Survival horror fans owe many of the genre’s greatest games to Shinji Mikami, either through his direct control or the influence that his work has had on developers since Resident Evil became a massive hit back in 1996. While choosing his best game that stands on its own is purely subjective, younger generations of gamers like myself would easily choose Resident Evil 4, the sequel that introduced an entire generation to the series by ditching the Umbrella storyline and once again revolutionizing the direction of survival horror for years to come. Looking to capture some of that lightning in a bottle, Mikami has unleashed The Evil Within on us, his latest survival horror title that’s been years in the making.
While The Evil Within certainly isn’t without faults, it’s a much better sequel to Resident Evil 4 than any of the other games released in the main series have been thus far. By digging deep into its roots, The Evil Within manages to create an exciting homage to all of survival horror and plays like a Greatest Hits collection of Shinji Mikami staples, for better and for worse.
The first Mikami staple is the story, which takes itself so seriously that it’s hard not to find bits of it goofy. Detective Sebastian Castellanos is called to the scene of a brutal mass murder, but shortly after arriving, he finds himself and his partners, Kidman and Joseph, thrown into a twisted world full of creepy creatures, deadly traps and gruesome set dressings. All of this seems to be caused by Ruvik, a killer with supernatural powers who seems able to bend the world to his will. In order to find a way out and stop Ruvik from doing whatever it is he’s doing, Sebastian sets off in search of escape.
Much like other Mikami stories, The Evil Within doesn’t present much more than a loose backbone to throw Sebastian from one locale to the next with no explanation, and at least for that purpose, it works. Of the fifteen chapters that make up the game, only a handful of them have repeat locations, and usually only for exposition’s sake. Throughout the experience, you’ll fight your way through a church, an asylum, catacombs, a farm, a village populated by murderers and a haunted mansion, with the latter two being eerily reminiscent of previous Resident Evil titles.
The art and sound design that has gone into bringing these locales to life is fantastic, keeping stages full of tension with creeping shadows, gruesome imagery and eerie sound effects, like clinking chains, dripping blood or the ever-present sound of a chainsaw in the distance. Much of the creepiness found throughout the game comes from what you think might lie ahead. More than once I jumped at the sight of my shadow or the sound of a baddie that was still rooms away.
Another Mikami staple is the soundtrack, which is perfect at both building panic and guiding you to a calmer state. Similar to the music found in the typewriter rooms in Resident Evil 4, every space that harbors a mirror gateway to a safe place where you can save your game is accompanied with soothing music. It’s a great effect, creating a genuine sense of relief.
Juxtaposing that, much of The Evil Within is spent in a panic, similar to Resident Evil 4‘s more frenetic moments except with less ammo, less resources and a heavy reliance on stealth to conserve both. Rather than play as a gun-toting one man army, Sebastian must use his wits and his environment to stay alive, meaning that, contrary to player expectations, sometimes running away or hiding are the best options. While stealth is definitely useful in slashing enemy numbers, the stealth mechanics are bare bones and don’t function very well all the time. Enemies will sometimes turn around and catch you when no sound was made, leading to an infuriating standoff in place of a smooth kill.
Gunplay is pretty standard third-person shooter fare, complete with your regulation pistol, shotgun, rifle and magnum arsenal. The Agony Bow adds an interesting twist, though, letting you craft different types of arrows to use in combat, ranging from the typical harpoon to poison or freezing arrows. Unfortunately, Sebastian’s body tends to take up just a bit too much of the screen when he’s aiming. Whenever your gun is up, the camera zooms all the way forward until just your hand and the gun is showing, especially in cramped spaces, making it hard to maneuver away from enemies.
Weapons can be upgraded at your save station with Green Gel, a substance found throughout the world that also allows you to upgrade your maximum health, sprinting duration, and the amount of bullets you can carry, along with other traits. While the upgrade system adds an interesting (if not commonplace) aspect to the gameplay, it’s quite rudimentary, and some traits need to be upgraded a few times before being useful. Sebastian can only sprint for three seconds when you start the game, for example. After three seconds, he stops in his tracks and pants in place, regardless of enemies around him. The sprinting mechanic in general is quite awful, and until it’s nearly fully upgraded, it’s almost entirely useless, if not harmful.
Since we’re talking about a survival horror game from the legendary Shinji Mikami, everybody’s wondering if The Evil Within is scary. While fear is always subjective, I can easily say that this is a game that will get your heart pounding more than a few times. Throughout the 20 hour campaign, Sebastian will be stalked, stabbed, crushed, impaled, eaten, decapitated, chased and beaten to death, all in gory detail. Some of the chases and boss fights, including the spider girl and the (soon to be) legendary Keeper, are master classes in sustained terror, and a few of the puzzles, especially one involving brain surgery, are appropriately bloody and fun to figure out.
So yes, if you’re a fan of Mikami, he has returned in near-perfect glory. All of his usual trademarks are present and accounted for, including (deep breath): mutated dogs, mutated sea creatures, chainsaw-wielding psychos, a level featuring a village turning on you, a light story that drags you through some incredible locales, creatures that lumber around before lunging at you, boss fights that lock you in rooms with unkillable enemies, and a battle that involves shooting something’s face with a rocket launcher. Among others, of course.
If you play on the standard difficulty, expect to die a lot. At the end of my playthrough, I had died 48 times, and at least a dozen of those were within the final chapter. One of the most frustrating aspects of the game is the sheer amount of one-hit kills that are around. A majority of bosses can kill you if you go near them, a few creatures can take you out with just a touch, and many of the traps strewn about the world will leave you did if you make a single mistake. While they’re not frequent enough to keep the game from being unplayable, they still rear their heads just a bit too much.
It also doesn’t help that Sebastian is one of the most boring protagonists in the history of gaming. He’s not quite intelligent, he never has anything insightful to say, and he’s just not very fun to listen to. Remember how Leon always had some corny or weird joke, and even though he wasn’t really funny, he was generally charming? Sebastian is the complete opposite, as are his two partners. Ruvik makes for an interesting villain, but mostly because Jackie Earle Haley channels his Freddy Krueger for greatly creepy effect.
Towards the end of the game, some of the chapters begin to feel a bit padded, and even though there is a lot to enjoy in each stage, it’s easy to forget what the objective is and get frustrated with some of the smaller issues. Like the fact that to escape an enemy’s hold, you have to wriggle the left stick, which is conveniently placed right next to the home button and tends to send you back to the PlayStation menu if you’re too frenzied. Or the fact that later enemies tote guns, dynamite and throwing axes and somehow manage to always hit you, no matter your speed. They’re small complaints, but when the frustration begins to build it’s a lot easier to notice them.
Although so much of The Evil Within feels like a retread of previous experiences from the Mikami lot, the game is saved by being technically competent and just a ton of fun to play. For every aspect that leads to a small bit of frustration, there are a million details and set pieces that are just too enjoyable to walk away from. While I definitely don’t like everything The Evil Within offers, so much of it does work, and it comes in a package that can be stressful in its terror yet incredibly fun to experience and hard to put down. It’s a self-congratulatory love letter to Mikami himself, but if anyone deserves to have their work celebrated in a game as varied as this, it’s him.
To put it simply, The Evil Within is a highly enjoyable survival horror title that fans of the genre should check out, regardless of their preferences. There are bits of psychological horror, jump scares, moody atmospheres and the other usual suspects from a Mikami title; basically, there is something for everybody. It’s been a long time since a survival horror title has been this downright fun, and similar to games like Dead Space or, yes, Resident Evil 4, you’ll be missing out if you don’t give it a chance.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.