The game opens with our hero, detective Sebastian Castellanos, in a squad car with his partners. They get a call to go to the local insane asylum—always a good way to start the day. And then the driver jokes about an old schizophrenic doctor that murdered a bunch of patients.
Cue eye-roll. Less than 10 minutes in and we’ve been slapped with not only the old “Insane asylum” cliché, but bald-faced exposition to make sure we’re prepared for (DUM DUM DUM!) the events about to unfold.
In retrospect it’s actually pretty half-assed exposition, since they didn’t add the requisite thunderclap or a ‘Muahahaha’.
Everything goes to hell
Upon entering the insane asylum, not surprisingly you find the lobby strewn with bloody bodies. Without going into too much detail (we’re still in the prologue here), you get knocked out in short order and then awaken upside down, hanging like a piece of meat.
A massive, mutant “butcher” wrapped in barbed wire carves up bodies with every sickening slice of chunky flesh exquisitely detailed visually and audibly. I don’t know what wing this guy is from, but someone needs to review security protocols at this asylum.
The rest if this level—about the first 30-60 minutes of gameplay—involve escaping from the butcher and serves as the game’s tutorial. It also has virtually nothing to do with the game’s story. But don’t expect the game to make sense. And don’t expect a good story either.
I don’t mind a game that keeps you guessing. But there’s a good way to do it, and a bad way to do it. The good way is to keep you guessing but give you legitimate clues so you can figure it out on your own.
The bad way is to throw a strong narrative out the window and mostly create a bunch of random nonsense built on every horror trope ever. Don’t worry, you’ll figure out how it all comes together in the end. That’s more or less how The Evil Within does it.But in the meantime you’ll be a slave to the whims of someone that just threw trope after trope into a blender, hit the button, and then forced the writers to sort it all out.
Virtually none of The Evil Within makes even the vaguest of sense until the end. But it’s the sort of ending produced by hungry, cornered, feral writers, thrust into a corner until their only way out is “it was all a dream!”. That’s not spoiler by the way. That might even be a better ending than the one you’ll get.
And the clues and tidbits of character backstory (found in journals and audio recordings) do virtually nothing to shed light on any of it—or make you care about any of the characters in the game. In this respect The Evil Within suffers from the same problems as many horror movies: it’s populated by characters we don’t care about, and they don’t act like anything resembling real people.
Sure, I get that zombies aren’t normal, but 10 hours into the game and our dear Castellanos still quips disbelief at what he’s seeing and experiencing. And supporting characters—your partners Joseph and Kidman, as well as insane asylum inmate Leslie and The Good Doctor, all appear and disappear conveniently to hook you along through the story.
At one point, Castellanos (for about the 5th time in the game and about 10+ hours in) re-unites with his partner Joseph.
“How did you get here?” Castellanos asks.
“It’s a long story,” Joseph says.
Yes it is.
I was ready to put a bullet in him myself at this point.
It is a long, long, long story. Did I say it was long?
Maybe that’s a hint at some DLC. But I tend to think it’s code for “The writers couldn’t come up with anything, and I’m only here to string you along through the level. I may or may not die horribly at some point.”
The overall story of The Evil Within is tiresome and weak. It feels like a continuous string of scenarios added because someone said “wouldn’t it be cool if <insert terrifyingly tired horror trope here>” happened?” And then some poor writer wrote it in.
Level with a mannequin factory? Check. Creepy-old-haunted house level(s)? Check. Urban zombie apocalypse levels? Check. Random creepy baby dolls that just sit and look creepy? Check. Zombies, tentacles, over-the-top gore and gruesomeness? Check, check, and check.
Many of the levels are quite challenging and fun to play, but the poor narrative robs a lot of the fun and satisfaction from overcoming its challenges. It also illustrates why a good story is an important part of some games. By the time some of the pieces of The Evil Within even begin falling (loosely) into place, you may already be muttering “are we there yet?”
And when the end credits finally roll, you’re still left wanting. Sure, you get some new toys and guns and experience to upgrade your character with for another play through, but I doubt many will want a second trip through the game.
There is some good in you
Despite its flaws, there is a fair bit of fun to be had in The Evil Within. It’s very challenging and encourages quite a bit of stealth-focused, tactical play. For good or bad, it often feels more like Splinter Cell: Zombie Edition than true survival horror. There are some pretty inventive levels that will force you to use every skill you have just to survive—even on Casual. Ammunition is scarce, enemies are many, safe havens are few.
Unfortunately, the game occasionally falls down again too. Some sequences pit you against bosses that will instantly kill you if they catch you, and the only way to win is to basically solve a puzzle and/or perform a series of actions (that typically require a lot of rapid spacebar smashing) with precision timing. But while it makes for a challenging, heart-pounding sequence, it also feels unfair and frustrating.
You will die. A lot. And every death scene takes 5-10 seconds to play (so we can watch Castellanos’ gruesome demise), followed by another 10-15 seconds of load time to throw you back to the beginning to try again. This often results in sequences that feel more like playing the laser-disc classic Dragon’s Lair than a free form, modern video game.
The game’s linearity and contrived mechanics can also ruin the suspension of disbelief while it forces you along specific paths. I came to a hallway that split into two forks.The first was clear, but the second was blocked by indestructible, impassable WET FLOOR SIGNS.
I can hop a 5-foot fence without trouble, but those Wet Floor Signs were placed by the Devil’s Janitors apparently. And my shotgun was useless against them.
Other contrivances are also hard not to notice. Poor Castellanos can’t sprint more than 50 feet before he stops to bend over and catch his breath—at which point the game wrests control from you for a few seconds to make you vulnerable to attack. (Tip: Invest skill points (collected in green jars) into sprint. It’s very handy—especially for boss fights.)
The Evil Within has AAA production values and still boasts a fair amount of entertaining game play, even if it tows the line between survival horror and action game. But it falls prey to horror tropes, contrived mechanics, and a muddled story populated by characters you care nothing about.
If you need a survival horror fix The Evil Within will probably fit the bill, but I’d handily recommend Dead Space (1 or 2) or Outlast—all of which are much less expensive and offer equally entertaining game play and far superior narratives to The Evil Within.