The Evil Within

EDGE - - PLAY - Pub­lisher Bethesda Softworks De­vel­oper Tango Game­works For­mat 360, PC, PS3, PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One Out now

You can tell a lot about The Evil Within from its pro­tag­o­nist’s melee at­tack. De­tec­tive Se­bas­tian Castel­lanos may not have the build of a Chris Red­field or Leon S Kennedy, but he puts plenty of force into each punch, wind­ing back be­fore un­leash­ing a mighty hay­maker. It’s de­lib­er­ately un­gainly, de­signed to leave you vul­ner­a­ble for a vi­tal sec­ond, its mo­men­tum car­ry­ing you slightly, po­ten­tially cru­cially, for­wards. At the same time, it car­ries a sat­is­fy­ing weight, and it’s cer­tainly an ef­fi­cient way to break crates or ob­struc­tive pad­locks. Yet take aim at any of the hu­manoid hor­rors you’ll face in this 15- to 20-hour night­mare, and you’ll de­liver lit­tle more than a glanc­ing blow. For­get Leon S Kennedy’s skull-crush­ing su­plexes: you’re not go­ing to be play­ing this like Res­i­dent Evil 4.

Still, com­par­isons with di­rec­tor Shinji Mikami’s opus are in­evitable, and they’re not al­ways wide of the mark. As early as the third chap­ter you’re asked to ne­go­ti­ate a vil­lage pop­u­lated by lum­ber­ing, dis­fig­ured en­e­mies who over­whelm you through sheer num­bers and ag­gres­sion rather than in­tel­li­gence; later, you’ll trig­ger the ar­rival of a chain­saw-wield­ing night­mare who will soak up most of your am­mu­ni­tion be­fore col­laps­ing. Sui­ci­dal foes will rush you clutch­ing sticks of dy­na­mite; other threats wear pro­tec­tive masks to dis­cour­age head­shots. Even blow­ing a chunk out of an en­emy’s skull isn’t guar­an­teed to halt their ad­vance.

Yet with sup­plies so scarce, at times The Evil Within’s clos­est rel­a­tive is the GameCube re­make of Res­i­dent Evil, in part be­cause you’re en­cour­aged to burn corpses lest they rise again here too. It’s pre­pos­ter­ous that Castel­lanos is ini­tially ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing only five matches, but this limit plays a cen­tral role in the game’s care­ful re­source man­age­ment, and is an ad­di­tional tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion dur­ing its en­coun­ters. As, too, are the rudi­men­tary traps found on floors and walls. Dis­man­tle them and you’ll earn parts with which to craft bolts for the Agony Cross­bow, or you might opt to leave them in place, lur­ing groups of en­e­mies to­wards an ex­plo­sive sur­prise to avoid wast­ing valu­able rounds.

That’s as­sum­ing, of course, that in the nerve-fray­ing ten­sion of a pan­icked re­treat you can avoid blun­der­ing into dan­ger. Flight can of­ten seem a more valid op­tion than a fight, but with with the unfit de­tec­tive able to run for only three seconds (be­fore up­grades), you’ll need to time your sprints to per­fec­tion. A more stealthy ap­proach is of­ten rec­om­mended, but Castel­lanos moves so slowly when crouched that an at­tempted silent kill from be­hind can, as of­ten as not, re­sult in be­ing spot­ted just as you’re reach­ing for your knife. Ev­ery tac­tic is high-risk, and mis­takes are pun­ished cru­elly.

In­deed, Mikami pushes against con­tem­po­rary de­sign bound­aries to a de­gree that will ran­kle with some. The 2:35:1 as­pect ra­tio may have been born partly of tech­ni­cal lim­its, but it suits the claus­tro­pho­bic de­sign, pur­posely dis­em­pow­er­ing you by re­duc­ing your field of vi­sion. The cam­era sticks very close to Castel­lanos’s back, while aim­ing re­moves him almost en­tirely from view, his ex­tended arm and cur­rent weapon all you’ll see as the fo­cus shifts onto what­ever he’s aim­ing at. Such a tight, nar­row view in­duces a sense of gen­uine dis­com­fort, height­ened when you’re swarmed by sev­eral en­e­mies and can only re­ally point your weapon at one. Res­i­dent Evil 4 forced you to plant your feet be­fore fir­ing. Tellingly, you’ll spend a lot of your time in The Evil Within edg­ing ner­vously back­wards. Mean­while, its macabre story, sparked by a bru­tal mass mur­der at a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, con­trives to force Castel­lanos through a va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments, oc­ca­sion­ally even trans­form­ing a sin­gle space into some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. It’s both ex­cit­ing and dis­ori­ent­ing in equal mea­sure, and while as a re­sult the plot lacks a propul­sive nar­ra­tive drive, you’re never quite sure what to ex­pect next. The game finds a sweet spot be­tween an­tic­i­pa­tion and trep­i­da­tion, the de­sire to find out what’s go­ing on just barely over­com­ing your nat­u­ral re­luc­tance to face fresh hor­rors. Even the save rooms rarely feel like a safe haven, the strains of De­bussy’s Clair De Lune wel­com­ing you to a de­cay­ing ward that feels more like a prison, or even a tor­ture cham­ber. Here, Castel­lanos spends green gel he’s col­lected from glass jars and de­feated en­e­mies on arse­nal and abil­ity up­grades, each one de­liv­ered by a sharp jolt to the brain and ac­com­pa­nied by a shriek that echoes un­set­tlingly around the peel­ing walls.

After a clumsy open­ing, The Evil Within hits its stride to­wards the end of the first act and the ten­sion rarely lets up. A fierce siege with an AI part­ner and a long trek through a man­sion with rudi­men­tary puz­zles punc­tu­ated spo­rad­i­cally by an in­de­struc­tible en­emy sug­gest Mikami is oc­ca­sion­ally happy to coast along on past glo­ries, though a com­bi­na­tion of some startling creature de­sign and Masa­fumi Takada’s men­ac­ing score do enough to com­pen­sate for mo­ments of fa­mil­iar­ity. And in the terrifying Laura, a scut­tling spi­der-woman with a blood­cur­dling scream, Tango trumps Lisa Trevor, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing one mas­ter­fully or­ches­trated shiver as Castel­lanos glimpses her sil­hou­ette climb­ing past a win­dow at the far end of a dark cor­ri­dor.

A grimy aes­thetic that draws from ’80s video nas­ties and con­tem­po­rary splat­ter cin­ema means The Evil Within can be a gru­elling, en­er­vat­ing jour­ney in places, not least when the di­rec­tor’s play­fully ma­li­cious streak oc­ca­sion­ally tilts over into out­right spite­ful­ness. But be­tween the one-hit kills, the poor sign­post­ing, the en­forced stealth sec­tions and the many death traps, this is an in­tel­li­gently crafted chiller, and su­pe­rior to any­thing Cap­com has given us in the genre since Mikami’s de­par­ture.

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