Friday, 8 April 2016

The Evil Within - Review

Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One (version played), PC, 360, PS3

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

Credit where credit's due, The Evil Within doesn't mess around. After a ten minute opening, you're hung up in an what appears to be a slaughterhouse, chased by what might as well be Leatherface, and then dunked in a vat of blood and guts as if you're in some kind of twisted game show. It ensures that the game's Japanese title, Psycho Break, makes a lot more sense.

At its core The Evil Within is a blend of classic Resident Evil 4 shooting, with a more modern stealth twist that's come about since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Bullets are relatively scarce, and you'll not always have enough ammunition to take down every last enemy, instead having to rely on nearby traps and stealth kills to take out foes.

When it hits the right mark, these two seemingly contradictory game systems; the stealth and the third-person shooting, help reinforce one another. Hiding under a bed might help you get the drop on an enemy, saving bullets for a more tricky encounter later on. The trap system too, is a welcome addition. Bombs and tripwire dot many locations, forcing you to slow down and take each area at a more languid pace. Of course, those same traps can be turned on the game's monsters, encouraging players to utilise the entire environment. Some zombies won't even be awake when you first encounter them, enabling you to set them on fire with a match before they even become a threat.

The game's plot allows it to get away with plenty of environmental shifts, and it's rare for any two levels to be the same. You play as Sebastian Costellanos, a police detective who's called to investigate a local mental asylum only to end up in a twisted, surreal nightmare. As a story it's a shlocky, pulpy mess, but remains enjoyable enough to begin with, thanks to the surreal imagery and general "what the hell is happening" tone.

The opening chapters heavily reference the start of Resident Evil 4, with an entire village segment being very familiar. It's not the only influence that Shinji Mikami and his team draw on though. The game's general weirdness calls to mind Silent Hill; one boss, a hulking safe-headed creature wielding a hatchet, is a huge nod to Pyramid Head, whilst saving requires you enter mirrors and emerge in a rundown mental ward, where a mysterious nurse lets you save your game, dipping slightly into Deadly Premonition territory.

When The Evil Within just goes off the rails and does its own thing, it's at its best. Whilst the imagery and story are simply weird, it's all held in check by a surprisingly robust set of combat mechanics that let you play the way you want.  The introduction of the Agony Crossbow early on gives you plenty more ways to handle foes, with different bolts providing various effects. There's the standard harpoon bolt for dealing heavy damage, along with a flash bolt, that, whilst harmless, will stun enemies for short time, making them vulnerable to close-combat kills, along with several others that are drip-fed to you across the course of the game, and more can be crafted with parts you scrounge up.

Unfortunately, despite a strong opening, things do begin to sag somewhat around the halfway mark. The Evil Within is a lengthy game, clocking in at around 15 hours in total, especially if you take your time to root around areas, and there's the impression that ideas began to run dry, with the latter segments begin to feel like weak reruns of Resident Evil 4.

There's a section where you're stuck in a cart, forced to shoot enemies on either side, there's a section where you're required to provide cover with a sniper rifle, and so on. Whilst the opening five hours or so feel more like Resi 2.0; indebted to that game, but building on its core design, the latter parts appear stuck in that games shadow, repeating its standout moments but to lesser effect.

The stealth also peters out later on, being replaced with straight-up shootouts, only to be rapidly shoved back in with the introduction of insta-kill enemies. It's a clunky way to enforce your mechanics and makes for some frustrating progression. In fact, it's almost as if the last seven or so hours were made by a completely different team. Whereas the first half goes for a creepy atmosphere and Saw-style splatterpunk, the latter half seems happy with drab, post-apocalyptic city environments which play out more like a dull version of The Last of Us.

It's a shame too because occasionally that blast of fun will creep back into the game when you're least expecting it. Just as the game seems to have run out of ideas, it'll stick you in a room with a weird carnival death trap, forcing you to fight enemies whilst also dodging rusty blades swing around the room.

Still, this doesn't excuse the game's poor ending. Not only does the plot descend into nothingness, it also comes across as a giant piece of sequel-bait, more interested in setting up the next game than providing any sense of conclusion. Worse still though, is the game's final boss fight, which throws everything interesting out the window and turns everything into a painfully dull action game.

The Evil Within has so much going on it doesn't seem to be able to handle it all. As a survival horror game, it runs like a "Greatest Hits" title: taking elements from Silent Hill to Forbidden Siren. Whilst it does have some interesting ideas of its own it seems trapped within the old gameplay formula of Resident Evil 4, scuttling back to it whenever it doesn't know what to do next.

For a while The Evil Within is good, really good, in fact. That it trips up and doesn't know where to go. It's certainly full of interesting ideas, it's just not sure how to handle all of them.


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