The Evil Within does not want its players to have a single comfortable moment to catch their breath. Even between-chapter save screens offer the relief of passing through a trying section mixed with the dread of what could possibly come next because, in the end, there is no telling what is coming next. Environments, enemies and grotesque creations change on the fly, actively searching through a list of phobias for the one that will make the player grip their controller for the smallest feeling of comfort and control. This survival-horror marathon excels in what suddenly seems like a saturated market because of the care and precision of each subsequent step into madness the characters take, and the breath of comforting air that hits when the end credits signal the all-clear.
The story of The Evil Within follows Detective Sebastian Castellanos as he is investigating a sudden call about gunshots at a local hospital. As talked about in the opening level impressions below, the city setting does not last long and the game quickly goes off the usual corridor-to-corridor setting. The story itself is a fine weaving of an abstract formula that has worked for games and movies, never with too much information in the open and plenty of room for speculation by the end cut scene. Lines of dialogue, however, make it seem like Detective Castellanos is just as clueless and surprised to be in this predicament in chapter two as he is in chapter 12, and that unchanging lack of awareness serves to undercut most drama the plot attempts to hand out.
Environments tell a different, more memorable story that changes with the landscape, which is sometimes several times within the same lengthy chapter. Levels are nonlinear in a fragmented way; a dusty hallway free to threats can suddenly turn into a drop down a hole and a flip into an entirely new area with little warning. While this has happened in other games, no other one has matched this with the intention of disorienting the player to this suffocating a level. When the scene flips and changes, an immediate slew of questions begin to fly, but there is no time to answer any of them, even in a supposedly empty hallway as The Evil Within does not want you to know them quite yet.
The gameplay is equally suffocating and stingy with respites inside The Evil Within. Those looking for a shooting gallery in the vein of Resident Evil five and six should look elsewhere. Bullets are worth celebrating over and the environment will often kill more enemies than Sebastion’s shaky aim can accomplish, but every killing blow is as brutal as the last. Stealth, like The Last of Us’ system, is highlighted and circled as the method to choose through the first playthough as one-hit kills from behind, or any amount of fire, saves those precious bullets and crossbow bolts. Even the Detective’s sprint is intentionally limited to encourage proper timing instead of spamming the sprint button, and the closed-in camera brings a feeling of claustrophobia when even aiming at a single enemy.
The Evil Within is also one of the most fully realized survival-horror games ever from a graphical standpoint. Each of the various locations is rendered with dark, gruesome pieces and even a fair bit of well-lit, open areas that are a welcome change of palate. There is some graphical pop-in that seems worse as the game goes on, but that usually only comes when going a little faster than the engine anticipates or skipping through multiple cut scenes. The widescreen presentation takes away about a third of the screen and may serve to annoy quite a few gamers. Once inside the world, though, the player’s vision will be scanning and highlighting hazards and destinations, making the presentation seem like less of an issue. Enemy design is another highlight as even the common enemies change throughout the chapters, and some of the monsters make it their mission to haunt players’ dreams well beyond the end of the game.
The Evil Within does have some other issues that seem to take away from the experience. The closeness of the camera, plus the widescreen, plus a close enemy often equals a bunch of clipping that makes the enemy unreachable without moving Sebastian away, but most will not want enemies that close anyways. On some occasions, a swung weapon that misses will disappear, leaving the player wide open, especially in a certain boss fight, to damaging hits. Checkpoints may also seem a bit spacious at times, and the story may not satisfy those with other expectations with many twists and reveals relying as much on the player’s imagination and deduction as in-game facts.
Playing through The Evil Within feels like a commitment that many games only ask to have for a couple of moments at a time. A boss, multiplayer match or particular fight may force someone to focus on a specific scene to figure out the answer, but those are usually drops in the gameplay bucket. The Evil Within will take between 12 and 18 hours to complete for most, and everything outside of the “Chapter XX Complete” and pause screens is a constant mixture of stress and blind dread, the game demanding every encounter be treated with the same respect as the last. This is not a game that fills itself with jump scares, but fills the player’s mind with a questioning paranoia that portrays the madness inside The Evil Within.
Review by Myles Gann