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The Evil Within PS4 Review: Trapped in the Past, With an Eye Towards the Future

Shinji Mikami returns to survival horror. What has the genre's creator learned in the years since Resident Evil 4?

Review by Mike Williams, .

The Evil Within was a pretty easy sell for me. Shinji Mikami returns to the genre that he created with Resident Evil and later improved in Resident Evil 4. With his team at Tango Gameworks, Mikami has the ability to create games without the management at Capcom breathing down his neck, meaning The Evil Within is closer to his own personal vision. Unfettered Mikami sounded like a dream.

So is The Evil Within a crowning masterpiece in the survival horror genre? Not really. The Evil Within is a uneven experience, and in its quest to make the ultimate survival horror game, Tango Gameworks bounces all over the map when it comes to good and bad execution.

From a visual standpoint, the game's presentation is top-notch. Yes, the game struggles with 30 fps during heavy combat and thanks to the ever-present black letterbox bars it runs at a very odd resolution (1920x768 on PlayStation 4 and 1600x640 on Xbox One), but what the game has on display genuinely looks good. The game's fifteen chapters will take you to a variety of locations: Worn-out mental hospitals, ancient stone churches, burning boiler rooms, sleepy villages, and more. Yes, occasionally it feels like Mikami is revisiting Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4 locations for nostalgia's sake, but the level design is superb, so I can forgive this indulgence.

The Evil Within is great at utilizing light and shadow...

The game makes heavy use of light and shadow, and the id Tech 5 engine does a great job of rendering it. The protagonist, Detective Sebastian Castellanos, is equipped with a lantern early on and many of the scenes that have a strong sense of tension require the use or restraint of the lantern. In the darkness hides some well-designed creatures, especially once you get beyond the rank-and-file stumbling undead. Is it scary? Not so much, as the game feels largely like a checklist of all the scary horror movie and game tropes you've seen before.

Unfortunately, while the visual presentation feels like Resident Evil 4 with the graphical power we currently have available, the narrative feels like the first few Resident Evil games transplanted directly into the 21st century. The dialog is completely wooden and the characters are mostly bland ciphers. The story drops the cast into the middle of a situation and resolving that situation says precious little about that cast; you just fix things as much as possible and the game ends. The Evil Within is not a game you play for its gripping narrative and I was vaguely disappointed in lack of expertise in that regard.

Part of the game plays like Resident Evil 4, opting for the same over-the-shoulder camera but adding in the ability to move and aim at the same time (praise be to Mikami!). That latter addition is helpful, because The Evil Within is a big fan of trapping you in areas with hordes of undead or bosses that require either a ton of damage or specific actions to kill. You'll be doing a lot of running, turning, and shooting.

...but the dialog is pretty bad and the story is simplistic at best.

I said "part" in the previous paragraph because The Evil Within is not just third-person shooter, it also has a heavy stealth action component. In certain chapters and areas, Sebastian has to creep behind cover, hide under beds and in lockers, or stealth kill just to survive. The problem is that The Evil Within's stealth mechanics aren't as robust as Outlast, The Last of Us, or non-horror titles like Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Certain mechanics are missing, while others occasionally decide to not work. There's no peeking out behind corners and Sebastian has no way to open a door for stealth; if you attempt to open a door from a stealth position, he promptly stands up and saunters through the door like impending death isn't waiting for him.

There's a Eye icon to let you know when enemies can see you, but certain foes will see you regardless of what that icon says. This would all be fine if stealth was an afterthought, but it's a major part of getting through the game while preserving ammo. Sebastian also has a knife that's available during his one-hit stealth kills, but the knife isn't available anywhere else; instead he uses his wholly ineffective fists for melee attacks. No precision knife slashes here.

Expect to die a lot in The Evil Within and expect that most of those deaths will be because of one-hit kills. Most bosses kill you instantly if they catch you and The Evil Within sticks to the "figure it out" school of design. How do you kill this boss? Does it require a ton of damage or a specific method? Are you even supposed to kill this boss instead of running? What's the specific method to kill this boss? The game won't give you hints for many of these answers, meaning you'll do something wrong - wasting ammo on a boss when you're supposed to be running or missing a key lever or switch - die, and then wait 10 to 15 seconds to try again. At times, The Evil Within was probably the most frustrating game I've played this year. Success in certain encounters isn't met with a thrill, it's met with exasperation: "That's what I supposed to do?"

Hello, Nemesis. I mean... The Keeper.

The Evil Within also has an issues with its over-the-shoulder camera. When you're in stealth or aiming modes, the camera pulls in close, shrinking your field-of-vision. The means you have less information when you need it most. In stealth, the poor camera compounds the issue of having weaker stealth mechanics. In combat, the smaller FOV means using certain weapons, like the absolutely-necessary Agony Crossbow, feels cumbersome.

You can help some of these problems by upgrading Sebastian. You'll find green goo on corpses and around the environment. You can use this goo to upgrade Sebastian's abilities and weapons, making his weapons do more damage, critical hit more often, or hold more ammunition. Certain upgrades are completely necessary, like improving Sebastian's ability to sprint. See, he can only sprint for a limited amount of time and if you go over that time, Sebastian just stops running. He doesn't slow down, he completely stops to take a breath, his tiny lungs gasping for oxygen. It's probably one of the more perplexing design decisions, given how important sprinting is. Overall, the upgrade system is decent, but you'll never feel like you're an overpowered monster. Sebastian gets better, but you'll still die a lot.

At times, the Evil Within feels very familiar.

It's a shame that there are all these niggling issues in The Evil Within, because when it's on point, it's really good. Certain chapters and scenes far outclass the rest of the game. Mikami isn't one to stick to a single idea; The Evil Within's heavy mental component means he can take players to a wide variety of interesting places. It's a mental theme park and Shinji Mikami is the conductor. Unfortunately, lack of consistency remains a problem.

The Evil Within isn't bad, but the aforementioned problems prevent it from being great. At the very least, it's a good start for something better (the ending leaves things wide open for further sequels). With some cuts, some mechanical improvements, and a bit more focus, I think The Evil Within 2 could be a wonderful return for survival horror. For now, if you're desperately looking for something in the genre, are willing to overlook some gameplay problems, and aren't expecting a deep, well-told story, The Evil Within is a good time.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: The Evil Within looks great, with some awesome level and monster design, and a superb lighting engine. The black letterbox bars are annoying, but you'll get used to them.
  • Sound: Sound is important for building tension and The Evil Within's sound design is good.
  • Interface: It does its job. Good job, interface.
  • Lasting appeal: Once you're done, there's not much reason to return to The Evil Within except for the higher difficulty levels.

The Evil Within is Shinji Mikami's return to the survival horror genre, but that return is muted. Overall, the Evil Within is solid and it definitely has some great moments, but poorly-implemented mechanics and a bland story bring down the overall package. Survival horror fans should pick it up, but others may want to wait until the price drops a bit.

3.5 /5

The Evil Within PS4 Review: Trapped in the Past, With an Eye Towards the Future Mike Williams Shinji Mikami returns to survival horror. What has the genre's creator learned in the years since Resident Evil 4? 2014-10-20T21:00:00-04:00 3.5 5

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Ralek #1 Ralek 2 years ago
    A couple of remarks on this review, if I may ^^

    1) - At times, The Evil Within was probably the most frustrating game I've played this year. Success in certain encounters isn't met with a thrill, it's met with exasperation: "That's what I supposed to do?" -

    This may sound strange, but personally, I found this utterly refreshing in a retro kind of way, if that makes any sense. Most modern games play something like this:
    Go to this marker; fulfill the task at hand: Kill boss xyz; and please take note to shoot his brightly glowing weakpoint for your convenience.

    A lack of handholding is something I very much welcome these days. For my taste, games have come to rely to much on what I like to call autopiloting - yes, technically you are the one "playing", but for the most part you are really just watching the game play itself.

    The Evil Within doesn't do that, it leaves you to your own devices to figure things out, kind of like Demon Souls did back in the day. It's also not true, that there are no hints. The loading screen on occassion tells you various things in that regard. Ironically (or not), the more you fail to figure stuff out, the more you die, the more chances you get to review these loading screen hints ^^
    It's also true, that it's almost at all times pretty darn evident if you are supposed to fight, or if you are supposed to run. There are simple tells liked e.g. the classic closed-off area littered with ammunition, telling you: stay put and fight this thing. Anyone who played previous survival-horror games should be really very familiar with these kind of "tells", since they have been around for like two decades by now.

    2) - From a visual standpoint, the game's presentation is top-notch -

    No, not really, unfortunately. The performance issues aside, the game looks like a last gen game, no two ways about it. Don't get me wrong, as cited, the game makes great use of light and shadows, and there is some great visual design in there. But it is also marred by e.g. really poor textures all over the place, among other issues holding the game back visually. It's clear the game drew some inspiration from Alan Wake, esp. Ch. 2, I thought felt very reminiscent of Remedy's brilliant 2010 game. Anyways, looking at Alan Wake today, 4 years later, running on PC, I have to say the game looks superior. The use of light and shadow is at least equally well realized, and everything else is just more refined visually (same holds true for the sound design btw, while TEW does a really good job, AW is just great in bringing the world to life, creaking floors and haunting forests alike). The modified id Tech 5 engine gets the job done, but the flawed performance hurts the experience (althoughit's by no means a dealbreaker at all), and "top-notch" it is not.

    3) - See, he can only sprint for a limited amount of time and if you go over that time, Sebastian just stops running. He doesn't slow down, he completely stops to take a breath, his tiny lungs gasping for oxygen. It's probably one of the more perplexing design decisions, given how important sprinting is. Overall, the upgrade system is decent, but you'll never feel like you're an overpowered monster. -

    It's worth noting, that this may not be such a preplexing design decision after all. It fits entirely well with Mikami's vision. First, it's once again up to you to figure out what matters and what doesn't upgrade-wise, secondly, it is not about empowerment at all, quite the opposite. Mikami made this very clear on previous occassion, he said once:

    "Used at the right time and in the right way disempowerment can be the most powerful tool for the horror game creator."

    I couldn't agree more. The limited camera in RE, at times a technical necessity to limited 3D rendering added to the game's appeal and tension, by limiting the players ability to survey his surroundings, the same is true for the tank controls. Mikami made a few concessions in his design to appeal to modern tastes (checkpoints for example, the mentioned enemy awarenss indicator, ...) and to take advantage of modern hardware, but what he didn't do was compromise his basic design vision.

    I'm pretty sure a lot if not all of the technical or control issues cited, are in fact fully intentional and, more importanly, they do work in the games favour, if one is willing to accept them. They make the game more challenging, they encourage a careful playstyle, exploration and planning ahead, they give the game a sense of pacing unlike most 3rd-person-shooter. The make you feel underpowered, if anything. Sebastian is a Detective, he is NO Sam Gideon. I for one appreciate Mikami'S clearness of vision and his stubbornness, if you will, in implementing it. If anyone wondered were RE did go wrong after RE4 ... well, there you have it, right here.

    The cited issues with the FOV while aiming or with the camera during stealth, are in my humble opinion non-issues then. Why? Well, because you are not supposed to play run'n'gun, you are supposed to pick your timing carefully, postion yourself with the situation around you in mind and then take aimed shoots at the enemy, or make use of traps and so on. By the same token, you are NOT supposed to see around corners and the likes, you are clearly supposed to make use of the surround sound to judge the enemies position and movement. This becomes pretty clear when the game forces you to shut down your latern, all this adds immensely to the tension and atmosphere ... I doubt any of this is an oversight or a technical flaw. IF (!) Mikami wanted this game to control like Vanquish, it darn well would have!

    In the end this is not a game for everyone, that much is certainly true. I for one haven't played a game that felt so much like a videogame in quite some time. This is not a PR product, it is not the result of endless focus testing and "streamlining". It is not a Frankstein-esque creation, sprung from the mix of two dozen different design philosophies tempered by a watchful eye of the marketing and research department.
    To me, despite a few mildly irritating idosyncrasies, it IS all the better for it! If videogames are indeed art, then The Evil Within is far more deserving of any such a compliment than the likes of RE5/6, or indeed most mainstream AAA games these days.
    Anyone booting up games like AC these days, can literally see all the virtual checkboxes of "convenience" and "accessibility" the designers of the game desperately tried to check. It's questionable at best, if most or really any of those decisions were of an artistic nature ... I think TEW is a very rare game, in that, here you feel that, yes, most of the design decisions were indeed of an artistic nature. Kudos for that - if you like survival horror, TEW is a must buy - if you like Mikami's work in general TEW is a must buy - for everyone else I'd say depending on your willingness to accept a "pure" design go for it or don't.

    Personally I'd rate the game 4.5/5, it's held back by some not-so-great sequences (having you play hide'n'seek or run-4-ur-life with (semi-) immortal enemies) and the aforementioned technical flaws, as well as some entirely mediocre story (as rightly criticised, although not really surprising given the genre ^^).Edited 3 times. Last edited October 2014 by Ralek
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #2 ShadowTheSecond 2 years ago
    @Mike Williams
    Is there any chance that we'll see a write-up from you about stealth mechanics in games? Certainly sounds like an enticing piece at some point (and perhaps I've missed a comprehensive one on USgamer at some point).

    Evil Within has been fun for me, but I have a hard time recommending it to friends. Especially when most of them are still in Mordor.Edited October 2014 by ShadowTheSecond
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #3 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @ShadowTheSecond Sure, I can probably put something together on that. Might be a while, but it's on my radar now.
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  • Avatar for docexe #4 docexe 2 years ago
    @Ralek I haven’t played the game yet, but remembering the classic Resident Evil games, it certainly seems to me that most of the mechanical “flaws”/limitations that Mike is pointing out in this review are there by design.

    Now, I’m not really against more accessibility or streamlining design in modern games (even if sometimes I do muse over the old days and the relative lack of handholding), but in the case of survival horror which was traditionally predicated on creating tension not only through the themes and atmosphere of the game, but also by having the player disempowered and limited through the game mechanics themselves, I think this kind of design decisions might be for the better.

    And it might actually make the game feel more like a true successor to RE4 than RE5 and RE6 were (yes, RE4 was more streamlined and action oriented than its predecessors, but it still limited the player in some clever ways, like not allowing you to move while shooting or framing the over shoulder camera in such a way that it sometimes concealed information or imminent threats).

    Unfortunately, while I’m certainly interested in playing this game, I will probably have to wait for next year to get it, given that most of my savings are planned for the Wii U, Bayonetta 2 and Smash Bros.
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  • Avatar for danger.to.others #5 danger.to.others 2 years ago
    Sounds EXACTLY like what to expect from a Mikami game.
    All his stuff has had good graphics, excellent atmosphere, poor animations, clunky controls and goofy storytelling/dialogue with frustrating boss battles poorly explaining what to do.
    And I say this as a fan of his games. But just because I'm a fan, I'm not blind to flaws. The man's works have all been rough around the edges, but ultimately great overall, despite itself.
    It'd be great if the flaws were improved as he aged, but at the same time.....I expect it.

    Once again, I appreciate the review that doesn't leave out the negatives, even when they like it.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #6 Roto13 2 years ago
    @danger.to.others Nothing less than top of the class about the controls and boss battles in Vanquish.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #7 Ralek 2 years ago
    @danger.to.others Just like@Roto13 said, there was nothing clunky about Vanquish's controls or poor about it's animations - quite to the contrary. In fact, I already made that point earlier, when I said "IF (!) Mikami wanted this game to control like Vanquish, it darn well would have!".
    Considering this and his previous work in the genre, as well as his stated opinion on the matter of "disempowerment " ... I would just be very reluctant to call many of the "issues" cited here flaws, esp. if those flaws justify a somewhat mediocre rating to an otherwise impressive game.
    @docexe Agreed! I just feel the score by itself does not reflect the game's quality very well. It's best described as a "PS2 era" game, with some modern touches in terms of presentation, controls (no more tank controls) and accessibility (like checkpoints e.g.). I think Mike hinted that in his review on several occassions, but I'm not sure that point came accross all that well ^^ At least to me "PS2 era" game is more of a compliment than a criticism.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #8 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @Ralek Really good points. I honestly wish that you had written this review instead of Mike Williams, because it feels like you actually get what Mikami was trying to do. A lot of William's complaints are positives to me, and I personally think that Evil Within has far better gameplay than a lot of recent similar games, like The Last of Us. Lack of hand-holding and limitations for the main character are really important things in games like this, and The Evil Within would be worse off without them.

    The only thing I don't like about The Evil Within is the checkpoint system. This is a concession I wish Mikami hadn't have made. But otherwise, I think it's one of the best games of the year, and certainly deserves a much higher score. 4.5 or 5 would be more appropriate. It's a MUCH more interesting game than something like Mordor.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #9 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @Ralek@brionfoulke91 Hey, if you feel the things I pointed out are positives, then rock out. The review gave you insight into what the game is and you can make an opinion from there. That's how reviews work.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #10 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams Yes, that's true.

    But reviews like this still bother me. I don't like to see games like this get punished for not fitting into the AAA accessible narrative-driven cookie cutter mold. It seems too many reviewers evaluate gameplay like this: "was there any problems that prevented me from finishing the game smoothly? If no, then the gameplay was perfect, if yes, then reduce the score." Unfortunately that viewpoint punishes games that take risks, rewards games for being safe. It discourages interesting gameplay and encourages homogenization.

    I feel like, with this review, The Evil Within was punished a little bit for not falling in line with how AAA games are "supposed" to play. At that really seems like a shame.
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  • Avatar for USDanny #11 USDanny 2 years ago
    I think the review is fair, he just wants it to be a better game and I agree that it could be. I'm only half way through the game and I'm really enjoying it. I really wish this game had more of a narrative to it. There is so much going on and the game world has a very disembodied design that a strong character or story could have held it all together better. The main character has such a cool design, with the cross-bow and all that I wish he were more developed, and I would care more about why he's going through what the game is putting him through. Game looks gorgeous. Sound design is amazing. Enemy ghosts really freaked me out.Edited October 2014 by USDanny
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  • Avatar for Ralek #12 Ralek 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams@brionfoulke91 I think both are equally valid point of views. On the one hand I don't begrudge Mike his opinion on the game, and he did try to give a fair and informed view of the games' perceived strengths and weakness. On the other hand, in the end it's all condensed down in a score which might not reflect the game's virtues all that well. Unfortunately the game's score is the only thing many people will see and use to make their judgement call. Thus a review score can have a profound impact on a games commercial success (talk about Metacritic for example). Therefore there is a very real risk that a game might get punished in the finaly tally because it did not adhere to "AAA" standards, if you will.
    The problem is a game's true value, the amount of entertainment it provides cannot be derived from adherence to any such standard. Even more so, if everyone adheres to such standards the industry will grow stale, and we will all get bored by the games we play, because we played it all before.

    I'd argue the root of the problem is NOT the subjective and well reasoned review Mike created, but the scoring system which further simplifies what cannot be further simplified! I think scores will not further innovation in the industry, and certainly not "deviant" designs the industry, in my humble opinion, desperately needs. I wish we could get rid of scores and Metacritic, it would be for the best. Think about it, basically Metacritic is just as fundamentally flawed as any Rating Agency - the basic idea is laudable, but it's a concept that must break down when faced with the issue of practical application. We've seen it all before ...

    Just my 2 cents as always^^
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #13 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @Ralek I'm agreeing with Jeremy more and more: I wish sites didn't have to do review scores. That's what too many people will zero in on, and then the more experimental and risky games get dismissed since they don't tend to review as well.
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  • Avatar for funkstar #14 funkstar 2 years ago
    @Ralek
    At first I was going to disagree, assuming most of the awesomeness of vanquish came from platinumgames but then i remembered RE4 with mikami at capcom and shadows of the damned with mikami working with suda51/grasshopper both played just like TEW so maybe you are right, a deliberate design choice indeed :)
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #15 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Even then, there needs to come some realization that a review is not going to align with your personal metric. For example, Kotaku's recent review of The Legend of Korra (http://kotaku.com/the-legend-of-korra-the-kotaku-review-1650114618) has a "NO" as its final recommendation verdict. That "No" may not be the same for you. For me personally, I'm fine with it at $15, so that's what I put in my review.

    At some point, you have to step outside of the final verdict/score and say "these are the things I care about and this review tells me what I need to know about them."
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