Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Evil Within: Surprisingly Disappointing

The Evil Within (2014) is one of the most notable survival-horror games of the last decade for the simple fact that it was directed by Shinji Mikami, the man responsible for bringing us the original Resident Evil in 1996 and its beloved sequel Resident Evil 4 in 2005. With the man responsible for popularizing the concept of survival-horror games directing his first survival-horror game in almost a decade, there was a lot of hype surrounding The Evil Within, especially considering its strong similarities to Resident Evil 4. Promising a return to "pure survival-horror" that would become "the new face of horror," The Resident Evil Within certainly looked like the sequel Resident Evil 4 deserved, but ultimately never received.

The similarities are unmistakably present, from the slower-paced survival gameplay that has you exploring environments in search of hidden ammunition and healing supplies to the over-the-shoulder third-person combat system, but The Evil Within spices up that familiar formula by throwing in a stealth system, a more robust system for upgrading your weapons and abilities, and by generally emphasizing horror and tension more than action. It takes a little time for the game to get going and fully open itself up to you, but for a while during the early levels I was prepared to declare The Evil Within a worthy successor to Resident Evil 4 that was actually better in many ways. But as I got further into the game, my awe and optimism turned into detachment and frustration.

The story centers around Krimson City Police Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who's called to investigate a bunch of murders at the Beacon Mental Hospital, where he witnesses a man in a white hooded coat appearing in the blink of an eye and slaughtering policemen with a flick of his wrist. Sebastian gets ambushed and wakes up in a meat locker full of human corpses and has to escape from a hulking chainsaw-wielding maniac. Once free, he meets up with his partners, Joseph Oda and Juli Kidman, who all get in an ambulance with one of the hospital's doctors, Marcelo Jimenez, and his patient, Leslie Withers, as the ground collapses out from underneath them and the city starts crumbling apart. The ambulance goes over a cliff, and Sebastian wakes up separated from everyone else. The rest of the game has Sebastian trying to catch up to and find Leslie, who might be the key to stopping the man in the white hood, who seems to be behind everything.

That's the general premise that gets established during the first chapter, but unfortunately there's not a very compelling story to this game. The game doesn't do a good job of giving you concrete goals to work towards, or reasons why you should care about achieving those goals; throughout the whole game, the only driving force is "find Leslie," but it doesn't explain why that even matters, or what's at stake if you should fail, until near the very end of the game. Meanwhile, Ruvik -- the man in the white hood -- has these supernatural powers to warp you in and out all kinds of crazy nightmare scenarios, which happens basically every single chapter, so the whole game is a random, incoherent mishmash of different environments and situations with no sense of geography, flow, or pacing. As with Leslie, you don't learn how or why any of this is happening until near the end of the game, so I was often left wondering "why am I here, what's going on," and so on.

The first chapter is fairly exciting, but it feels more like a teaser trailer than the start of the actual game, like it was designed primarily to serve as a demo. I love how quickly the game gets into the horror schtick; within minutes of gaining control, you're running from a chainsaw-wielding maniac through comically absurd murder-machines and sliding down a chute into a giant pool of human blood. It's so excessively violent and over-the-top, and it's great. But after that fast start, the game slows way down and then takes forever to introduce its various gameplay mechanics, making you feel like you're in an extended tutorial. The whole first chapter has no health bars, no weapons, no inventory, no skill points, no crafting, no lamp, no nothing. It starts adding gameplay mechancis in during chapter two, one at a time, and it's not until chapter three, roughly two hours into the game, that it starts opening up and actually letting you do things for yourself.

One of the ways in which The Evil Within improves upon the Resident Evil 4 formula is by implementing a stealth system that gives you the choice of conserving ammo by sneaking past enemies or by going for close-range stealth kills. The stealth system is not all that sophisticated -- you simply hold a crouch button and stay out of enemies' line of sight -- but it gets the job done by allowing for creative alternatives to different situations while also adding to the tension. It's really satisfying early on, even if it does feel a little scripted -- it sometimes feels like there's one specific pattern of paths and timings that you have to deduce and follow if you want to stealth through certain levels undetected -- but it's nice having that strategic option available to you.

Stealth is important because it can help you conserve ammunition and avoid taking damage, which are both top priorities in an old-school-feeling survival-horror game like this, where there are sometimes more enemies than you have bullets, and you're only ever a few hits away from a game over screen. The Evil Within places a strong emphasis on the survival side of survival-horror, with a lot of the game's tension deriving from how difficult the game can actually be; it's not just about surviving an encounter or beating a level, it's about doing so as efficiently as you can, because if you make too many mistakes and have to waste too many resources you can leave yourself completely screwed for future encounters.

After years of being coddled by wannabe survival-horror games that basically amount to haunted house jump-scare simulators, I was kind of surprised by how brutally tough The Evil Within actually is, even on the default "normal" difficulty. I remember being super careful sneaking my way through the second chapter, flawlessly dispatching like 10 enemies with stealth kills, avoiding all the explosive trip wires and bear traps that littered the area -- it was a perfect runthrough of that level, but then I got careless at the very end and let two enemies ambush me. They kicked my ass and I nearly died in the span of 10 seconds after spending those 30+ minutes working through the level. I survived, but I had to use both of the healing items I'd found in the level, which set me back to square one and basically meant I had wasted all that effort collecting resources.

Exploration is heavily rewarded in this game, both in terms of ammo and healing items, but also with a substance known as "green gel," which you find in jars lying around hidden areas of the level, and sometimes also harvest from defeated enemies. Green gel is the game's upgrade currency that you spend in the hub area (where you get to save your progress manually) to upgrade Sebastian's skills, like increasing his stamina gauge, increasing how much ammo he can carry, increasing the amount of health that stimpacks heal for, and increasing the stats of Sebastian's various weaponry, among other things. Also scattered throughout levels are locker keys and map fragments, bonus collectibles that unlock greater rewards as you collect more of them. Each locker key will open a locker in the hub which grant you increasing amounts of randomized ammunition and green gel as you unlock more of them, and the map fragments, once all have been found, unlock two unique extra-powerful weapons for New Game Plus mode.

Getting through each of the game's 15 levels therefore involves a pretty satisfying degree of risk-versus-reward. This is a game with tough encounters around nearly every corner, all of which will demand more and more of your resources to survive, but the game gives you the option to avoid a lot of these encounters in favor of taking a safer route, which comes at the expense of missing those hidden collectibles, or missing out on a lot of green gel to make Sebastian stronger. This is a game that puts a shiny object in clear view, but with deadly traps and enemies in the way, and asks you "how badly do you want that item," and "is it worth trying to get to it?" As the type of gamer who likes to face these kinds of challenges and feels compelled to explore everywhere he can, I found it really satisfying how often I was rewarded with extra green gel, or a locker key, or a map fragment, for deciding to take a closer look at an obscure corner of a level.

In terms of horror, The Evil Within is a bit unsettling but never scary or terrifying. There's a ton of gratuitous violence and gore, as evidenced by all the gruesome cinematic death sequences Sebastian can suffer in the game (beware of spoilers in that video link), but that's not really scary. The enemies consist of all kinds of weird, grotesque monsters but most of them just look like generic blobs of flesh to me, not much different from other video game monsters I've encountered before. Sebastian experiences a bunch of weird hallucinations, but none of these affect the gameplay or your condition in any way, so they're mostly just weird visual things happening for inexplicable reasons. It's a tense game, but that's more because of the limited resources, tough difficulty, and heavy emphasis on survival. I love the dark, creepy atmospheres and the gratuitous gore, but I never came close to experiencing any moments of pure terror like I've experienced in other games. Then again, maybe I'm not the best judge of what's scary anymore since I've become so desensitized to it.

Combat is functional, although not as sharp or as satisfying as it is in Resident Evil 4, but that's largely by design, since Mikami wanted The Evil Within to be more of a survival-horror game than an action shooter. As such, Sebastian is not much of a fighter; he can only take 2-3 solid hits before dying, his melee punches are practically useless except in extreme desperation, he can only sprint for a few seconds before running out of breath, and his accuracy with firearms, while not abysmal, is still far from perfect. That would all be fine and good if this were indeed a "pure survival-horror" game like the Steam page claims it to be, but the reality is that The Evil Within is still very much an action game, albeit at a slower pace than Resident Evil 4, considering it seems to forget about stealth almost completely after the first couple of levels while forcing you to kill dozens of enemies at a time to advance in most levels. In essence, it feels like playing Resident Evil 4 but with a less competent protagonist in a somewhat janky, frustrating package.

Sebastian is kind of a burden to control; he moves slowly, he turns slowly, and he aims slowly. Again, that's fine in and of itself, but it gets annoying when enemies juke and dodge faster than you can aim your weapons, and when stuff gets in close and you have basically no way of dealing with anything because all of your weapons are impossible to aim at close range and your melee attacks hardly do anything. There's no quick-turn ability, so when you need to turn and run you're forced to slowly turn Sebastian around and pan the camera around even more slowly so that you can see where you're going, which is often impossible because of the extremely narrow vertical FOV that blocks so much of your view, often leading Sebastian's movement to get stuck on obstacles like fallen chairs that you can't even see.

Interacting with the environment, such as to pick up an item, burn a corpse, or press a button on a control panel, can be finicky too. You need to position Sebastian close enough to and facing the desired object, and then you also have to aim the camera at the object to target it, which can be almost impossible if there's another object closer to the camera because it gets fixated on that one thing in the foreground. Even just positioning Sebastian can be a chore sometimes, with his awkward turning radius and momentum causing you to bump into things in the environment or move out of a safe space into dangerous territory. I struggled just getting him to face a certain way while standing in the right position so I could aim the camera somewhere for a screenshot, and I even struggled to perform melee attacks in the correct direction because he'd insist on curb-stomping a dead corpse in the opposite direction I was facing, or else punch some other random direction I never intended.

It's not just the controls that prove irksome, either; little things with the gameplay pop up all the time that frequently made me feel like I was being unfairly punished because the game just wasn't polished enough. One time I instinctively pressed the action button thinking I could interact with what looked like a button, which then had Sebastian stand up and climb over something and get decapitated. At one point an ally gets kidnapped and is being dragged to a guillotine, and you have limited time to kill the baddies with the sniper rifle before he dies; I missed the first shot and ran out of time, which led to the game taking control away from me so I could watch a cutscene while the ally gets dragged the last 10 feet and dropped into the guillotine while the enemy reaches for the lever, and I'm sitting there literally yelling at the screen "Why can't I shoot them right now?!" Frequently I'd be trying to use a torch or a match on enemies, and then I'd get grabbed by some enemy mere frames before my animation would've finished, thereby canceling my entire attack and, in some cases, leading to my own instant death.

As it turns out, there are a ton of one-hit kills in The Evil Within. I'm fine with a game being challenging and not being afraid to let you die, but I feel like there's a little too much trial-and-error in this game, where you're basically forced to die in a split second for an ignorant mistake, just so you can learn the game's lessons and know what to expect up ahead when you reload the checkpoint. Sometimes, enemies that you've fought before randomly gain one-hit kill abilities, and there's no way of knowing until it gets you. There's one recurring gameplay sequence when Ruvik randomly spawns and stalks you through the levels, and if you let him catch up to you, you die instantly; one time I was running away from him and he teleported right on top of me, before I could even react -- I saw the game over screen fade in before I even got a chance to see him. Most bosses have at least one or two one-hit kills, and most levels have traps lying around that kill you in one hit. Sometimes it feels like the game just decides to screw you over for the sake of stroking its own ego, and there's not usually a lot you can do about it.

As the game goes on, these minor annoyances start to build up, and eventually it got to feel more frustrating than scary, or difficult, or fun. Around halfway through the game you get stuck with an incompetent ally for a few levels whom you can't order around, so you're stuck babysitting them while they insist on standing in a spot where arrows are constantly raining down, or falling off ledges. Towards the end of the game it starts introducing enemies with full suits of bullet-proof body armor and ballistic helmets, armed with assault rifles, and they're just the most tedious, obnoxious enemies to deal with if you don't have the right upgrades. Then the final chapter is a bunch of long, boring, empty hallways that lead to a series of boss chambers where you fight bosses you've already fought before, followed by a highly scripted final boss sequence where you don't get to use any of your weapons or abilities that you spent the entire game developing and earning with green gel.

So while I like the general premise and all the basic components of The Evil Within, I find its execution a little too rough around the edges. I really wanted to like this game, but as I got further and further into it, I just found myself annoyed and increasingly disinterested. In the grand scheme of things, I'd much rather play a survival-horror game like The Evil Within -- flawed but interesting, with actual survival tension -- over a haunted house jump-scare simulator like Outlast, which I think is part of the reason I felt disappointed with The Evil Within, because I had hoped it could be so much more, and it never quite delivered on all of its promises.

1 comment:

  1. Man, you really hit the nail on the head.

    I'm surprised that you didn't mention all of the sequences that were direct parallels of ones in Resident Evil 4. Everything about The Evil Within sort of fell in the shadow of RE4 for me, though, so I couldn't help but constantly make comparisons between the two, and ultimately found myself pining to play RE4 instead. At least there you have a decent melee option to help conserve ammo, and there's some sort of a satisfying impact to the gunplay.

    I don't feel like making the protagonist awkward, weak, or difficult to control is a valid way to make the player feel tense or to emphasize the "survival" aspect. Classic RE games had awkward controls, but there was still a precision to them, and you never felt as though your own death was outside your control. I mean, frankly, taking control away from the player is sort of the antithesis of video games, whether it's through poor, imprecise controls, trial and error gameplay, or excessive reliance on RNG.

    I'd really like to see a game go the extra mile and put you against enemies who are so brutally difficult to fight that it's simply wiser to avoid them; not by making them invincible or giving them one-hit kills, or by taking power away from the player character, but by simply making them smart, tough, or relentless. Sort of like the Nemesis in RE3; yeah, sure, you can fight him, but you're going to waste absolutely everything you've been saving, and in the end, he's just gonna get back up and start coming after you. I've been hoping for ages to see someone do something like that in a game with proper mechanics, but I guess it's just not meant to be; developers nowadays are all too enamoured with the YouTube crowd and creating Slender clones where you collect meaningless baubles while avoiding an unkillable enemy that one-hit kills you.