The Evil Withinis a brilliant, shining example of how a potentially excellent game can be thoroughly undermined by clumsy design. Playing it made for the most wildly inconsistent gaming experience I’ve had in recent memory, eliciting fear, frustration, amusement, disappointment, intrigue, and disgust in equal measure, often within the course of the same level. The Evil Within‘s combat is good as long as you don’t need to do anything with any accuracy, at which point it becomes terrible. However, the story is fascinating, and Tango Gameworks has absolutely no idea how to tell it. The environments are colorfully diverse, and it would be very nice if they weren’t ugly as hell. The game has a real sense of dread and horror that vanishes utterly when you’re on the receiving end of yet another one hit kill that causes your body to fall apart. The game is full of interesting ideas, virtually all of which are poorly implemented in one way or another.
Playing The Evil Within is like watching a Fail compilation on YouTube: The first couple times it’s a surprise, then you stop watching to see if something goes wrong and start watching to see howsomething goes wrong. The wildly uneven nature of the gameplay serves to taunt you, again and again promising improvements that never fully materialize, keeping you playing in the dim hope that the game will eventually, finally hit its stride. Then the credits roll, leaving you not so much disappointed as baffled. What the hell was all that? What were the developers trying to do? Are there any lunatic asylums where the patients don’t break free and slaughter everyone within the first month? Is this what Obamacare has done to our once proud nation?
The Evil Within was directed by Shinji Mikami, the iconic developer who essentially created survival horror with Resident Evil (“Alone In The Dark!” cries a faint voice, tinny with outrage.) then reinvented it as action horror with Resident Evil 4. The Evil Within both plays like and feels like Resident Evil 4, so much so that Shinji Mikami would have an airtight case of copyright infringement on his hands if he hadn’t made the game himself. Experiencing The Evil Within is like watching Resident Evil dress up in a Silent Hill drag. No, it doesn’t pass as Silent Hill, but that’s not the point, the point is rejoicing in the fluidity of identity. It’s a nice idea, provided The Evil Within does any of the things it’s trying to do particularly well. It does not.
Instead of consistent gameplay, every enemy encounter adheres to a distinct set of rules you have to suss out on the fly via trial and error. To put it another way, you have to die. A lot. It’s a problem magnified by the game’s long load times and the generally clumsy action. The Evil Within plays like an action horror game, but it doles out ammo like a survival horror game, leaving you fight hordes of enemies with noting but a few bullets and your kindly disposition. The stealth mechanics are lifted fromThe Last of Us, but you seldom have the opportunity to put them to use since the level design of The Evil Within isn’t that of a stealth game, where you can get a clear look at your enemy and the environment, and plan accordingly. Encounters are abrupt, and centered around the headshot. The usefulness of the different arrows for the Agony Crossbow vary wildly. Explosives take so long to detonate enemies are often out of range by the time they go off, and even if they aren’t they often get up again after being blown up.
In practice, The Evil Within‘s disjointed gameplay is eerily similar to its central story conceit of a machine that mashes a bunch of distinct human minds together to form one schizophrenic universe. The game wants to marry the subgenres of survival horror and action horror with added components of stealth, cinematic storytelling and reality-bending madness, but it has no idea how to fit the puzzle pieces together. Playing The Evil Within gives you the sense that the folks at Tango Gameworks finally settled on precisely what game they were trying to make five days after they’d shipped the final product. Horror tropes of every stripe are thrown at the player in the frantic hope that if the last ten things didn’t scare you, maybe this eleventh thing will. Do you like chainsaw-wielding maniacs? How about ghosts? Insane asylums? Mannequins? Falling from a great height? Spinning blades? Burn victims? Hiding in cabinets? Psychic powers? Girls with long black hair? Giant dogs? Earthquakes? Godzilla-sized monsters? Insanity? Spikes? Walls made of meat? If this stuff is too nice for you, I’ve got some crap.
Greatest Hits compilations can be nice, but you inevitably sacrifice the cohesion of an original album in the process. The Evil Within doesn’t know if it wants to be Resident Evil, Silent Hill, the Tomb Raiderreboot, F.E.A.R., or The Last of Us. Consequently, it has no idea what tone it’s trying to strike. The story opens with a small cadre of policemen responding to a disturbance at a mental hospital, where the typical carnage has ensued. You are detective Sebastian Castellanos. Your partners are Julie Kidman and Joseph Oda. Joseph Oda’s personality is that he wears glasses. Julie Kidman’s personality is that she’s a woman. You yourself have no discernible personality until about halfway through the game, when it’s suddenly revealed without preamble that you have a drinking problem, leading you to produce a flask out of thin air, look at it disconsolately, then make it vanish again for the remainder of the game. Old journals of yours that offer broad strokes of the last decade or so of your life are periodically sprinkled throughout the game, but they have no bearing whatsoever on the plot, and the story they tell is cut off without resolving anything. There’s also there’s Leslie Withers, an insane young man who comes from the whinging and screeching school of madness. Leslie is part tantrum-throwing child and part Bill Paxton in the film Aliens. He’s is totally insane and shuffles around like a drunk trying to walk a straight line, yet he always manages to be ahead of you somehow, and you’ll spend the majority of the game catching up to him. Next there’s Marcelo Jimenez, who acts as Leslie’s doctor/tormentor. Jimenez is the only guy who actually knows what’s going on, and can occasionally be made to grudgingly spout some exposition before he vanishes again. Finally there’s Ruben Victoriano, A.K.A. Ruvik, the principle antagonist of the game. Ruvik is a mad scientist whose gruesome experiments made the STEM machine possible, the device for bringing disparate consciousnesses together into a single shared world. Ruvik has dominion over the STEM world Detective Castellanos and his fellow officers are trapped in, though just how much control he exerts over it is never fully established. STEM seems to adhere to Matrix rules: if you die here, you die in the real world. All the monsters in STEM are manifestations of Ruvik’s twisted psyche and the tormented minds he’s captured, though we don’t learn that unless we go to game’s title screen and look at the model menu. It often seems like huge parts of The Evil Within‘s story were excised in favor of including even more threatening piles of meat.
So many sideplots in The Evil Within are unceremoniously abandoned it’s incredible, it’s like Tango Gameworks is trying to break Lost’s record. Joseph is infected with some kind of virus that’s turning him into one of the Haunted, The Evil Within‘s main zombie-ish monsters, then the game seemingly just forgets about it. The same thing eventually happens to Sebastian Castellanos, with the same lack of resolution. We’re periodically subjected to scenes of Sebastian being wheeled down corridors on a gurney toward what seems to be a transorbital lobotomy, but that also comes to nothing. The game regularly deposits us in a mental asylum where we can level up and save that’s staffed by a mysterious nurse named Tatiana Guiterrez. We we learn nothing about her, then she inexplicably vanishes. Julie Kidman is suffering from some kind of memory loss according the game’s model viewer screen, but it also specifically says that she doesn’t care. Almost the entire game takes place inside the STEM, but we never learn what the STEM acronym stands for, what Ruvik seeks to accomplish by putting everyone in the STEM machine instead of the one person whose body he’s trying to steal, or why he bothers to alternately torment them and tell them his life story.
Detective Castellanos’ story would be much more tolerable if he actually detected anything, rather than bouncing helplessly around Ruvik’s mindscape like an ignorant pinball, waiting for revelations to fall in his lap. None of the protagonists in any of Shinji Mikami’s games are particularly bright, but by the end of the game a coherent picture usually forms, even if it’s a dumb one. The narrative of The Evil Within isn’t incomprehensible (though I did have to read through the The Evil Within wiki to comprehend it) but it isn’t communicated in a cogent, interesting way that drives the plot forward. The Evil Within‘s story is neither coherent enough to be compelling, nor weird enough to be interesting. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if the gameplay was tight enough to let you just sit back and enjoy the ride, but the mechanics are never quite there. All of this was done much better by Shadows of the Damned, a game that was filled with just as much reality-warping horror, but managed it with a consistently weird tone and joyously dumb sense of humor, in addition to strong gameplay. The Evil Within, by contrast, is as serious as a heart attack, and twice as disorienting.
There are some good things about The Evil Within. Insanity will always be scary, and Shinji Mikiami & Co. do a good job of dramatizing it. There’s a primal fear of insanity embedded in the human psyche, an atavistic revulsion so powerful it can constitute its own brand of psychosis. Our fear of insane people is fundamentally a fear of our own minds, a fear that all the mental scaffolding we’ve erected since childhood is critically vulnerable to outside contamination. We suspect there’s a madness lurking within us, and if we don’t maintain control the person we are will slip away. The reality is not so binary. Clinically neurotic people can often be very nice in spite of their intense suffering, and mentally healthy people are often capable of astonishing cruelty. Horror, in the form of books and movies and video games, allow us controlled exposure to the fact that life is irrational, acting like an inoculation against the fundamental chaos of existence. The Evil Within sometimes does a good job at portraying the horror of being trapped inside a demented mind, once you realize that’s what’s actually happening. It is a great idea trapped within the confines of a mediocre shooter, much like a brilliant mind trapped in a web of madness.