Misplaced expectations can destroy your enjoyment of a game before you ever pick up the controller. Thinking of The Evil Within as a horror game, then, would be a misstep, because while it's certainly awash in grotesque imagery, it places far more emphasis on combat and stealth than it does creating an atmosphere of dread.
Sadly, thinking of it as an action title won't really improve your chances of enjoying it, as the sloppy controls and hackneyed design ensure that it's a nonstop exercise in aggravating tedium, but at least your disappointment will be more accurate.
The plot is largely irrelevant, as Evil Within meanders from scene to scene apparently based solely on assumed shock value. For what it's worth, you play as Sebastian, a police detective called to the scene of a slaughter at a mental hospital. No sooner have you waded through the blood than you're attacked by a mysterious, hooded man wielding some kind of supernatural powers - powers which won't really be explained, explored or dwelled upon for the better part of the game.
Indeed, most of The Evil Within's elements are presented without much context or explanation, as though designer Shinji Mikami was stubbornly stamping his foot and declaring, "They're just spooky, OK?" The tiny bits of story that surface throughout the rest of the game are presented haphazardly, like they were forgotten until the last minute and then just shoved in wherever there was enough room for a short bit of dialog. These brief moments are the few truly horrifying parts of Evil Within, providing glimpses of the game that might've been. A doctor who claws his own skin off. A slide down a blood-slick chute. Twisted, half-split grotesques groaning their way towards you. Experiments gone horribly (if predictably) wrong. There is a good horror game buried deep inside of The Evil Within, you're just never allowed to get anywhere near it.
As I said earlier, though, it's inaccurate to judge Evil Within as a horror game, because despite all the disturbing imagery - and there is some deliciously disturbing stuff in there - it's really all about the combat and stealth. You'll have to sneak or slay your way past an assortment of generic, gruesome enemies who, at best, are shamefully dull and at worst feel like they've been pulled from Horrors Greatest Hits' clip art. Oh, look, a big guy with a mask and a chainsaw! Can't imagine where I might've seen him before.
Everything about the enemies feels cut-rate. In one level, Mr. Chainsaw Guy – he's called the sadist, by the way – is locked up in a barn, and you can hear his bellows cut across the entire village. What should've been unnerving instead became annoying, as he could apparently only make two different angry noises, and simply repeated them over and over and over. He's the drunken neighbor of bad guys.
Even cut-and-paste enemies aren't all that terrible so long as combat itself feels good, but Evil Within fails on that score, too, and it fails hard. The controls are so sluggish they're practically sleepy, making it nearly impossible to snap off a few quick shots. Melee attacks are clumsy reels, providing no appreciable connection between button press and on-screen action. The less said about trying to use the crossbow as any efficient part of battle, the better. Aspects of combat, like melee damage, rate of fire, and chance of critical hits can be improved via the utterly unnecessary and unsatisfying upgrade system, but the fighting itself never feels any better, no matter how much green gel you collect and cram into the upgrade machine. It's a sloppy mess no matter what, but hey, at least you can eventually carry more ammo in your clip. That's something.
Fighting the lesser enemies isn't always a complete drag. Every once in a great while, the game opens up and gives you the chance to use different strategies, combining sneaking with shooting in order to cut your way through the masses. One notable level drops you in the remains of a church, where you must snipe several enemies barraging you with harpoons while also managing a mob hurling axes at your head. It's a huge space that uses ladders and bridges to spread the action across several different heights. Although you'll probably die at least once before you clear the area, there's enough variety in the room to allow you to truly play with your different abilities, performing an ammo-saving stealth kill here, dropping a strategically placed freeze-bolt there. Of course, the end of that level shoves you into cramped space with a miniboss, bringing any enjoyment you may have been experiencing to a screeching halt. Evil Within suffers greatly in small areas, thanks to the camera's yearning desire to see you fail. You never, ever feel like you can see properly, especially when one of the game's oversized bosses is hogging all the visual real estate.
Perhaps the bosses get so much screen space because they're easily the most interesting things in the entire game. Boxman, the towering brute with a safe for a head, is marvelously creepy, but he has the same glaring issue that all of Evil Within's big-ticket enemies do: The game doesn't give you any clues about how to fight him - or even if you should. Some enemies can't be killed, others must be killed, and Evil Within does nothing to help you figure out which is which. Die-and-retry is a valid design choice, but when combined with limited resources and lengthy reload times, what should be a challenging exercise in trial and error becomes frustrating and tedious. There is no Dark Souls-esque feeling of victory when you finally defeat a boss, just a thankful sigh that you can, perhaps, stop wrestling with the jerk of a camera and the awful sprinting for a while. (Seriously, for a cop, Sebastian gets winded far too easily. Must be a smoker.)
What finally broke Evil Within for me, though, was when it ignored its own rules. An eye appears at the top of your screen to let you know that you're near an enemy. If the eye is mostly closed, you've not been detected; if it's open, you've been spotted. You can hide under beds or in armoires to evade enemies before they spot you ... except for when the game decides you can't. I chose to hide and let my foe shamble on down the hallway, but he came straight into the room, marched over to the cupboard, pulled me out and killed me immediately. I later pieced together that it was Ruvik - that mysterious hooded figure from the hospital - who'd done the deed, but I couldn't really force myself to care anymore.
Evil Within just plain doesn't give you a fair chance to succeed. It doesn't provide enough information for you to make good decisions and it handicaps your ability to fight well. It requires so much repetition that it can't possibly maintain any sense of tension or unease, and its story is told so aimlessly that you'll likely forget the plot between scenes. It manages a few moments of inspiration, but their scarcity makes them feel like fortunate accidents rather than deliberate elements of the overall design. It's covered in blood, but the only thing truly horrifying about The Evil Within is how disappointing it is.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PS4 version of The Evil Within, provided by Bethesda. Images: Bethesda.
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