After all the hype, promise and backlash, does The Evil Within match up to the legendary Resident Evil 4, or does it fall flat, one hit killed by its own ambition?
Shinji Mikami is one of the few video game directors you should have heard of. He is the mind behind every Resident Evil game until Resident Evil 5, as well as one of the key figures in the creation of Devil May Cry. Though his gameography is impressive, the only real thing you need to know about him is that he was the man responsible for Resident Evil 4, one of the most influential third person shooters ever made. His latest game, The Evil Within, attempts to follow in the same vein. Derivative, out-of-date, clunky, these are terms some fans have used to describe The Evil Within. Others levy far more praise than complaints. One thing is for certain though, The Evil Within has not received the type of universal acclaim that Resident Evil 4 did. But does that mean it isn’t a worthy successor to the Gamecube (then everything else under the sun) giant?
Before we begin, my background in the subject matter might be important since survival horror fans tend to be a rather elite-minded bunch. I don’t get scared by video game scenarios, graphics, gore, jumps, etc. The only thing in a video game that scares me is that tense struggle for your life, knowing that every enemy could be your executioner. The reason for this is that I’m utterly jaded to such horror as I enumerated. I’ve been playing horror games since the original Resident Evil and have been enjoying the genre all the way through Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Parasite Eve, Outlast, Slender, Amnesia, etc. I also am a large fan of action games with horror elements, such as Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space.
But of all horror sub genres, I have the biggest weakness in my heart for survival horror. This is because it is the only thing that really twigs at that sense of fear I still get from video games. There is literally nothing better, in my view, than having to make every shot count, than every enemy being a colossal threat, and never quite being able to set yourself at ease. Accordingly, I feel like I’m competent to judge what was thrust forward as a return to pure survival horror from Shinji Mikami.
Let’s talk about what it takes to be successor, first off. I am of the opinion that a game doesn’t necessarily have to be better to be a worthy successor. However, there must be quality in the game. In my opinion, Resident Evil 5 was not a worthy successor to Resident Evil 4 because it was bankrupt of good ideas and everything it brought to the table sabotaged what made Resident Evil 4 so good. However, Dead Space 2 managed to be a worthy successor to the original Dead Space without being necessarily better. There was a focus on action over horror, but the game was able to take the Dead Space formula and make it something unique if not parallel in quality. Similarly, Bioshock is a worthy successor to System Shock, though not necessarily better. And Blazblue is a worthy successor to Guilty Gear. So, all of that’s to say that The Evil Within doesn’t need to be a better game than Resident Evil 4 to be its successor. What it does need to be, however, is a high quality game either taking the ideas of Resident Evil 4 to a new level, or spinning them in a bold new direction.
What is Resident Evil 4? Other than a masterpiece that is. Resident Evil 4, at its heart, is an action game with horror elements. Though it came from a long lineage of survival horror games, including the game that coined the term, it has very little in common with earlier Resident Evils. It focuses on empowering action and raucous one-liners rather than trying to scare you. That’s not to say Resident Evil 4 wasn’t horrific. The creature design, a few jumpscares, and the overall tone of the game would fit into a horror game without problem. However, the game was built in such a way that those elements were simply accentuation pieces to the larger action game. It worked in so many ways, but creating scares wasn’t one of them, infamous ‘ovenman’ and regenerators aside.
So the real question here is whether The Evil Within evolves the formula of Resident Evil 4 or takes it in a different, exciting direction. In my opinion, the best argument for The Evil Within being a worthy successor lies in arguing it takes the Resident Evil 4 formula in an interesting new direction. The way I see it, The Evil Within asks a very simple question – what if Resident Evil 4 was a horror game with action elements instead of being an action game with horror elements? That is how the game chose to position itself. Shinji Mikami’s influence is felt strongly, which invites a definite comparison between the two games, however, there is a clear difference in focus this time around.
Of course this relies on the assumption that The Evil Within is a survival horror game. This genre, of all genres, I think, is perpetually the most contested. To some, Dead Space is survival horror. To others, myself included, action set pieces and efficient combat are too focused on to make it true survival horror. In my opinion, Shinji Mikami has pressed his hand in every dark corner to make it as much of a survival horror game as possible, and he succeeded mostly. The Evil Within pairs some really great ideas that, once again in my opinion, goes a long way in paving the way for future survival horror games.
One thing, in particular, I loved was the limited ammunition capacity. This was a brilliant decision. It means that no matter how good you’ve been, or how much of a hoarder you are, you will always have low ammunition for tense encounters. You can upgrade your capacity, but you must do this at the expense of other upgrades, as green goo (your primary resource) is in short supply.
Every enemy in the game can and will kill you. I won’t lie, there are cheap deaths in this game, and they exist for a reason. I understand frustration over trial and error segments, but they were put there intentionally in order to keep players certain that death could be around every corner. In my opinion this works effectively, though mileage may vary from person to person. Games like Dark Souls provide lots of death, but very rarely are the deaths cheap. If you die, it’s your fault. This is an action focus, which puts control of the situation on the player. The Evil Within specifically sets out situations that are out of your control. Moving to enemies, even regular enemies can tear you to pieces on normal difficulty. Many bosses and special enemies can one hit kill you. And this is the way it should be. A powerful enemy with a chainsaw is not an enemy that you should be able to tank with your health and health-restoring items. One hit kills may frustrate, but they set up a serious tension where you cannot simply blast through. Danger is important, and death paired with infrequent checkpoints gives real consequences. If I had it my way, there would be no checkpoints at all outside of the save points.
Then there’s your armoury. This is a part of the game I go back and forth on. Unlike Resident Evil 4’s rather massive amount of guns, The Evil Within keeps you with the basics. However, these weapons definitely empower you in the same style of Resident Evil 4. Unlike games like Silent Hill where bullets do little against the respawning hordes, the enemies in The Evil Within will get stopped by your weapons, and it will feel good when you blow off a zombie’s head with your revolver. The crossbow is the standout weapon of the game. There are a vast collection of bolts available for crafting.
Explosion bolts can be set like proximity mines, harpoon bolts pierce through enemies, freeze bolts let you reenact the end of Terminator 2, flash bolts set up stealth kills, etc. The problem with the weaponry in The Evil Within is that it is very powerful and fun to use. This is the opposite of the survival horror mentality where you should not be encouraged to kill enemies, either through reward or fun. Enemies are something to be killed as the absolute last resort, rather than something fun to dispatch.
Another problem with The Evil Within being pure survival horror is some of the technical issues. No, I’m not talking about 30 frames per second, or graphics – these don’t matter in the slightest – I’m talking about the not-so-functional stealth system. The Evil Within suffers from being released after The Last of Us. In that game, throwing a brick could actually send enemies running, letting you sneak by or stealth kill enemies. In The Evil Within, I never got a bottle to work in that way. Enemies either didn’t respond at all, or they just zeroed in on me. It simply doesn’t work and it is unfortunate that a very popular game had a very similar, but far more successful system because this makes it stand out more.
As to whether the game is scary or not, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not in the best place to judge this. I don’t get scared by video games in that way. This is why I’m focusing so much on gameplay tension. In my opinion, this is where the true horror is found and it’s what survival horror is built on. That being said, it is clear that Mikami is trying his hardest to provide disturbing situations and scary environments. Most are reused or repurposed from other games or movies, but the game is clearly built to scare.
Unfortunately, the third person perspective sabotages this somewhat, as it did in Resident Evil 4. You can’t guarantee the same immersion as you can in first person games like Slender or the wonderful P.T. All that said, this kind of horror is utterly subjective. Someone with little horror experience might find this game bone chilling. I do not, and I’m guessing many horror veterans do not. However, horror veterans rarely feel fear at such things.
Resident Evil 4 was a revolutionary game, whose influence can still be felt in every third person shooter. The Evil Within will not change anything, I think. However, I find it hard to penalize a game for not being revolutionary considering how few games can claim that feat. As I mentioned earlier, The Evil Within asks us to envision Resident Evil 4 as a horror game. I’ve read the detractions levied against the game extensively. However, in my opinion as a horror fan, The Evil Within succeeds in so may ways. I do not hesitate at all to say that The Evil Within is a true successor to Resident Evil 4, more than Resident Evil 5, 6, or any of the Dead Space games. It is survival horror in a way that very few games have been. I’ve played through Resident Evil 4 over 16 times (stopped counting there). I doubt I’ll play through The Evil Within even close to this amount, but I’m certainly looking forward for my next cycle, and the one after that, and the one after that. It’s perhaps the most fun I’ve had on a current generation platform, and that is something special.