Welcome to Shinji Mikami’s wild ride. The Evil Within is an over-the shoulder, third person survival horror akin to Mikami’s famous previous title, Resident Evil 4. Rather than focusing on tight action and cut-scene commands, The Evil Within is a psychological gore-infested acid trip that demands smart resource and spacial management, planning and quick thinking, and a strong reserve.
The Evil Within begins with our main character--the detective Sebastian Castellanos--and two other gumshoes speeding towards a crime scene. Backup is needed at a mental hospital in Krimson City, and our heroes are on the case. Upon arrival, it’s easy to see the worst has happened, as the lobby is streaked with blood and the bodies of police officers and hospital staff are strewn about. A babbling doctor reveals that something sinister and possibly unnatural is going on, and a set of camera monitors reveals a hooded figure with a disfigured face popping out of thin air, killing more officers. Then, suddenly, he’s in the room with Sebastian, and our hero is flung to another space, hung upside down and surrounded by meathooks and hanging corpses. A large, grotesque figure cuts through human meat on a nearby table with a chainsaw. Now, figure out how to get out and what in the world is going on.
Players can expect this kind of incoherence between locations and events throughout most of the game as Mikami slowly regales a horror story of science, psychology, pain, and betrayal in the midst of the inexplicable and repulsive. This only adds to a pervasive sense of unease as each area dares players to connect it to other places and events, and the gameplay itself changes and demands different tactics and approaches at every juncture.
Sebastian’s personal tragic story involving the loss of his closest loved ones reveals a great deal about him, but does little else. The backstory is nice, and there is some parallel with villain Reuvik’s tale, but I feel there was a missed opportunity in that there is no relation made between the two. There are some holes in the story left to fill, which is true of the entire narrative, so perhaps this is the point. The player is left with questions and connections they must make on their own, many that just don’t have any answers, much like the connections between each space Sebastian is violently flung to and between. What is clear by the end of the game is what happened to Sebastian and Reuvik, respectively, and this is enough to make some sense of the insanity.
As stated earlier, The Evil Within's gameplay will be familiar to anyone who's played Resident Evil 4 . The latter title’s emphasis on action is apparent in The Evil Within, but survival aspects are much more pronounced. Ammunition is rare enough and stock maximums low enough that any missed shot feels like a stroke and using resources sparingly yet intelligently becomes even more important than quick-thinking and skill.
Weapon assortment is what one would expect, with typical strategies involved. The pistol is accurate but low damage, good for head shots, the shotgun can blast back a group of enemies and does decent damage, the sniper rifle is powerful but unwieldy, and the magnum is great for tough targets but ammunition is a rarity. Grenades help flesh out this basic armory, though a unique tool really gives the action some variety: the agony crossbow. This wicked thing can be loaded with a variety of bolts with invaluable effects. Normal bolts do incredible damage and can pin enemies to the wall, flash bolts blind groups of enemies and leave them open to instant-kill melee attacks, the freeze bolts stop enemies in their tracks and allow them to be shattered, and, to top it all off, you can launch proximity mines. The crossbow allows for more flexible mob management and incapacitating invincible or otherwise challenging enemies. Unlike other ammunition, bolts can be manufactured on the fly from scrap parts harvested by disarming traps and bombs. Saving even this ammo requires being smart on another level.
The environment is often Sebastian’s most potent weapon. Spikes can rise from the floor with the throw of a switch, explosive barrels immolate enemies, and pits and cliffs beg the use of gravity. Being smart with these resources saves ammunition for those tight spots when it’s really needed. In addition, Sebastian can collect matches to light prone or dead enemies alight, spreading the flames to nearby enemies if timed right. Fire is the most potent weapon in the game for a significant, symbolic reason, but let’s not ruin that surprise. This was a relationship between gameplay and narrative that I really appreciated.
Players can level up many aspects of Sebastian’s abilities and repertoire, customizing how they play the game to a certain degree. Weapons can be made more accurate, do more damage, have larger clips, and increase their percentage to automatically kill with a headshot. Sebastian can increase how long he can run, his health, melee damage, and how much health syringes restore. Each agony bolt’s effects can be improved, and the maximum stock for every type of ammunition or item can be increased. The currency for these upgrades is Green Gel (what I affectionately dubbed “brain juice"), which is hidden throughout levels and dropped by enemies. After one playthrough, I was unable to unlock more than half of the upgrades, but I harly doubt I missed plenty of secrets.
The Evil Within provides a balanced challenge on its default difficulty, not so much that I ever felt cheated or overly frustrated but not so little that I could just breeze through. Checkpoints were plentiful and placed at opportune junctures, so dying never set me back too far. I haven't tried playing on the harder difficulty unlocked after the first playthrough, but I imagine it's rough. New game plus, a second playthrough with all the unlocks from the first, is available for completionists.
This game is a great fun romp in a twisted wonderland of gore, cruel machinations, absurdity, and insanity. The gameplay is sharp, fun, and distressing, yet nuanced enough to stand out from the horror-action crowd. So if you're ready for Mikami's Wild Ride, strap in and hold on for dear life, 'cause it's a doozy.