightmarish rooms, and after a lengthy loading screen. *sigh* Not fun. Once you’re past these slumps, which are actually more frequent, just that Chapter 10 really sticks out as a particular low point, the game picks up again and you quickly forget that about twenty minutes ago you were ready to rage quit forever. It’s a real shame that Psycho Break has these extreme difficulty spikes in what is already a fairly challenging game, and it will no doubt put many people off and prevent them from reaching the end.

Die damn you!!

Aesthetically the game is also a bit of a mixed bag, although anyone who says it looks bad is lying, and anyone comparing it to “PS3 or PS2 graphics” is spouting a load of hyperbole. Psycho Break is created in the ‘IdTech5’ engine, which usually spits out 60fps framerates with dynamic resolution and some interesting algorithms for loading textures, but Shinji Mikami’s team have almost completely rejected this. Instead, the game is locked at 1080p and 30fps, and this is obviously something that the engine is struggling to bend to, causing lots of hiccups and a less than smooth experience. This is compounded by the idea of squishing the image down further into a 2.35:1 cinematic aspect ratio, losing around 30% of the screen in the process, ostensibly this is done for artistic reasons but it’s fair to assume it might be something of a technical cutback too. Whatever reason was the cause, the result is sometimes really irritating, and while cut scenes indeed do look more cinematic, the core gameplay suffers with the lack of vertical space. For instance, when I first arrived at the mansion in a later chapter, a throwback to the first Resident Evil and a real crowd-pleaser, I struggled to fit it on screen and get a good look at it, diminishing the surprise somewhat. The character and enemy models though are fantastic and show a lot of deformation effects when blowing bits off them in a gory visceral manner. Level design is also mostly solid and occasionally you will be taken aback with just how good it looks, especially some of the deliciously grimy textures and absolutely *fantastic* lighting; really enough praise can’t be heaped upon the lighting engine in this game, obviously a lot of hard work has gone into it and it really adds a lot to the mood and atmosphere. The same can’t be said for the sound design though unfortunately, despite ‘Clair de Lune’ the rest of the music is just alright and the voice acting is absolutely awful; just like Resident Evil.

Oh god, something's here...

People always harp on about the loss of “true survival horror” and how the whole genre has shifted a lot more towards action and a lot less towards psychological scares. Well, for my money, Shinji Mikami’s games have always been more about shooting zombies than being scared by them; even in the first Resident Evil I remember picking up shotguns, magnums, grenade launchers, etc. Not like Silent Hill where you’re often running about with a stick in the dark! Psycho Break carries on where Resident Evil 4 left off and is definitely from the ‘action’ side of survival horror, although not quite to the extremes that later instalments have taken it. The shooting is solid and mostly the controls make sense and are similar to many other games in the genre. Some strange omissions though are things like a quick one-eighty degree turn, which would have been useful for those times you’re being swamped with enemies, and the stamina bar that lets you run depletes far too rapidly until it’s upgraded to last longer. An option to let you see whether enemies have spotted you or not is, for some reason, tuned off in the menu and enabling it helps stealth to work a lot better, allowing you to get some sneaky silent kills in with your knife. Enjoyable sections where you’re not gunning down endless waves of horrific creatures usually involve navigating dark environments using your oil-lamp and solving the usual survival horror key card or combination lock puzzles to open doors, etc. It's safe to say though that Psycho Break, while visceral and loaded with the occasional jump-scare set piece, is not a very terrifying game although it is often quite tense to play. If you're someone who has enjoyed the Resident Evil games in all their guises and through all their missteps *cough* 6 *cough* then you'll find this game is right up your street.

Sunfowers of death!

Despite all the foibles and slip-ups, I did really enjoy my time playing Psycho Break, or The Evil Within, and I was often tempted to chalk it down as a “great” 8/10 videogame. However, the odd design choices, irritating presentation defects and the sheer frustration in some of those difficultly spikes brought it crashing down to a 7/10. In the end I’m going to have to settle at a halfway point, with you having to adjust the score yourself depending on your tolerance for these things.

7.5/10
(Very Good)

If you’re after a genuinely terrifying videogame, then you’re going to have to look elsewhere, perhaps at something like Alien Isolation. However, if you’re a fan of old-school survival horror, especially by Shinji Mikami or the Resident Evil series, then you should find this to be a very good game, and The Evil Within is definitely worth picking up. Psycho Break is full of decrepit mansions, zombie head-popping, and surreal disturbing imagery. It's a game on the verge of greatness, but too flawed to quite reach it.

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About n0signalone of us since 2:01 AM on 10.06.2014

Videogames have come a long way since the 8-bit and 16-bit days of old, and it is now one of the most interesting and constantly-evolving storytelling mediums. I started blogging about videogames a few years ago because I am very passionate about certain experiences I've had, which I don't think could have existed outside of our unique hobby, and I wanted to share this with other like-minded people on the internet.

I'm based in the UK and my favourite videogame of all time is probably still Shadow of the Colossus, but other more recent games such as the impeccable Dark Souls and Journey have given it a run for its money. My other interests, and things I have blogged extensively about, are board games and Japanese anime. I've got a degree in Media Communications and Film, and I'm currently a Teacher of ICT.

I post fairly regularly on my personal blog at https://n0timportant.blogspot.co.uk/, so please visit there for legacy videogame reviews and articles on anime, boardgames, etc.