The Evil Within is a survival horror game developed by Tango Gameworks and published by Bethesda on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014. As gruff detective Sebastian Castellanos, the player gets trapped in a nightmarish reality helmed by a psychopath hellbent on torturing his "guests" in any way he can. Madness ensues, hilarity does not.
Story is an important part of horror games to me, so I was sad to see this game not deliver on that front. I blame the game's intentionally disorienting pacing and directing for that. You are basically flung through different environments every few chapters with little reason beyond the level being done, so it's time to load the next one. There are so many chapters of little consequence that seem to exist only to provide action and/or horror sequences instead of developing the plot. And even when the game sits down to do plot stuff, it mostly falls flat, since our main character has no stakes in the story beyond trying to survive.
Sebastian's actual story has already happened and is conveyed in journal notes that describe his backstory, explaining why he's so gruff. But there is just no connective tissue between what he has gone through and the current circumstances. Which is extra dumb, since there is a clear parallel between Sebastian and our antagonist Ruvik that the game never bothers to make use of during their confrontations!
At most, what you get out of playing the game (beyond a small headache trying to piece stuff together) is a story about three police officers (2 of which whoose stories are relegated to DLC) trying to survive a horror game and an exploration of Ruvik's backstory, with abstractions of his memories serving as the basis for a few levels. Those levels are fine, but the game is missing justification for the rest of the (overly long) campaign. You can only force the player through so many literal and figurative meatgrinders before they start asking why.
Fitting the thrown together nature of the story, the horror on display in the Evil Within rarely lands. Instead of building atmosphere and then paying it off with a good scare, the game instead opts to try to be as gruesome, loud and confusing as possible. It's meant to make you question reality, especially when it messes with your save room, but with there being no reality established prior, it doesn't have the intended effect. Hell, for being as crazy as it is, I'd argue that the game would be better if they went even further with the reality bending. Once you've fully changed levels, everything is surprisingly consistent for a nightmarish hellscape ruled by a psycopath. You'd think the walls would start talking to you or people would be shoved halfway into bottles. Or anything eye-catching and creepy in the slightest!
And when the game isn't loud, it's boring, as the majority of enemies are just dudes. They may be dudes with barbed wired lodged in their brains or have masks that feel taken from the Purge, but their dudeness remains consistent, with no attempt to make them interesting, save for the dudes with two heads and some bosses. This issue becomes really apparent in the Inception level (yes really), where the game sort of forgets that it's supposed to be scary and just becomes an action shooter in broad daylight.
To really understand just how much the game fumbles, you need look no further than the resident Pyramid Head expy, the Keeper. On the surface, these things are about as scary design-wise, but the Keeper is not given the gravitas its prominence in the marketing would make you expect. It's essentially just Ruvik's elite minion, but not given room to terrorize you. It just sort of appears and attacks you every so often, without establishing that it's supposed to be anything more than a recurring bossfight. It's foreshadowed in an incredibly obvious tape, explaining its design, and then shows up to party. Sebastian doesn't react to it in any particular way, the camera doesn't and I didn't either. The worth of a monster like this is all in how it is presented, and if it just appears, bangs a hammer on its head and then charges, I'm gonna treat it like a boss and nothing more. And then the game has the gall to make it the protagonist of its own DLC for some reason!
The one time the game manages to be scary is also the time it's the worst to play. A randomly spawning enemy with the ability to teleport and instakill you is indeed horrifying. But when the stealth system doesn't fucking work and you need to evade them multiple times, it quickly becomes absurdly aggravating instead!
Being a survival horror game directed by Shinji Mikami, it should come as no surprise that Evil Within is similar to RE4. But what is surprising is just how much was just lifted. It's essentially a sequel in all but name and setting, as the two games share a lot of DNA. The new ideas are interesting and show what a few changes can do for a formula, but I could do without all the evil bullshit.
Let's start with how the game begins, with the stealth system. There is a clear progression present throughout the game that puts less and less focus on stealth as you aquire weapons and upgrades. That was a good decision, but they might as well just have cut the stealth entirely. It's so simple and barely functioning that it doesn't add to the experience (the aforementioned instakill enemy ignores hiding spots even if he didn't see you).
Your tools are as follows: Sneaking, hiding spots, stealth kills, the odd convenient trap, throwing bottles to distract enemies and an optional UI element that shows you if an enemy is close and if they've seen you. That's your lot, making stealth a very binary experience. Either you stealth kill everyone, or you screw up and get into a fight, with no chance for escape. It is satisfying to pull off stealth, but that is in part because successfully evading the erratic enemies and using bottles correctly is an ordeal.
Now, in order to encourage you to sneak, resources are extremely limited, even for the genre. I actually enjoyed this decision, as saving resources and using them at just the right moment is why I play these games. But even so, the start is incredibly rough, even when you succeed at stealth more often than not. But to balance things out, the game introduces a resource beyond health and ammo, namely matches.
These things are incredibly interesting and sort of replaces the melée moves from RE4. If you manage to down an enemy (of normal type or just a bit beefier) and get close to them, you can set them on fire for an instant kill. And even better, if you set fire to an enemy (or a corpse) near other enemies, you can potentially kill three enemies at once! That is of course incredibly risky, but so much fun when you pull it off.
Introducing an instant kill like this further reveals what the guns actually are, namely tools. Tools meant for specific circumstances. The shotgun for example, is not worth spending upgrades on save for more room for ammo, as it isn't worth using to directly kill most enemies. Instead what you should use it for is to knock down multiple enemies at once (without the need for careful aiming or multiple shots) to set up a perfect match use.
Every weapon has its role, so none of them feel useless to lug around. The most interesting part of your arsenal is the Agony Crossbow. It's slow to fire, but has a multitude of arrow types, making it incredibly versatile. But it also breaks the ammo economy if you wait on really using it until the last third, as the crafting parts you use to make arrows do not have any noteworthy inventory limit.
But in order to get a decent supply of crafting parts, you have to best the game's many, many traps. I'm fine with the tripwire and bear traps, but the mines are such a pain in the ass. Not only do you need to complete a timing-based minigame to not explode, but they get harder as the game goes on!
And let me tell you, this game is brutal enough as is. I died 124 times first time through on normal and I bet most of that was because of all the damn instakill sections you have to traverse. The environment wants you dead and bosses can usually instakill you to boot. If you aren't keen on finding keys that lead to extra upgrade points, you're gonna suffer like I did. And even then, with how poorly action sequences are directed, you'll probably die a lot anyway. Not to mention that the game runs like absolute garbage in a lot of chapters!
There is a lot of fun to be had playing the Evil Within and mastering its spin on RE4 combat, but every step of the way is riddled with confusion and pain. If that was the intent, then good for you, Mikami.