In their recent Silent Hill 4 Let’s Play, the guys at the Youtube channel Run Button came up with the term “Maximum Spook”, while joking about the supposed spookiness and creepiness of the game they were playing. For a little while, the funny little term was stuck in my head, giving me a good chuckle every time I thought about it. But as I sat down to play the new Shinji Mikami-directed horror game The Evil Within, I couldn’t stop thinking that someone had indeed set this game to some sort of setting actually named “Maximum Spook”, And I mean that in the best way possible.
I say that because The Evil Within is hands down one of the most tense, nerve-racking, and visceral experiences I have ever had with a video game.
The game takes as little time as possible to kick things off. Within minutes of arriving at the scene of a mass murder at a mental hospital, Detective Sebastian Castellanos starts seeing ghosts, gets knocked out, and awakes chained to a ceiling with mutilated bodies hanging all around him. And that is just the first 10 minutes. Across the main 15 hour or so campaign, the game manages to keep this very same brisk pace, never letting you settle into one location or lingering on one combat encounter for too long. The Evil Within is a game that constantly is revolving between quiet moments of dread, and frantic life or death encounters. While the pacing of the game is better for it, the story connecting everything ends up being relatively uninteresting. This is probably the biggest failing of the game, as the setup, supporting characters, and even the main antagonist all hint at having fresh ideas behind them to differentiate themselves from typical horror tropes. it’s just disappointing that the story never quite lives up to the lofty expectations some may have had.
The characters are also far from the only horror cliches to be found in the title. Nearly every horror trope or environment can be found somewhere in the fabric of this game. From misty graveyards, to dilapidated mental wards, and even the dingy interiors of gore covered slaughterhouses, there isn’t an area you haven’t seen before elsewhere. What makes The Evil Within truly special is how it takes these tropes, and works them into its own twisted reality, weaving together every single thing you could want in a horror game and delivering it with such aplomb that it is honestly hard not to be impressed by the diverse vision of the creators.
Gameplay is largely recognizable to anybody with a working knowledge of survival horror, and is a major component to the tension that the game works so hard to build for the player. A limited selection of weapons and rare ammo placed in the environments and dropped by eneimes will guarantee that you will try to take out as many enemies as possible using the traps placed for you around the environment, or by using contextual stealth kills from sneaking up behind enemies. Across my playthrough, I used my pistol, shotgun, rifle and crossbow, often having to alternate for the sake of ammo conservation. The ammo has been carefully placed in the game, and is usually spread around the field during major combat encounters, so if you can evade your pursuers long enough you might be able to get a few more shots in. Sometimes this can cause the player to just run circles around whatever environment they are in, picking up ammo and turning around to pick off a few enemies, but more often than not, the level design forces players to think on their toes; hiding enemies around the corner as you run away, or lodging you between an approaching group of enemies and a fatal trap. Encounters like this will happen dozens of times, and the tension they incur was never once diminished, due in no small part to the fact that I was almost always one or two blows away from a death animation. This also happens to be one of the most unabashedly violent games I’ve ever played, with most deaths resulting in the wholesale mutilation of Sebastian, and most headshots resulting in a satisfying explosion of gore, even covering walls and characters in the resulting goo. Sebastian’s journey is not one to be taken lightly. I died nearly 80 times over the course of my playthrough, but to the game’s credit, the level of difficulty never felt like a shortcoming in the design, more of a simple byproduct of me being unprepared for a situation, or needing to think through my strategy a bit more.
One interesting innovation is the use of matches to burn enemies that have been knocked down. Shoot an enemy in the leg, or knock them down with a well placed shotgun blast, and Sebastian can use a match to burn the body, conserving valuable ammo. A shortcoming of this mechanic is that it is never properly explained what the matches were for. The in game description led me to believe that all bodies needed to be burned, lest they returned after I had killed them, instead of just knocking them down and killing them with fire.
In addition to limiting ammo, health items are also severely limited, but perfectly tuned to the amount you need to just barely survive. Enemies and environments also contain “Green Gel” which can be used to for upgrades in an alternate-reality “safe area” called The Asylum. While I won’t spoil the effect that the Asylum has on the story, it is here that you can upgrade various stats, including your weapons, or more personal stats such as the amount of time you can sprint, or the health you can hold. There are also various keys spread throughout the main game that can be used to unlock bonuses such as Green Gel and extra ammo, for those who can keep a keen eye out for the white goddess statues that hold them.
Running on a modified version of the idTech engine, the game also manages to have amazing art design while being very graphically inconsistent. Enemies, gore and viscera all look spectacular, and aside from the somewhat generic standard enemies, most of the monsters and bosses are terrifyingly intimidating, including the box-headed Keeper, a lumbering foe with a massive meat tenderizer, who is one of the most deadly enemies you will face in the game. This abomination is easily one of the best horror monsters in gaming, immediately earning a place next to Nemesis of Resident Evil, and Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head. Aside from the excellent design and environment work, there is a little bit left to be desired on the technical side of things. Minor framerate drops don’t ever ruin the experience, but some shoddy texture work can take you out of the things a bit, but never enough to put any kind of halt to the fun of the title. Cutscenes suffer as well, being rendered in real time instead of just being rendered beforehand, this ensures that nearly every camera shift causes some sort of texture pop-in, which can diminish the effect of some really great cinematography. It was clear that the game was made for last gen consoles, and changed target consoles halfway through development. That having been said, the sound design is easily one of the best aspects of the game. If you have a chance to play the game with headphones, don’t hesitate. Every sound effect sounds as properly disgusting as it should, some to a cringe worthy degree.
By the end of my 15 hour tour of duty through the ruined streets and blood stained hallways of the Evil Within, I was left exasperated and thrilled, ready to jump into it all over again. The story is unremarkable, and forgettable to a large degree, but the core game of The Evil Within is so robustly polished that it never really bothered me. Sound design, art, and the raw tension of the title all combine with the stealth/survival game play to create a must play for any horror fan, and I can’t wait to play it again.
What did you think though? Let us know what you think about The Evil Within in the comments down below!