Horror, the good kind of horror that stays with you, is nuanced. It doesn’t go, “Blarghhahlarghhahahaha horror!”, whilst flicking the lights on and off and wearing a goalie mask. It takes you by the hand, urging you to follow into the darkest corners of your own psyche, leading you to the repressed bit of that one time at band camp. It’s a slow, slow burn – so disarming in its subtlety (false starts, atmosphere so heavy it pulls you through your monitor) that when you’ve finally let your guard down it goes, “Blarghhahlarghhahahaha horror!” And then… well, then it lets off for a bit. It gives you some breathing room to let that guard down once more.
Guess which school of horror The Evil Within subscribes to? Did you guess the former? Congratulations!
In Bethesda’s latest title, you play as Detective Sebastian “Lil’ Sebastian” Castellanos, a gritty detective living in… sigh, Krimson City (get it? Did the K throw you initially like it did me? Took me six hours!). You, your paper cut-out partners, and the entire police force are investigating a massacre at the local insane asylum. You find a barely coherent doctor and his even less coherent patient, Leslie, and then a disfigured guy in a bathrobe teleports you into a nightmarish meat processing plant beneath the hospital.
A large man with a chainsaw chases you, you fall into a vat of blood, and then you’re driving through Krimson City in an ambulance as the world goes all Inception-y; then you plummet off a cliff and into a hostile village/forest. This is where the actual game begins.
Lil’ Sebastian quickly finds his gun and the game devolves into a tougher, grittier Resident Evil 4 without the zany charm; complete with limited ammo, poor stealth mechanics, and death animations that would make Isaac Clarke blush. Shinji Mikami – who won acclaim as the director of Resident Evil and Dino Crisis – even goes so far as to recreate Resident Evil 4’s greatest moments (village populated with angry inhabitants and a tough chainsaw guy; desperate, cornered action sequence with partner, etc.) in a Dorian Gray-style bid for eternal youth, or something. While such scenarios are fun little homages, they simply don’t compare to the originals.
What is clear is that The Evil Within is sorely lacking memorable moments of its own. “Gee, remember that part when Sebastian had to save his partner from a Houdini-style drowning death trap? What a rush.” Too bad that the game gives little reason to care about any of the characters. There are the now-mandatory voice recordings and bits-o-exposition left lying about, but at no point did I care about the villain, the protagonist, or all the pawns between us.
As you fight your way through an increasingly screwed up game world, the story unfolds a bit in a futile attempt to make you care. Instead it reads like bad fan fiction – clichéd and ludicrous. And when it comes to The Evil Within’s abrupt ending, it is an unsatisfying one. If you’re going to slap a “to be continued” finale in a game, you’d better make it a game we’d bother revisiting. The tale spun incentivizes no such revisit.
The game succeeds at tension to a degree, because you’ll go wanting for ammo and health the whole way through – regardless of difficulty. And that’s pretty neat in an ever-increasingly casual gaming environment. I always felt like I was on death’s door, scraping by every fight by the skin of my teeth. And the gameplay is solid. Headshots are satisfyingly visceral – you have to burn enemies on the ground or they’ll likely come back; the hub/level up area is clever; and, cleverer still, are the statues littered through that world that, when shattered, yield a key you can unlock a random safe with. Sometimes it will contain upgrade fuel, other times it will contain some much needed ammo or health.
Despite these positives, during my time with the game, The Evil Within didn’t scare me – not once – if that is indeed what it was trying to do. And I’m a sissy. I still haven’t completed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, yet not once was I frightened during my time with The Evil Within. Their scare attempts can best be compared to a boss in the game: Reborn Laura. She’s the classic Asian lady horror archetype with long black hair and pale skin, but then they went and slapped six or seven limbs on her. She didn’t scare me; she invoked pity, stumbling about and shrieking at me on her impossible extremities.
And that’s what this game invokes in me – pity. Pity for what could have been. The story framing provided the potential to explore all sorts of horror settings, but unfortunately there’s little cohesion and it ends up feeling like a “Greatest Hits” album more than a horror game. The characters never develop in any meaningful way, though you won’t give a shit one way or the other. Ultimately, the game is about as scary as a haunted house when the lights go on and a voice-cracking teen assures you over the loudspeaker that things will be up and running momentarily. Sure, you can see the potential. But it’s hard to be spooked when you can see all the wires and the actors are taking a smoke break.