Scared Hitless: The Evil Within – A Mental Exercise

I know, I know. This is a bit of a weird entry for me to write on a Monday night. First off, it isn’t the typical Monday night post, but that’s unavoidable until after February 8th (oh, Walking Dead, I miss making fun of your lapses in anything approaching solid thought). Secondly, Scared Hitless is usually reserved for Wednesday writing, but timing, coupled with never really knowing when Nugget will actually sleep, could make that tricky. And finally, if you’ve been a consistent follower of the SH posts, then you’ll recognize the subject matter as being the exact same subject matter I covered last time. That said, what was written a couple of weeks ago was merely the first impressions of someone who was reaching the midpoint of the game. I can now actually take the time to write about it in its entirety. With that said, let’s get ready to go back inside, where we find…

THE EVIL WITHIN

Via theevilwithin.com

Via theevilwithin.com

The Evil Within is an odd game, in that it feels like it’s establishing something relatively new in the realm of survival horror, while clearly rehashing ground that has been covered before. The game takes plenty of influences from previous entries in the genre, with notable nods to Resident Evil, Outlast, and Silent Hill. It’s fair to say that, without their legacy, The Evil Within might never have seen the light of day. It certainly would have had a bit tougher road ahead of itself.

When assembling a game clearly taking nods from what came before, can it be done well? After all, the idea of Frankenstein-ing parts together to make a new whole isn’t new to any genre, and is a well-worn path for horror specifically. Resident Evil pretty much locked down the action aspect of the survival horror genre, and, for many entries in the series, did so incredibly well. Silent Hill took the action down a few pegs (for most of their games), but decided to up the psychological aspects. And Outlast, or at least what little I’ve been able to get through, definitely drives home the concept of survival; hide or be killed. The Evil Within makes an attempt to take those three aspects and blend them together into a new whole, but is it one that works throughout? Maybe more importantly, especially in such a dollar-and-cents business, is the attempt one that will bring audiences back for future installments? To answer those questions, you really have to look at the different parts that make up The Evil Within, breaking them down before re-assembling everything to come to the conclusion.

The Protagonist

Throughout the game, you are playing as Sebastian Castellanos, a detective for the Krimson City police force. Seb starts out investigating a mass murder that took place at Beacon Mental Hospital before things start to go terribly, horribly wrong. Sebastian is the clear veteran, trying to be the somewhat calming influence on his partners Joseph and Juli, but the mechanics of the world gone mad consistently leave him left to his own devices. As a blank slate for the player to inhabit, Seb works. Seb is specifically drawn to be an emotionless persona, and, while often dumbfounded by the world around him, he remains a fairly calm island in the midst of all of the turbulent events around him. In many ways, Seb is almost written to be a caricature of the standard veteran cop trope that tends to pop up in horror properties.

Over the course of the game, however, you proceed to learn that there are reasons behind Sebastian’s cool demeanor, and reading all of his personal documents not only gives you some insight into why he’s been so intent on pursuing the villain, but also why he has created an impersonal shell around himself. Because of his life story, Seb almost needs to shut down everything except his logical side just to make it through, which actually makes him somewhat of a perfect counterpoint to the craziness going on around him. That doesn’t mean that Seb is the most engaging or appealing of characters. This stands out the most during regular game play, where repeated lines about the state of the world come across as a detective who hasn’t really been able to piece together the clues. However, Seb being a relatively blank slate is, if anything, more of an annoyance than an actual slight. Flesh him out too much, and the player may not feel any real connection, especially in this incredibly claustrophobic world. Not every hero can be Ash from The Evil Dead, and not every hero should try to be, either.

The Supporting Cast

While Seb is a fairly blank slate, a lot of the rest of the cast is painted in broad strokes, with a lot of the details being left out. For example, Seb’s partner, Joseph Oda, is someone who we, as Seb, are supposed to care about, but we really only know that he is pretty much Seb’s opposite, and that he wears glasses. Dr. Jimenez starts out as a concerned doctor, but his machinations regarding his patients are quickly laid out, and he slips to being a fairly standard man trying to improve his own standing through questionable means. Leslie is the patient of Dr. Jimenez, and seems to have some sort of connection to what’s happening in the world, but isn’t really developed as much more than an asylum patient with a crippling inability to communicate clearly, and an almost preternatural ability to sense wrongs before they happen. Juli Kidman is incredibly new on the police force, doesn’t seem as affected by what’s happening around them, and clearly has a larger role to play, but none of her motivations are really put on display. That said, future DLC is reported to be Kidman’s story, so perhaps her character won’t seem so empty down the line.

That leaves the enemy, Ruvik. He is the only other character that gets any real sense of development, although, much like Sebastian, the person he is at the start of the game is not terribly different than the person he is at the end of it. Instead, Ruvik’s character is shown both through a few glimpses into actual events of his past, and through written details, explaining pieces along the way. Ruvik starts out as an unrepentant monster, killing indiscriminately, but at least The Evil Within attempts to show how he ended up where he did. Starting out from somewhat humble beginnings, the man who would become Ruvik is shown growing, both in his mental gifts, and in his disconnection from the world due to the traumas he experienced. He is clearly a foil for Sebastian, as both have similar tragedies marring their pasts, but each chose a different path to follow afterwards. By really only detailing the pasts of Sebastian and Ruvik to any real degree, the two become intimately linked. That link drives the player to want to find out more.

The Monsters

The subject of the enemies is one place where The Evil Within seemed to crib most thoroughly from Silent Hill. However, where the Silent Hill monsters generally stem from the sins committed by the main characters over time, left to populate their shadowy world, the monsters from The Evil Within are all clearly spawned from one person and one person only: Ruvik. Instead of being personal issues that must be overcome, they become extensions of the villain’s psyche, and can be somewhat directed to act as roadblocks for the hero. The most common are twisted versions of real people, and these will run the gamut from the average shambling zombie-esque creature to smart assailants, armed with firearms and wearing metal harlequin masks. Peppered throughout are larger creatures, clearly coming from aspects of Ruvik’s own personality, the special shout-outs to The Sadist and The Keeper. All of the monsters have a sort of intelligence, and, if not careful, they will pin Sebastian into a corner that he won’t escape from. Also, the character design of the heroes is somewhat flawed, but the design of the monsters is incredible. Each monster requires its own strategies to get past, and part of the challenge is determining which enemies need to be destroyed and which ones can simply be run from. It isn’t always the easy choice, or even the most logical one, that prevails, and the creatures are able to make players pay for their errors.

The Atmosphere

As I stated in my “First Thoughts” for this game, The Evil Within is delightfully creepy. The dark lighting, coupled with narrow spaces to maneuver makes the game feel more claustrophobic than it is. The sounds heard down the hall could be enemies ready to pounce all over you, or they could be trapped behind bars, unable to do anything more than sound incredibly unnerving. Setting the camera just behind Seb’s shoulder gives the player the ability to see almost exactly what he is seeing in each passageway, with the added benefit of giving a split second of warning if you’re about to be ambushed from behind. Even once the game reaches the midpoint and things start to stray from straight-up creepy into truly weird, the atmosphere remains tense, and there are no real easy answers.

However, that lack of ease coupled with the ramping up of tension can also be a bit of a downfall. The pacing of the game is generally solid throughout. Well-placed chapter breaks provide an easy opportunity to step away and clear the head for a bit, and the upgrade system can also provide a breather. That said, there are times where the game could benefit from easing up on the frustration factor. At least twice, there were (mostly) unavoidable conflicts that had to be gotten past so that I could progress the story further. These conflicts were met with death after death, which meant having to do it all over again. A certain frustration level starts to seep in when you’re about to fight the same fight for the 5th time (or more), and that, coupled with repeated aspects caused by the deaths, actually took some of the power of the story away, and served to remind me that I was definitely playing a game. Thankfully, those moments weren’t too frequent, but they definitely lessened the horror factor when they did happen. After all, there’s a difference between prescience and simply redoing something. One can be terrifying. The other, not so much.

The Take-Away

Even with the complaints about The Evil Within (bland characters, unnecessary frustration at points, the story goes WAY off the rails), it was still an enjoyable game. Yes, the end of the game had moments that seemingly came out of nowhere (seriously, rocket launcher?!?!), but they almost served as exhalation points for the developers as well as a chance for the players to take out some of their tension in a more familiar, video-gamey way. Of course the game ended with a sequel hook, but a really good story will try to get you to crave more. Thankfully, for The Evil Within, horror doesn’t always need a really good story to get audiences to want to be scared again. All it needs is something to keep people on the edge of their chairs, concerned about what could be behind them. In that capacity, The Evil Within delivers a strong entry into the survival horror field, and one that will hopefully see a continuation in the future.

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