Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Evil Within (+ DLC)

When The Evil Within first released in 2014, it drew some attention as the first survival horror game that Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil, had directed since Resident Evil 4 from all the way back in 2005. Although it received a mixed reception from critics upon release and had relatively low sales numbers, the game still gained a cult following that it maintains to this day. With little knowledge of the game apart from its existence, I picked up both The Evil Within games on a whim, though I wouldn't get around to them until the COVID-19 pandemic gave me a lot more free time. Once I finished the original and all of its DLC, I was glad that I played it and I have a better understanding of why it has a cult following. However, it wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable survival horror experience I’ve had, especially since I felt the best content was locked behind a paywall.

Krimson City police detective Sebastian Castellanos and his partners, Joseph Oda and Juli Kidman, have started investigating a mass homicide in Beacon Mental Hospital. However, they don’t make it very far into the building before they’re thrust into an unreal world. Sebastian is just as quickly separated from his partners and barely escapes the hospital while limping away from a man with a chainsaw. Once he reunites with his partners outside, however, an earthquake-like event divides the city, eventually causing the ambulance they’re in to crash. When Sebastian awakes, he finds himself on the outskirts of a vaguely European village. With no other choice, Sebastian continues forward, hoping to find his colleagues once more and figure out what’s going on.

Sebastian finds himself in an unreal world.

Though The Evil Within tries to draw the player in with an intriguing mystery, which centers on the unknown machinations of a man named Ruvik, it’s clear that writing simply isn’t the game’s strong suit. It takes a while for the plot to pick up, as the game spends at least the first third setting up the core cast and familiarizing the player with the setting and psychological elements. Past that, however, it’s not really too clear what’s going on. I did get some idea of the true nature of the nightmarish realm Sebastian and his partners experienced, but some aspects still felt open to interpretation. There are some documents that explain some backstory, but they don’t help too much with explaining Ruvik’s plan and instead flesh out the world while expositing Sebastian’s backstory. In other words, The Evil Within has interesting ideas, but the story itself is convoluted and poorly told.

Much like the story, however, the actual gameplay is a bit rough, though the core ideas aren’t that bad. The Evil Within is a survival horror influenced by Mikami’s prior work on Resident Evil 4, meaning that ammo and health items are scarce. This approach encourages players to conserve their ammo by either using the right gun in the right situation, performing stealth kills by sneaking up on enemies (aka Haunted) or even running away if possible. Resource conservation also applies to matches, which Sebastian can use to burn corpses, preventing downed Haunted from reviving later, or other flammable materials.

Burning Haunted permanently defeats them.

Sebastian can heal himself with Syringes and Med Kits, but both have an animation that leaves him vulnerable to attack. The very scarce Med Kit, which heals him completely, also temporarily disables movement and distorts his vision, so it’s best to use them in a safe space. During one section where Sebastian is completely wide open to attacks on a slow-moving lift, however, I discovered that if he uses the Med Kit and then takes damage, he’ll still retain the health recovery and the damage will cancel the rest of the lengthy animation. Additionally, ammo becomes more plentiful in later chapters, as do the number of Haunted.

During the early game, I also felt a hint of the Souls series within the game design. When not alerted by Sebastian’s footsteps or lantern light, enemies already within the environment follow their own patrol routes and can deal a lot of damage to an underpowered Sebastian. There were also a few optional encounters and multiple routes Sebastian could take within smaller areas and reach the same end goal.

While environments are fairly linear, there are hidden areas that can yield additional items or weapons for Sebastian. For example, disarming traps and bombs, the latter through a minigame, grants trap parts that Sebastian can craft into various ammo types for the Agony Crossbow. Hidden Goddess Statues also drop keys when shot and Sebastian can find map fragments every so often that complete a tiled map, which then awards the player with more powerful weapons during subsequent playthroughs. This sense of design disappeared as later chapters got progressively linear, but the idea of enemies with set routines in a continuously active world felt interesting and I wondered what a total fusion of Resident Evil 4 and Dark Souls, as I initially assumed the rest of the game would follow, would look like.

When Sebastian needs a reprieve, however, he can find an occasional Safe Haven, which the player can locate with a special symbol and a special calming tune. Once inside, the player can save their game, open morgue lockers with keys obtained from Goddess Statues or upgrade Sebastian’s various attributes with Green Gel obtained from either the environment or downed enemies. Morgue lockers contain ammo, additional Green Gel and Syringes (plus two additional keys), though the contents of the 48 lockers seem randomized for each playthrough. I did find, however, that if you feel dissatisfied with your option in the moment, you can reload your save and open a different locker. It’s also possible to find unique documents and witness unique story moments within the Safe Haven.

Sebastian can upgrade various attributes with Green Gel.

Though I didn’t play the game more than once, successful completion also unlocks a New Game+ feature, which gives Sebastian all of his ammo, abilities and Green Gel form the previous playthrough. Considering how high the Green Gel costs can go in the Safe Haven, this option is more than welcome.

Unfortunately, the good and interesting ideas are held back by some equally jankier ideas. One of the bigger ones for me lies in the trial and error gameplay. While to some extent it does make you think a bit more about your surroundings, efficiency relies on you having prior knowledge and on at least the first pass, you’ll have to die first or waste ammo and then reload a checkpoint. One specific moment for me involved a room with a trap and a door crank. As I turned the crank, a swarm of AlterEgos flooded into the room from another door. In a panic, I wasted a lot of shotgun ammo before I realized I could lure them into the trap for a more efficient kill, so I reloaded my last save, which thankfully only set me back a couple minutes, and did just that. In other situations, however, sparse checkpoint placement can mean potentially repeating the last several minutes, which quickly gets frustrating if it happens more than once.

Due to the emphasis on resource conservation, I noticed that some areas would be more or less impossible if you ran out of ammo or matches. If you run out of matches, then one particular boss fight gets much harder to complete and running out of ammo makes one specific area where you have to shoot gears impossible. Though the latter is hard to achieve, it’s still possible if you’re not the careful type. Should you run out of ammo during combat, running away is a legitimate strategy, but this isn’t always possible and it’s hard to fall back on melee, as it does little damage and is designed around putting distance between you and the Haunted. Of course, it doesn’t help that punching and stomping are tied to the same context-sensitive button (and for some reason explosive barrels are hard to kick properly).

Then there are the bosses. Some of them have unique mechanics that ramp up the tension, but often walk the fine line between “tough but fair” and “tough but infuriating”. Casual difficulty, the level I played at, does make the fights less cripplingly hard, but one recurring boss, Laura, never failed at inducing rage. Every encounter takes place in a cramped environment and you often have to run away from her to stay alive and try exploiting her weakness to fire. That’s not impossible to deal with, but her fast movement and long reach, not to mention her tendency of spamming her one-hit kill attack (a feature of all bosses for some reason), make her a pain to deal with and a drain on my will to keep playing. It doesn’t help that the final encounter also requires a good amount of precision to aim at small valves and you often have agonizingly long waits for pipes to stop spewing fire so that Sebastian can pass, forcing the player into a terrifying game of tag during the wait.

Unique bosses like the Keeper are memorable for one reason or another.

Chapter 9 sees Sebastian entering a mansion that wouldn’t feel out of place in the original Resident Evil. Though this Chapter doesn’t have a proper boss fight, Ruvik can still periodically show up and chase you down (though he’ll only do this about three times and then never again). His appearances are telegraphed and when he does show up, your options are to either run or hide in strategically placed spots. However, this task is easier said than done. Hiding proved easy the first time, since I hid under a table immediately, but when I hid in a closet the second time, he still found and killed me despite how fast I hid. In another instance, I ran away from him, but he teleported directly in front of me and killed me mid-run. This forced me into a strategy of incremental saves to avoid losing several minutes of progress to RNG until I finally hid from him the second time, then successfully outran the third (but not before he killed me while trying to hide). Yes, Chapter 9 is the tensest in the game, but Ruvik’s AI alone made me hate every moment.

After surviving a number of bosses with their own strategies and share of one-hit kill tactics, I reached the final boss and prepared myself for possibly the most difficult fight in the game. However, this fight actually proved the easiest, with a lot of scripted sections that let you utterly whale on it. On the one hand, this felt like a letdown considering the buildup. On the other, considering how difficult the rest of the game was, I also found this mercifully easy and felt relieved that the game finally ended.

I also ran into my own fair share of glitches in spite of the number of patches the game received. Early on, I ran into Laura for the first time and learned that I had to run away from her until I reached a white door in the hallway. Once I did, I waited for her to trigger the flag to open the door so I could continue running. When she did, however, I had suddenly teleported behind her, meaning I had to run around her and pray that she wouldn’t grab me (thankfully, she didn’t). Later on, the game also crashed on me while it was booting up, just after the corporate logos but before the wall of legal text, though thankfully this only happened once.

The Evil Within has a decent art style and graphics for 2014, as well as some interesting monster designs, though the game likes liberally using explicit gore. The gore fits the atmosphere and goes beyond shock value, but this experience certainly isn’t for those who are squeamish. That said, it’s undercut a little by odd ragdoll physics, increasingly obvious texture loading and pop-ins during cutscenes and the occasional clipping. Notably, you could originally only play with a letterboxed view, which I immediately found distracting more than cinematic. Thankfully, a patch lets you toggle this off in favor of a user-friendly full screen view, though the HUD doesn’t shift to compensate.

I also generally liked the score, even if I only remember the calming Safe Haven theme. Though I found the voice acting decent, none of it really stood out to me save for the surprise inclusion of Jackie Earle Haley, of Watchmen and Breaking Away fame, as Ruvik, the main antagonist.

The Assignment, released five months after The Evil Within, acts as the first of a two-part story that follows Juli Kidman before and during the events of the main game. Here, she is assigned by the mysterious organization Mobius to retrieving Leslie Withers from the STEM system.

Where the main game’s story felt ambitious but too ambiguous for its own good, The Assignment actually goes out of its way to explain more of the lore and clear up some of the player’s burning questions. Though the developers still hid some of the story in collectable documents, viewing certain events from Kidman’s perspective gives those same scenes new meaning and actually helps make the main scenario more comprehensible. Naturally, this portion of the story ends with a teaser for the follow-up DLC, The Consequence, so Kidman’s story doesn’t quite end here, but it still had a great cliffhanger.

This DLC also introduces its own innovations to the core gameplay, mainly relieving Kidman of any weapons. Instead, she must sneak around and crawl through air ducts or duck behind cover and distract enemies with bottles or phone calls to get from Point A to Point B without taking damage. If she does take damage, which she inevitably will, standing still or crouching behind cover will gradually refill her health all the way. Kidman has no lack of items, however, as she carries a special flashlight that can reveal hidden objects and doorways when illuminating a Mobius logo. Some puzzles also require the flashlight, including shadow puzzles and a series of safe puzzles where the solutions are hidden within the immediate environment.

During her assignment, Kidman must also face new Haunted enemies. One new variant will light up with different colors from white to yellow to red, indicating their awareness of Kidman’s presence. Another blind enemy type crawls around on the floor and will approach Kidman if they sense her movements, anything above a crouch walk, with explosive results. However, their immunity to a flashlight makes navigating some of the tighter spots around them easier. Continuing the light theme, Kidman must also occasionally avoid a walking spotlight boss that can shine a red light on her, slowing her down long enough to close the gap and eat her.

When Kidman needs a respite from dodging Haunted, she can rest at a conveniently placed couch and play with a black cat. This also lets the player save their game and enjoy a breather for as long as they wish.

Though this DLC does feel like a general improvement over the base game, including a more consistent difficulty curve and another glimpse of the Souls flavor in the back half, I also found one section particularly annoying. In this area, there are two invisible enemies, the only two in the entire DLC, and you have to sneak kill them. The first goes down pretty easily, but the second required specific timing that I only figured out after fumbling around too long and looking up a guide.

The Consequence, released one month after The Assignment, continues exactly where the previous DLC left off, with Kidman still searching for Leslie Withers and confronting her strained loyalty to Mobius. This DLC not only finishes Kidman’s arc in a satisfying way, it also finally sheds light on enough of the lingering mysteries from the main game that it now feels more comprehensible. Personally, I don’t like that actually understanding the story required an additional $10 on top of however much I paid for the original game, but at least now I finally understand what The Evil Within attempted with its story.

Gameplay is nearly identical to The Assignment, but with a couple new twists. For one section, Kidman loses access to her flashlight and must throw glowsticks to light up the environment. Kidman can throw an infinite number of glowsticks, but only the last three will remain active, which forces the player to really consider what they need illuminated and when. There are also sections where Kidman actually has a gun, which feels rather cathartic after spending so much time hiding and sneaking around. One smaller feature lets players import all of their Archive collectables from The Assignment into The Consequence and view everything at once.

Considering how serious the game takes the main story, two particularly silly moments caught me off-guard. In one section, you can find a hidden rave sequence that shows the spotlight monster partying around with several Haunted. Near the end of the game, you can shoot something plot-critical and trigger an entire joke ending, which Kidman herself acknowledges when it ends. I don’t know if the change in director made this possible, but I appreciate their willingness to include such scenes.

One month after The Consequence, The Evil Within received its final piece of DLC, The Executioner. In a departure from the main game and the previous DLC, you play as a man who dove into the STEM system to save his daughter before her memories fade away. You also play the role of the Keeper, one of the main bosses of the main game, as you fight your way through the Haunted within the Victoriano Estate and kill other characters trapped in the system. Though this story is largely non-canon, it does confirm certain details, including Ruvik’s final fate. Locating diary entries with the aid of a sonar also fills in details about the protagonist’s daughter and her journey through the STEM system.

Playing as the Keeper also eschews the traditional third-person gameplay of The Evil Within in favor of first-person melee combat with the Keeper’s hammer and other weapons. When Haunted take enough damage, you can extend into a throw or perform an execution move, which briefly switches the camera back to third-person. The Keeper can also sprint infinitely and pick up and throw chairs, plus, as in his original boss fight, he can bypass obstacles by killing himself and respawning from a nearby safe on the ground. As with Sebastian, saving progress occurs at a mirror and the Keeper can upgrade his weapons and abilities with Memory Tokens, which replace Green Gel. There’s even a dedicated room for killing Haunted and grinding Memory Tokens.

Wielding the Keeper’s moveset actually feels refreshing and a bit cathartic, and I appreciate the pacing of fighting one boss at a time, but there are limitations. The Keeper can’t pick up any collectables while holding a chair, so you can’t carry a chair for no reason. After an Execution move, the camera doesn’t necessarily stay where it pointed during the animation, which meant I had to reorient myself at least once while still taking damage from another Haunted that ran up behind me. The biggest flaw, however, lies in any lack of resource recovery. If you die against a boss, you lose all of your ammunition and must rebuy it. Health Kits also don’t respawn when retrying boss fights, which ends up discouraging their use, as the alternative is more grinding for Memory Tokens and killing bosses as fast as possible. Challenging, yes, but also frustrating if you’re underpowered or can’t handle the difficulty fighting a powerful boss and the Haunted that inevitably flood the room. As such, this DLC seems suited more for those who wanted an extra challenge compared to the main game.

If you’re looking for a survival horror that will also test your skill and patience, and are maybe also a fan of Resident Evil 4, then The Evil Within will certainly fill that void. However, the janky mechanics can hold back the stronger mechanics from truly shining through and the trial and error gameplay, not to mention the vague and borderline incomprehensible plot, won’t suit everyone’s tastes. The DLC does help the experience, and in some ways improves on it, but spending an additional $10 for clarity remains a hard sell. While I can appreciate The Evil Within’s unique design and how it shakes up the survival horror formula, I’d suggest getting it on sale, if only so buying the DLC feels more palatable.

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