The Evil Within review: Haunting terror from Shinji Mikami

£59.99; Bethesda Softworks; PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC

In the middle of Chapter Five of The Evil Within, our gruff protagonist utters a glib remark that topples headfirst off the cliff of mount credulity. After wading through pools of grot and gore, driving away from a city that inexplicably contorts and cracks behind him and having been hounded on two separate occasions by a four-armed J-Horror nightmare named Laura and a chainsaw wielding maniac, Detective Sebastian Castellanos finally considers his day so far when he tells his questionably pallid looking colleague that “there’s something wrong with this place.”

It’s a line that, in spite of everything which The Evil Within does brilliantly (of which there is plenty), perfectly encapsulates its key problem: tone. Director Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series, is an undoubted horror maestro and gaming’s equivalent of a George Romero-like figure. His last horror outing, Resident Evil 4, is widely regarded as a masterpiece and a lot of what made that game great – the third person action/survival gameplay, the series of diverse yet logically connected environments and… well… mumbling weirdos with chainsaws – works well within the confines of a project also entrenched in a psychological haze more reminiscent of the Silent Hill series.

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In short, there’s a lot going on here from a number of different sources. The Evil Within often feels like a greatest hits of horror iconography in the way that it fuses grindhouse, J-Horror, haunted house jump scares and a strange ‘otherworld’ which you’ll often visit to save your progress and upgrade your abilities in a chair that looks like that one from the end of the film Brazil (only with more spikey bits). Oddly enough this amalgamation of influences mostly works in a way that shouldn’t, even though its kitchen sink approach leaves little room for the quiet terror of the unseen that defined Mikami’s other horror creations.

Bringing together these disparate elements is the grain-filtered letterbox aspect ratio and gloriously bleak lighting engine. It complements the game’s mixed palette ranging from claustrophobic industrial grime, rural decay, rotting decadence and Sebastian’s own greyscale psychological abyss. Character models, in comparison, suffer the most from the game’s cross-gen status. The animation during cutscenes is incredibly jerky, with NPCs often looking as deathly as the barbed-wire wrapped grotesqueries aching to nibble on your limbs.

 

The game’s tensest moments arise from its combination of stealth gameplay, purposefully awkward gunplay and the need to constantly scavenge for supplies, as ammo, health syringes and upgrades – appearing as collectable jars of brain fluid – are in short supply. A crossbow with customisable bolts and matches required for igniting the reanimated dead round out your arsenal. Yet even on the casual difficulty setting The Evil Within’s challenging gameplay matches its abrasive demeanor with progression often relying on careful resource management and manipulation of environmental hazards.

Yet as our protagonist mindlessly ambles further into the heart of darkness with little discernable effect to his psyche, among all the blood and guts, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that one vital organ is sorely lacking at the game’s centre: heart. At the centre of a muddled story that attempts to hide its haphazard opening and continued lack of context with a barrage of abject imagery, the unrelatable Sebastian (with his dull observations and soulless mannerisms) frequently plunge the game’s otherwise serious desire to mesh gory survival horror with psychological complexity into the unwelcome realms of pastiche.

The Evil Within is twisted, depraved and shows enough glints of Mikami’s genius in its involving gameplay and its grisly world of repulsive nightmare-fuel. It mostly overcome its bric-a-brac story and disappointing infrequency of legitimately scary moments. While it stumbles to truly forge its own unique identity as a new survival horror IP, The Evil Within is an affectionately crafted, crimson-soaked love letter for a resurgent genre.

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