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The Evil Within: Mikami’s “Revival” of Survival Horror

Over the past few months, I’ve done a grand tour of the horror genre. Whether that’s seeking out Silent Hill 2 at my favorite game store or watching Markiplier plod through indie games, I’ve come to understand what makes horror games great and what can bring them down. All of these thoughts, themes, tropes, and expectations are what I’ve taken in with me as I braved the world of Evil Within, Shinji Mikami’s latest gift to the world of survival horror. I’m not sure if I’d put this game on a pedestal just yet, as I’ve yet to beat it and lack the ability to look back at what I’ve played, but I can comment on what I’ve seen so far and compare it to the games of the past.

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Ever since I played through the original Resident Evil, I’ve noticed a lot of horror games lock doors to direct the player. Sometimes it is as simple as finding the key for the right hole. Other times there isn’t a way in period. Another trope used is having players witness something, usually a cutscene, to be able to move on at all. While this may work in a linear design and can make the player feel trapped, I find it to be irritating when overused. It devolves powerful moments and environments into a glorified hunt and peck. Silent Hill 2, a game many believe to be at the pinnacle of the genre, is built upon this conundrum, and for me it really hurt the overall experience.

In The Evil Within, thankfully, there are very few locked doors. Instead players can seek out keys found in tiny, white statues. These keys then unlock one of the several lockers in the save room. The lockers contain minor rewards such as ammo or healing items. What’s great is these items fade away only when they have all been picked up. I sighed a bit when I found twenty handgun bullets and could only bring about ten, even with my pistol fully loaded. Luckily, when I returned there were still ten bullets to be had.

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I think the horror genre’s greatest strength, especially in gaming, is the atmosphere it can build. Probably one of the best examples of atmosphere is Super Metroid. In that classic SNES game, the player gets to feel the emptiness of the alien planet, making it more powerful when it comes to life. Our game in question, The Evil Within, does a great job of setting the stage. Each area has a gritty tone that feels wrong, with occasional surprises and secrets. There’s also quite a bit of variety from vast mansions to sprawling mountainside cathedrals. Adding to each area is the dynamic lighting system that’s powerful most of the time, but occasionally has some hiccups. Finally, the game often will bend perception, making the player question whether an area is real or distorted or flipping the world upside down. In fact many of the scenes lead me to believe that Mikami is a fan of Lewis Carroll.

Aside from the environment, another major aspect of the horror genre is the opposition. What sort of monsters or challenges will the player face? This is probably Evil Within’s best asset. The creatures in this game ooze (often literally) with detail and deeper symbolism. Each of the aberrations feels unique and have many ways of making Sebastian hurt. The scariest of these monsters are what I would like to call boss monsters, even though they don’t really feel like traditional bosses as everything in the game is deadly. Engaging these beasts drive a lot of tension into key moments, making a few really memorable.

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Sometimes these encounters are not meant to end in a single, surviving victor, but sometimes its better (and required) to run. For example,  in the prologue, Sebastian must escape a slaughterhouse that’s kept by a large butcher. With no weapons, the player must rely on sneaking  and hiding to evade death. Later on, a new menace crawls out of pools of blood. Laura, as she’s been named, is a shrieking terror of a woman with way to many arms. At first she must be fled from, but eventually the player learns that she’s afraid of fire. Luckily, fire is Sebastian’s main way of taking out an enemy for good with match flicks that Jensen Ackles would be proud of. This moment of realizing a weakness turns into a showdown with the beast. Needless to say, once I reached this moment I quickly found every way in the level to turn up the heat, bringing some much needed redemption between Laura and me.

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Even though the game balances stealth moments with the need to take action, I found myself having a hard time determining when the game wanted me to use them. In an early level, a chainsaw-swinging lunatic burst out of his chains in a barn. I knew that to escape this village, I needed to use something to cut the chains holding the gate. Cleverly, I planned on luring the monster to the chains, where I then would dodge at the last second. Hopefully, the chainsaw would break the chains and I would get out without firing my precious rounds. This plan led to about ten deaths of trying to get the guy to swing right. When the chainsaw finally hit the chain, my smile faded as the saw phased through the object. I was taken out of the situation, reminded that this is just a game. Turns out, to cut the chain I had to kill the monster to take his saw to cut it my damn self.

This leads me to the greatest blemish of Evil Within, trial and error. As a player, I expected to die. However, I didn’t expect to throw myself at a hole, posing my body in varying angles, to try to fit like that game show that’s escaping me that also made a terrible Xbox Kinect game. Sure, there are times when dying is okay in this game. Usually though, it was a result of me over-thinking a situation and being punished for my cleverness. Imagine the scenario below.

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Sebastian walks down a path with high walls on either side. In front of him a giant busts down an iron gate, brutally decapitating the unlucky chap who set him free. Knowing that this foe could down him easily, Sebastian nimbly dodges the creature’s initial charge to further blaze down the path in hopes that there will be a way out or an alternate way to kill the thing. . .

There isn’t a secret escape. Or a trap to kill it for that matter. Nope, I was forced to kill the giant in a dire situation, one that clearly should have had the solution of running. In fact, there were tons of moments just like this one. For a game that clearly wants the player to be afraid and run away, even going as far as providing beds and closets to hide in, shooting stuff still seems to be the best and often only solution.

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Contrasting the often ignored stealth opportunities, there is another part of this game that deserves mentioning, the Save Room. Evil Within treats saving progress in a similar fashion to resident evil. Sebastian checks in with a nurse in what seems like a hospital. There’s more to this room than that though. Not only does this area provide the player with upgrades and the aforementioned lockers, it also never feels safe. I won’t spoil all the juicy bits, but let’s just say that there are tons of surrealist scenes that expand the narrative in this area. This filled me with both relief and dread when finding a mirror, the way to enter the save room.

Just thinking about the mirrors brings me to the topic of the dominant symbolism in this game and many other horror games, but that deserves its own writing entirely. I’ll save that for future musings.

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Don’t let my mixed feelings fool you; I’ve had tons of fun with Evil Within. It has some genuine memorable moments. If you’re into a dark, psychological narrative with a general sense of wrongness about it, then this is the game for you. Lots of gameplay elements remind me of my favorite horror game, Resident Evil 4, but even that isn’t enough to put it above that classic. Granted, I’ve only reached the aggravating Chapter 9 so far, so I’m ignorant of how the story wraps up or if there is any post-game content.

Either of those two things, if executed perfectly, could easily put Evil Within on my list of favorite horror games.