A wave of blood rushes towards Sebastian Castellanos as he tries to follow the mysterious character that appears to be at the centre of all this madness. There used to be stairs leading up from the cellar corridor behind him. Hell, there used to a doctor and his clearly demented patient back there. It's all gone. Is it even the same corridor? There's nothing to do but be swept away by the oncoming wave. Moments later Castellanos finds himself waist deep in a pool of blood... and as he looks for an exit the room starts to fill up with haunted seeking to add to the already staggering amount of claret in the room.
Castellanos is your stereotypical hardboiled detective. He's been through a lot in his time, both in the line of work and in his personal life. We've all seen this character in countless films and games. It's not the most interesting choice for a lead, but then again, why mess with a formula that works? Castellanos gets called to the scene of multiple murders at Beacon Mental Hospital in Krimson City, but after he arrives there he finds himself anywhere but in Krimson City - or anywhere else in the real world for that matter. It's all in his head, or someone else's head, or everyone's heads.
It's your typical surreal Japanese horror experience. Things aren't quite what they seem and Castellanos and his colleagues will have to make their way past chainsaw-wielding burlap wearing butchers (you can never get enough of those can you?), beasts that look like their body parts don't quite belong together, spider women, and weird resurrecting bulky men with safes for heads. Throughout the game you're thrown into situation after situation unprepared for what is expected of you next - adapt to the situation or die. It gives the game something of a trial and error flavour, as you'll likely spend your first couple of tries with a major boss figuring out what you need to do in order to progress. At times flight is your best option. At other times you need to figure out a good combination of weapons to take them on, or use an element of the environment to your advantage. Or combinations of these strategies. It can be frustrating, but this is part of the DNA of the genre and it's something we enjoy about the game even if it means we found ourselves frustrated at times.
This also speaks to one of the great strengths of the game and that's the massive amount of variation it provides. Not just when it comes to environments and encounters, but there are a lot of set pieces and one-off scenarios to make sure you never feel like you're just going through the motions of a run-of-the-mill chapter. The environments include churches, decrepit hospital wards, catacombs, and naturally a great big mansion. Fans of the genre will no doubt appreciate some of the nods to past titles and genre films. And in some cases tired props like abandoned wheel chairs are given a new lease of life as the ward is full of invisible enemies that will nudge the wheelchair ever so gently when passing them by.
The plot is something of a roller coaster ride where Castellanos finds himself knocked down and mysteriously transported elsewhere again and again. His colleagues appear to find themselves in compromising situations at regular intervals. That said the main story treads a fairly steady path where there is a lot of foreshadowing in play. Comments made in the first cutscene on the way to the hospital almost casually touches on what's to follow. Overall the story kept our attention and it works thanks to or in spite of (depending of your point of view) cheesy dialogue and overly stiff and glass-eyed characters. Our interest was maintained as much by our motivation to see the next monstrosity or ill-fated experiment, as it was by the actual plot.
In terms of mechanics The Evil Within certainly sticks within familiar Japanese survival horror standards. The camera is typically your most difficult enemy as it tends to give you a poor overview of any intense situation (especially in close-quarters), and the movement of Castellanos is not exactly that of what you'd expect from a police detective (you can sprint for a mere 3 seconds until you upgrade the skill for instance). You've got a fairly vanilla selection of weapons (handgun, shotgun, sniper, grenades) with one major exception - the agony bow. This crossbow allows you to shoot arrows with various properties (ice, explosives, electricity, etc.) and while it is a fairly slow weapon it also lets you set up traps by shooting arrows on walls or floors where enemies may step. It is also helpful in boss fights where an ice arrow gives you the time you need to put a few shotgun shells into the head of the boss at close range without risking your life.
You build arrows with materials you collect or by scavenging enemy traps. Overall the agony bow provides the player with some of the best combat moments the game has to offer. The environment and objects can also be utilised in combat. Distract enemies with bottles, set oil patches aflame, kick flaming bales of hay towards an enemy, and there are of course exploding barrels and lots of traps.
There is a progression system in place where you collect a green substance that then gets injected into your brain (at the main hospital hub where you're being cared for by the mysterious nurse Tatiana) in order to increase your abilities (health, sprint, etc.) as well as allowing for upgrades to weapons and inventory. In addition to this there are other collectibles in the game that you'll want to keep an eye out for. The completionist will have plenty to do here. You reach the hub by looking hard at mirrors that usually can be found in a room early on in the level. This is your only means to manually save the game (walking up to Tatiana's desk), and while this may sound a little silly we found this system fairly good. It also serves a narrative purpose.
As you'd expect, managing your ammunition is constantly on your mind. This is perhaps the most effective means to convey tension in the game and it's something anyone familiar with the genre will feel right at home with. If there's an opportunity to use the environment for a kill or sneak up for a stealth kill you always go for it as you never know what kind of weapons work best against the end of chapter boss. And given how the checkpoint system works (locking you into a boss fight regardless of what kind of equipment or health level you come in with) you want to err on the side of caution or you may face a situation where you have to revert to an earlier save in order to stock up for the boss fight.
The Evil Within offers a variety of well designed environments full of detail. And there are plenty of effects - particles and filter - to further the atmosphere. That said from a purely technical point of view the game isn't all that impressive and it comes with thick black borders top and bottom. We tested the PS4 version for this review and in addition to the levels being fairly small in size, there being texture pop-ins and, at times, severe clipping issues; it just comes across as a game that is limited by its cross-generational nature. Music and sound design is well utilised in the game, telling different enemies apart via audio clues and learning to locate them by sounds is key to being stealthy - and the eerie piano melodies are complemented by throbbing sounds and industrial noise.
Is The Evil Within scary then? It sure is gory. And there are jump scares thrown in for good measure here and there. The nature of haunted corpses springing to life as you approach and the randomness of encounters with that mysterious fellow from the blood-filled corridor are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, but ultimately the pacing and its reliance on elements of frustration (unruly camera, stiff controls, less than optimal inventory) takes away from the thick atmosphere the game wants to convey. As you grow more powerful thanks to a larger arsenal and upgrades, and thus face more enemies at once, some of the tension of those early encounters where you need to hide in cupboards and under beds is lost. The somewhat lacking artificial intelligence also removes some of the tension as you'll soon realise the enemies mainly stick to their scripted paths and positions.
Rather than the next generation of Japanese survival horror, The Evil Within serves as a greatest hits compilation that includes not just the highlights but also some of those outdated elements we'd rather forget. That said it certainly will appeal to fans of early Resident Evils, Silent Hills, Siren and Project Zero, and if you can stomach some old school design then you're in for some proper stomach turning events.
We played the PS4 version of the game for the purpose of this review.