Tango Gameworks' The Evil Within kicks off with one of the worst video game introductions I've had the displeasure of playing. Full of trial-and-error design and an endless gauntlet of one-hit kills, these first few chapters do their best to demoralize you into submission.
Despite my frustration, I felt the need to keep plugging away at The Evil Within, simply because it comes from the brain of Shinji Mikami, who directed Resident Evil 4: objectively, one of the best games of all time. (Prove me wrong, readers. Prove me wrong.) I voiced my problems on Twitter, and received a mix of responses, from "stop playing and save yourself the pain" to "hang in there, it gets better!" Frankly, I didn't know who to trust. But after two fresh restarts, and burning the layout of those early segments into my memory, I finally felled chapter 3's tough-as-nails chainsaw boss, and felt that exhilarating sense of accomplishment The Evil Within had been withholding from me for hours.
So, was this all part of Shinji Mikami's plan, or did he simply make a wildly uneven survival horror experience?
What we said at the time
From Mike Williams' review: "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?'"
I'm definitely on the same page as Mike when it comes to his issues with The Evil Within. By their very nature, survival horror games should have an adversarial relationship with the player, but The Evil Within withholds so much necessary information that its absence feels more like an oversight than intentional cruelty. As Mike pointed out, this kind of design reaches peak frustration when you're pitted against The Evil Within's bosses. While some of them are simply damage sponges, and exist to soak up your precious ammo, others take the form of puzzles that require a series of prescribed steps. Being thrown into such a hectic and harrowing situation definitely communicates The Evil Within's sense of survival horror, but feelings of tension soon turn to boredom and anger when you're one-shotted on the last step of a puzzle and have to suffer the tedium of repeating all of those steps over again. (The protagonist's health bar really feels like a formality for how often you're taken out in a single hit.)
The stealth mechanics are just as unfriendly, and, like the boss battles, do a lousy job of communicating vital information to the player. The first handful of chapters are almost entirely stealth-based, yet it never really dawned on me when The Evil Within's monsters were aware of my presence. Just as I'd be sneaking up on one, ready to take it down with my survival knife, it'd spin around and go for my throat. And if I saw one coming my way, ducking into a dark corner or some other out-of-the-way place never really worked out in my favor. Ultimately, you're supposed to stay far away, but that can be a real challenge when you're in a large, cluttered environment with enemies hidden around every corner. Looking back on the game as a whole, it's actually kind of strange that the first few chapters make stealth such an essential mechanic: Though stealth definitely comes in handy from time to time, it doesn't take long for The Evil Within to start leaning more towards its specific brand of action.
With all the complaining I've done about The Evil Within so far, you'd think I had an absolutely miserable time with the game. Well, that's only half-true: If you charted my enjoyment with a line graph, it would look something like Bat Simpson's haircut. For every cruel, poorly designed scenario The Evil Within tosses you into, there's an absolutely amazing level that feels like a true evolution of Resident Evil 4. The punishing stealth soon gives way to artfully crafted action scenes, where you're given no choice but to kill every enemy with the meager amount of resources available. Here, The Evil Within absolutely shines: Every piece of ammo and how you use it matters immensely. And though you're typically screwed in these situations, you're never too screwed: After a tense encounter with enemies, I typically found myself with just a few bullets left, and a few rooms ahead of me littered with the resources I just spent.
The Evil Within's uneven nature makes a bit more sense if you consider its narrative approach, which thrusts our hero into wildly different environments and situations using the fuzziest of dream logic. While this tack makes the story somewhat inessential—though it is pretty straightforward—it also helps the Evil Within stay fresh. If I have one complaint about Resident Evil 4, it's that it often sticks you in the same setting for far too long. Even if The Evil Within's levels feel like a patchwork of unrelated horror ideas, it also carries a generous sense of surprise, if only because you don't know where it's going to throw you next.
With the gradual Michael Bay-ening of Resident Evil over parts five and six, it's also nice to see The Evil Within make a return to the sort of brutal, exploitation horror that Resident Evil 4 wore so well. I'm normally not someone who revels in moments of extreme ultraviolence, but these scenes feel right at home in The Evil Within. Shinji Mikami takes the same sort of glee Sam Raimi did throwing around gore, guts, and blood in the immortal Evil Dead series—to the point where it nearly borders on comedy. And, like Leon in Resident Evil 4, protagonist Sebastian Castellanos can die in any number of horrific, uniquely tailored ways: When you trip your first bomb and immediately crumble into a pile of wildly spurting pieces, it's actually pretty shocking.
So does it hold up?
The Evil Within is one of those games that fares much better when divorced from the burden of impossible expectations. I could easily see how someone buying this for $59.99 in 2014—and expecting the second coming of Resident Evil 4—would be highly disappointed with Shinji Mikami's latest game. But, two years later, and with its flaws widely known, it's a much better sell for the $24.99 price tag (on Steam, at least) that'll get you the complete package, along with three DLC installments. Even though my time with The Evil Within contained some supremely frustrating moments, its better chapters are worth the price of admission, and give me the feeling Mikami could pick up exactly where he left off with RE4 with a second go.