Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Game Review: The Evil Within

Mild Spoilers Below:

The Evil Within is a spiritual successor of sorts to the classic survival horror games of old. Drawing its inspirations heavily from Capcom's Resident Evil franchise, specifically Resident Evil 4. This is no coincidence as the man behind Evil Within, Shinji Mikami, has often been dubbed "The Godfather of Survival Horror".

Mikami, for those not familiar with the name, is the man who created the original Resident Evil on the Playstation One. From there he would be the driving force behind all the classic Resident Evil titles (including Resident Evil 2, Nemesis, Code Veronica, the Resident Evil Remake, Zero, and of course Resident Evil 4).

So when it was announced that Mikami (who had departed from Capcom in 2007) would be making a return to the survival horror genera with a brand new title of his own... us old school Resident Evil fans cheered with joy.

For better or worse The Evil Within is that game. Taking a heavy dose of Resident Evil 4 and combining it with a clear love of Japanese horror cinema and a sprinkling of American "shock cinema". The Evil Within is, at its core, probably the most sincere love letter to films like Ju-On, The Ring, Saw, and Hostel, that you are ever likely to find.



THE SETUP:

"ENTER THE MIND OF A MADMAN: After witnessing the slaughter of fellow officers, Sebastian is ambushed and knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he finds himself in a deranged world where hideous creatures wander among the dead. Facing unimaginable terror, and fighting for survival, Sebastian embarks on a frightening journey to unravel what's behind this evil force."

You play as veteran police detective Sebastian Castellanos sent to investigate a gruesome mass murder at the Beacon Mental Hospital. From essentially the moment you arrive things go horribly wrong and before you can say "biohazard"... Evil Within has you shooting sort-of-zombies in a village stripped right out of the opening sequence of Resident Evil 4.

Evil Within is unabashedly a combination of everything that Shinji Mikami loves and it never once tries to hide it. The game, which is split into 15 separate chapters, literally has your character jumping around from location to location and from horror movie genre to horror movie genre.


While this allows Mikami to explore a wide variety of set pieces, it leaves the player with no real sense of environment or location. One moment you'll be in what appears to be a rustic old village from centuries ago. The next in a crumbling basement of an insane asylum. Later stages include a Resident Evil inspired mansion, and a very fleshy hellish stage filled with moving eyeballs.

Each set piece is very well constructed and memorable in its own right, but I was often times left wondering just how the hell I got from point A to point B. To the games credit it does explain why Sebastian is being transported to all these strange locations. And while I don't want to reveal to much of the games plot, I will say that well versed horror fans will probably be able to figure out what is going on well before the game makes it officially known to the player.

Resident Evil!
Click for Larger Image!
Speaking of plot, The Evil Within is a pretty lackluster affair. While the environments you are going to be exploring are indeed super cool, I couldn't tell you a thing about our main character Sebastian Castellanos.

He is a very "by the numbers" detective, with a no-nonsense attitude and gruff sounding voice. Sebastian does and says exactly what you would imagine and never really experiences any sort of character arc throughout the games story. The rest of the cast tends to follow the same "paint by numbers" approach to story telling. Yea there are a few twists and turns thrown in, but by in large I was completely disinterested in the characters that The Evil Within offered.

 GAMEPLAY EXPERIENCES:

What The Evil Within does extremely well is offer up an immensely satisfying gameplay experience. The later Resident Evil titles (particularly 5 and 6) have slowly transitioned away from the survival horror elements of old and are now much more action oriented and less focused on jump scares and resource management.

The Evil Within was touted as a return to the old school formula and it delivers. Resources are limited. Enemies are resilient and most bosses are able to kill you in a single blow. This game will test fans of the horror genera both new and old. I am not afraid to admit that I started the game on the "normal" difficulty setting and after a few chapters ended up bumping it down to the less punishing "easy" setting.

Perhaps my favorite part of The Evil Within was the ability to upgrade Sebastian's physical abilities and tools. This is done via collecting bottled green liquid, sometimes you'll get a small pool from downed enemies but more often than not you'll find bottles of the stuff hidden throughout the environment.

It is worth taking the time to explore every nook and cranny and find as much green "brain juice" as possible. Upgrading in Evil Within is both satisfying and necessary for survival. Sebastian's physical stats at the start of the game are laughably bad. He cannot sprint for more than a few feet before stopping and his health is so low that a single hit from an enemy sends your health dangerously close to the red zone.

Upgrading allows you to sprint for longer distances, take more hits, and dish out more damage. Weapons can be upgraded to allow for larger clip sizes, increased accuracy, and my personal favorite... have a higher chance of obtaining "critical hit" headshot. Obtained upgrades also carry over to "New Game+" mode... so should you choose to play through The Evil Within for a second time, you won't start out quite so helpless.

TECHNICAL ISSUES:

If I could stop right now, Evil Within would be a solid 4 out of 5. Kind of cliched, difficult but enjoyable experience from "The Godfather of Survival Horror". Unfortunately, the ultimate horror The Evil Within offers comes from being a technical nightmare with some questionable gameplay mechanics.

I played the Playstation 4 port of the game and for a "next gen" title it featured an unacceptable amount of slow down. Particularly outdoor environments with multiple effects going on at the same time. Though sometimes just the simple act of moving the camera to quickly while walking and shooting will cause its frame-rate to spitter and sputter to a halt.

It also has a hell of a time loading textures in and out of cutscenes. As it transitions you'll clearly notice the low resolution textures displayed first and then after a couple seconds the higher resolution versions will replace them. This graphical pop-in may have been acceptable on the previous generation of hardware, but for those of us who just dished out the big bucks for current hardware I find texture pop-in to be a completely unacceptable flaw.

Occasionally it will get stuck in "low resolution" mode, too. I had one sequence that featured multiple quick cutscenes at a later stage (a barn on fire) in which a prominently featured character's beard never fully loaded. It was jarring, and not in the way the game intended, to see a high quality character model with a strange... almost 32-bit era beard.

I also found the placement of the games camera to be way to close to Sebastian. I was fighting with it more times than not, as I'd go to place the cursor over an interactive element (such as a lever) only to be forced into playing a stupid little game of "walk backwards and slightly to the left until it actually recognizes what I'm looking at". Why the game does not offer the ability to adjust how close the camera is to the player, Grand Theft Auto style, I have no idea.

Resident Evil!
Click for Larger Image!
Technically speaking, The Evil Within is a bit of a mess. And instead of spending more time optimizing the experience, it appears as if they took a slightly easier way out and forced the game to run in letterbox mode with no option for full screen. You can force the PC version into full screen by changing the games code, but us console players are left with the games letterbox presentation. This may have been acceptable when Resident Evil 4 released in 2005 but here in 2014 its another inexcusable flaw.

 DATED MECHANICS:

A few of the games mechanics feel decidedly dated as well. Such as animation sequences that the player cannot break. The game conditions you early on to conserve as much ammo as possible. One of the ways you can do this is by lighting downed enemy corpses on fire. A few well placed shots with an upgraded handgun will knock an enemy briefly on the ground, smart players will use this opportunity to sprint forward and mash on the "circle" button to light them up.

This action enters Sebastian into an unbreakable animation in which he takes a few seconds to pull a match, strike it, and then toss it on a downed corpse, lighting it ablaze. The game also features various bombs and traps, typically hidden from the players line of sight. It is entirely possible for you to place a few shots at an enemy, sprint forward, jam on the circle button, only to have your character move an inch or so forward to enter into this animation... and suddenly a bomb timer is going off in a room you haven't even been into yet and there is absolutely no way to cancel the action Sebastian is currently preforming.

So you watch Sebastian stand there like a dumbass, slowly lighting a match, unable to move as a bomb blows up from behind a corner. Taking with it half your health... or worse, killing you and forcing you back to a checkpoint from five minutes earlier in the map.

Some will argue this just adds to the games difficulty. I disagree. Its poor game design. There is no reason why that animation cannot be broken. If you want to punish the player, take away the match without burning the enemy. Simple solution that The Evil Within simply does not offer.

Another painful section involves a trial and error "fight" against the Ju-On inspired black hair creature. You'll be running through a series of furnaces and fire traps. Goodluck with this section, as the entire area is seemingly designed to be a gigantic middle finger towards the player.

Its an enclosed space. The boss will kill you with one hit. And to navigate through this section you must shoot a series of switches to manipulate the fire, often times involving multiple switches in different locations. But when you do shoot a switch it doesn't activate right away, it's on a timer. So for an undisclosed amount of time... just sort of run around the environment and hope you don't accidentally cut a corner short or you get one hit killed and have to restart the entire chain of events over again.

It finally ends with you in a small chamber that gets even narrower waiting to pull a switch that has a hidden bomb next to it... while avoiding the one-hit-kill boss. When you screw up, it's all the way back to the start of the encounter.

Sections such as these are frustrating and not very much fun to play through. I felt that specific encounter had less to do with player skill and more just blind luck that the AI took a slightly different path and gave me the extra millisecond needed to jam on the X button to pull the stupid lever to exit the level.

I was also a bit disappointed that Evil Within lacked any real puzzle solving or backtracking. As I said earlier, the levels are probably one of my favorite parts of this game and I really wouldn't have minded a few classic Resident Evil style puzzles that allowed me to wander back through them, collect a few pieces, insert things into arbitrary other things, get some sort of key and move on. Instead Evil Within takes a very modern "just move forward" approach. Exploration is fine but for the most part if you just sort of sprint forward, you'll find your way to the end of the level and be transported to the next stage.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Despite the games poor technical performance and some questionably dated design choices, I did enjoy The Evil Within. The places and locations that this game takes you to are both memorable and enjoyable. The story is a bit lackluster but it serves the narrative well enough. For better or worse Shinji Mikami's handprints are obvious.

At the end of the day, Evil Within is creepy. The sound design is stellar and the ability to blast the undead at pointblank range with a beefed up shotgun is satisfying. I like what this game represents and sincerely hope it sells well enough to get a sequel. But the technical bugs and sometimes dated design decisions are enough to occasionally ruin the experience.

"The Evil Within" gets a 3 out of 5.

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