Return of the Man(iac)
I’m not always 100% sure where the dividing line lies between “survival horror” and just plain old horror. Maybe “survival” horror is defined by having an albeit limited ability to fight back against your adversaries, through the use of generally scarce ammunition and healing items? Or is it a more action-oriented approach to the classic horror formula? I honestly don’t know where the delineation lies, but if any game should fall under the survival horror umbrella, The Evil Within certainly is that game. After all, it’s created by the father of the survival horror sub-genre: Resident Evil‘s developer himself, Shinji Mikami.
Where the original Resident Evil was a good ol’ haunted house story (well, except with zombies instead of ghosts), Evil Within is, to put it quite mildly, a head trip. The story is much more cerebral, and by that I mean that it literally deals with the horrors of the mind, imagination, memories, brain waves, mental trauma – that type of thing. The game also does that thing that anybody who’s ever tried to make sense of Japanese anime or games heavily influenced by Japanese culture has experienced; it operates on a level that makes it incredibly dense and very difficult to make much sense of from a Western perspective and the schema put in place by our culture.
That, or the story is just plain bad.
The game revolves around Detective Sebastian Castellanos, a cop with a flair for old school police dress. Sebastian clearly has a dark and troubled past, as the early game hints, which is fleshed out a little more throughout the story. However, some things – like his frequent blackouts/daydreams to what seems to be a dilapidated mental ward, and the newspapers stories of strange and supernatural occurrences and missing person letters he continuously finds – are left largely unexplained. As is revealed, Castellanos was once married and together he and his wife had a daughter. However, after the daughter died in a house fire, the couple drifted apart, and the whole tale is left as incomplete when proof seems to surface that the fire was actually an inside job, possibly involving other members of the police force, and both Seb and his wife got too close to the truth.
All this has absolutely no bearing on the game’s actual story, and I often felt like a huge opportunity had been wasted by the developers. What happened to Seb’s wife? Was it arson? And if so, who was behind it and what motivation did they have? Is Seb still on the trail? Wouldn’t events like the grizzly death of his daughter and disappearance of his wife affect his mental state in some significant way? I kept thinking that’s where the memories of the mental ward would at some point come into play, but no dice. The whole thing was a big set-up, ultimately leading to an even bigger let-down.
Anyway, Castellanos and his squad are called to Beacon Mental Hospital, where there’s been reports of some unknown disturbances. The cops are met by a blood-drenched tableau of bodies strewn all throughout the reception area. After finding the only seeming survivor, a doctor, Seb catches sight of a hooded figure single-handedly taking down three armed and firing police officers on a security monitor. The figure looks up into the camera, seeming to stare right at Sebastian, and he blacks out. When he awakens, he’s hanging upside down from a meat hook, suspended in a basement that’s been converted into a butcher’s playground, corpses piling up in bins, hanging from the ceiling, body parts stacked and scattered everywhere. The hulking figure of the butcher lurks nearby, and Seb must make his escape, at times sneaking stealthily past the chainsaw-wielding maniac, at times running as if his life depended on it (because it does). Ultimately, he makes his escape from the mental hospital, to be greeted by the sight of the city’s skyline looking as if a nuclear blast had devastated it while he was in the asylum.
Aaaaand that’s the “Mental Hospital” level, which is swiftly replaced with the “Creepy Village in the Woods” level. As the story unfolds, other classics make appearances, like the “Flooded Cave” level, the “Castle Ruins”, “Haunted Mansion”, “Demented Church”, “Gruesome Laboratory”, “Graveyard”, and the “On-Rail Driving-Slash-Shooting” level. It really seems Shinji Mikami couldn’t come to a compromise which classic archetype he wanted to go with, so he simply tossed them all in there, and stitched the whole thing together with questionable transitions (sometimes going so far as to change from one setting to another mid-cinematic!). There’s very little rhyme or reason to this quilted mess, other than I’m here ‘cos this is where the monsters brought me. Seemingly inspired in equal parts by J-Horror and western “Torture Porn”, it may creep up on you like Ju-on one minute, then grind you down with industrial Saw-like overtones. Though it sounds kind of cool to hit so many varied notes, it causes a real mess as far the feel of the game is concerned, and it becomes a definite point in the minus column.
Where the game does hit the nail right on the head is its grotesqueries – this is no feel-good picnic, but a blood-soaked orgy of gore and viscera. Enemy designs are wildly imaginative (you know, in a completely sadistic kind of way), and there’s no shortage of heads to explode and pools of blood to wade through. Apart from your bog-standard zombie fare, my favorites include the Keeper, a hulking creature with a safe for a head, who swings a massive meat tenderizer (the better to brain you with), and Trauma, a puzzle of tormented flesh nailed to a wooden beam which it must carry around across its shoulders. All the creatures in The Evil Within are equally twisted displays of suffering, and it’s hard to pick which one to hate the most. Well, that dubious award probably goes to the Keeper or Reborn Laura – man, I absolutely hate big-ass enemies that just refuse to go down no matter how many times I kill them!
At this point, re-reading what I’ve so far written, it feels like I’m unduly dogging the game. While it certainly has flaws worth mentioning, I can’t deny that I raised my eyebrows more than once in appreciation of specific feats it does well. For one, I was forever pressed for ammo and items, typically using them as soon as I found them, and always weighing the pros and cons of fight vs. flight. Some games throw ammunition your way unabashedly, but The Evil Within certainly cashed in on this chance to put the survival back into survival horror. Something else that stood out was the creative flair to some of the visuals – the cinematic staging of the look of the game. For instance, an ominous hallways might suddenly stretch itself into the distance as you’re walking down it, in a distinctly Vertigo-esque way. Other times, the screen gets a slight blur and the framerate stutters momentarily to herald the coming of a boss, and it creates an entirely striking visual effect in the process, a little like riff cuts in a handheld “found footage” film.
In the end, I was looking for a scary, evocative horror experience…with Mikami’s name attached, why would I have expected anything less? While the game certainly had its pros, it felt too disjointed to vibe well with me. Not just the constant change of setting, which would be excusable and certainly has been done in other games, but because of the way nothing flowed together within the narrative; in fact, the setting often seemed to change randomly, pulling me out of the story so often it never had any chance of growing on me. The gameplay was somewhat reminiscent of the later Resident Evil games, but lacked some of its style and pacing. And coming right off of Alien: Isolation, which was an intensely scary game, The Evil Within felt generally lacking in comparison. I’ll certainly remember it, though more for its imagery than for its cherished place in my collection.