Ever since I played Resident Evil 5 and witnessed the muddled mess of Resident Evil 6, I have wondered about the future of survival-horror games. I understand that there has to be some slice of action-adventure to it especially when guns and other weapons are involved, but I think that survival-horror games should have more mystery, more terror, and fewer bullets. The Evil Within titters on the border of its classic survival-horror roots and dips into the action-adventure elements a little more than I would have liked.
The strongest element of The Evil Within is the way it handles telling the story of Sebastian Castellanos and what happens to him and his colleagues when they investigate strange happenings at a mental asylum. Even better is how the story is told. Every set piece is eerie in its own right, and when you're catapulted into new areas, the environments around you change seamlessly in game even if the shift is sudden.
Sure, the cut-scenes do their part to facilitate the story transitions, but it's much more terrifying when you’re running down a seemingly normal hallway only to find yourself thrust into a giant warehouse full of giant mangled mannequin heads after some creative camera work. The constantly evolving settings and increasingly ominous story put The Evil Within on par with the Silent Hill franchise in how it elicits psychological terror simply by the way areas of the game are constructed.
Unfortunately, melee combat is where The Evil Within starts to falter. While using the ranged weapons provided in the game is effective at times, close-quarter combat is typically your only option for eliminating an enemy. I took the time to upgrade my melee combat skill, getting it up to level four (one level below max), but I didn’t notice any significant difference in my melee attacks. I would still have Castellanos throw punch at basic grunts only to watch as they continued to move around as if there wasn't a grown adult male cop throwing a punch at them. Most of these encounters ended with me yelling an expletive at the TV, running around the enemy and resorting to shooting them with ammo I had not been planning on wasting.
Another flawed melee combat mechanic is the instant knife kill executed by sneaking behind an enemy, stunning enemies with the agony flash bolt, or throwing a bottle at them in the head. While the sneak-based instant kill works fine, you need crouch to use it and the animation is incredibly slow. So situations where you stun more than two enemies can be maddening, between having to wait to regain control of Castellanos and having to press crouch in order to execute another enemy. Even when you stun enemies by throwing a bottle at them, much like the way you can stun enemies in The Last of Us, you'll encounter this issue. I don’t remember Joel having to crouch down before shivving somebody in the neck or bashing their head into the nearest solid service after stunning them with a bottle or a brick. Whatever the case, it takes the incentive out of stunning an enemy so you can get an instant kill with your knife and conserve resources.
Another aspect of fighting enemies I found detrimental to the horror aspect of the game was that the “haunted” enemies you fight start to carry weapons. Zombies wielding weapons is a trend that many games have had when enemies are zombie-like and it is something that really steals away horror from a supposedly survival-horror game. I felt the unarmed enemies in The Evil Within are challenging enough to defeat, but being attacked by a horde of terrifying enemies is made less terrifying and more annoying when an enemy comes out of nowhere and has the brains to shoot me with a shotgun or in some instances the same damn explosive bolt weapon I have in my inventory. At that moment any terror I had begun to feel while attempting to handle the situation is replaced by the thought that "Great, now some asshole is shooting at me."
On the other hand, sometimes the enemies would carry axes or run at you with a stick of dynamite, which I can get on board with because if you kill the guy with the axe, you can use the axe to get an instant kill on the next enemy. And if you kill the dynamite guy, he’ll blow up any enemy nearby. It’s useful. A zombie-esque character with a gun is not scary insomuch it's not believable since shambling buffoons shouldn't have perfect aim.
The boss fights are thankfully unique to each other and are varied with their own set of challenges, with most of the bosses having the ability to execute an instant kill if you allow them to get too close to you. There was one particularly harrowing level that seemed to have been designed after the creative team had binge-watched every Saw movie in existence where instant death was imminent and well-disguised. On top of the hidden death traps, standard enemies and mini-bosses come from all directions. Yes, I died a lot during that particular level, but it was actually scary and challenging without having to resort to having an enemy shoot me in the face with a sawed-off shotgun.
Fighting boss characters is mainly about running away, and if you're forced into a one-on-one situation with them you’ll have to use the right agony bolt on them or find traps built into the level design to help take them down. The traps, if there are any, aren't usually as hard to find as the right weapons are. Use the wrong agony bolt on a boss, though, and instead of doing even a little damage on them, it will do nothing and you will have just wasted ammunition. There was one instance where I had to go back to a save far before a boss battle because I had used all of the ice-element agony bolts.
You are given a slight reprieve from the shortage of crafting supplies by means of lockers you can unlock by finding keys in special statues that are hidden throughout each chapter. These lockers are located in the area where you save your game and are randomized so you never quite know what you’re going to get. It could be anything from experience points, matches, ammo, or first aid. While the first three items in that list are easier to come by throughout the game, first aid is not and upgrading your health to the max is not really worthwhile considering the high amount of damage all of the enemies can deal and the amount of instant-death scenarios you will encounter.
Conservation of first aid is really the most important survival tactic. I went through most of the game with my health meter just over half-full because I had begun to run into too many instances where I’d heal myself and almost die afterwards when I was attacked by a low-class enemy. You can also supplement your crafting materials for agony bolts by disarming traps instead of setting them off to kill enemies. Each trap is relatively simple to disarm except for proximity mines which require you to play a mini-game that has the potential to kill you instantly if you fail. It can be annoying to get the hang of disarming these devices, but it definitely pays off.
The upgrading system is surprisingly robust. I found that the best abilities to upgrade were not those that directly affected the way Sebastian performed, per se. Except for stamina, upgrading his health is not really something that helps. Putting points into ammo clip capacity for weapons or damage multipliers for them is far more important. For the agony bolt crossbow you can even upgrade individual bow types depending on which ones you prefer to use the most. I also highly recommend putting skill points into the amount of matches you can carry because burning the corpses of your enemies after shooting them in the leg so they’ll fall to the ground assures that they won’t come back to life. It has the potential to kill multiple enemies and helps conserve ammo.
The Evil Within definitely brought back my nostalgia for old-school survival horror games: creepy mansions, terrifying monsters, puzzles, and eerie level design. Seriously, the level design in this game is some of the best I’ve experienced in a long time and really makes you feel like you are in a waking nightmare If I ever do play through it again, it will be for the design of the set pieces alone. The only thing that dampened my enjoyment of the horror elements were the overwhelming use of enemies with artillery towards the third act of the game. When I faced off against enemies who clearly wanted to rip me limb from limb without the aid of ammo I was far more terrified than when they pointed a gun at me. The Evil Within definitely delivers a survival horror game that will scare the shit out of you, but some may find a few of the combat mechanics to be a bit more terrifying for the wrong reasons.