The Evil Within
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.