Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Evil Within

Post-Launch Review
The Evil Within (PC)
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Released: October 2014
Played: story complete in 13h


During a call to investigate a disturbance at Beacon Hill mental hospital, police detective Castellanos encounters a hostile, badly-burned man with incredible power. Castellanos finds himself trapped in a constantly-changing landscape full of monsters, gore, and dark memories. The detective sets out to find his missing colleagues, escape the twisted world trapping them, and stop the malevolent apparition in the white hood. 

At Launch

The Evil Within was generally well-received, earning average review scores of 75%. Reviewers praised the horror elements and atmosphere, as well as the gameplay's mix of stealth, action, and gunplay. The game lost points for technical issues such as texture pop-in and design decisions such as the forced film aspect ratio, as well as poor or recycled boss battles.

Post Launch

A handful of updates were released to fix some technical issues. The PC version received a larger patch adding options to remove the letterbox frame, raise the frame rate cap to 60FPS, and enable Steam achievements while using the developer console. 
Three DLC packs were released. The Assignment and The Consequence follow Castellanos' partner Juli Kidman, filling out her background and explaining where she was and what she experienced while away from her partner. The Executioner lets you play as the Keeper - one of the boss monsters - in a first-person melee brawler. The season pass collects all three DLC packs at a discounted rate.


I knew little about The Evil Within before I started – only that it was a relatively high-budget horror game built to feel like a movie. These days, it's not often that I go into a game with no idea what to expect, so I was excited.

Sadly, I was already feeling let down in the first few minutes of the game. I had some minor technical problems with blur (solved by using a console command to increase LOD distance), but nothing as severe as early reviewers encountered. and realized it's more shock horror and less psychological horror: in just the opening of the game, you get a supernatural monster, apocalyptic city-scale destruction, and a huge psycho chainsaw murderer. It's so overdone that I didn't feel scared even when being stalked by chainsaw guy – I couldn't shake the feeling that this is stuff I've seen before, and done better at that. Even being brutally murdered wasn't gory or gross enough to freak me out.

Then once the game dropped me out in the wilderness with mutated freak show dudes, it still felt to gamey – I was searching for vials of green gel to upgrade my inventory and health in an electric chair in a hallucinatory psych ward. The game actually calls the stuff “green gel”, in those words, with no explanation as to what it is or why it's applied via an execution method – it's just some slime that I zap myself with and I get stronger.

But even after all my eye-rolling, I got into the game and started having fun. The Evil Within looks mostly great thanks to strong lighting effects and detailed textures, and directional sound works very well for locating enemies you can't see yet. The upgrade system is often uninteresting, but each upgrade feels substantial enough that it's rewarding to progress. Creature design is mostly excellent and doesn't only rely on gore – the Keeper, aka “box head” in particular – and animation and sound play a key role in enhancing the horror of the monsters. The weirdness of the setting and what was going on drew me in, constantly hoping to find out more.

Unfortunately the weirdness went on a little too long. The Evil Within is often very disorienting, which is a good way to keep you off balance in a horror game, but when I go five hours without discovering anything meaningful about the story or the world or what's happening around me, I start to get impatient. Keeping me confused and disoriented is good in short stretches, but when that feeling never ends, it gets tiresome.

That feeling is amplified by occasionally excruciating combats. I know the genre is survival horror, but sometimes supplies felt too scarce. There were times when I was forced into a tiny room with a very tough boss that can easily one-hit-kill if he gets too close. There's little space to run away, not enough room to safely use explosives, I have to stand still to fight effectively, and if this guy touches me I'm dead. Another boss fight had me already out of ammo on my way in, and with the upgrade path I'd taken, it took me 10 or 15 tries to realize that yes, maybe it is actually possible for me to deal enough damage with the ammo on hand.

Towards the end of the game I started to piece together the true story. Well, mostly. I figured out who the villain was and what his motivations were, and the roles of each of the other characters in the story. But there was still lots left unexplained. Why were people transformed into monsters? What is the shadowy organization behind the scenes? At what point did my character really (highlight for spoilers) enter the bad guy's mind? If the entire game takes place in the villain's mind, why is there a safe zone specifically to help me out?

The new game + mode isn't for me, but it gives you a big gel boost and lets you replay from any chapter, which is a nice touch if you don't want to slog through the beginning or you want to skip a segment you didn't like.

Overall I had a good time with The Evil Within. While it does drag on at times and recycles a couple of bosses, the flaws aren't crippling. The gameplay is solid, environmental art is excellent, the horror atmosphere is very well-executed, and it all adds up to a fun B-movie kind of experience.

Recommendation: play it.

As for the DLC missions, the two story add-ons The Assignment and The Consequence are solid. The gameplay style is a little different, focusing more on stealth. There's a whole lot of story and background development here, and the story elements are more densely packed than in the core game. There's a heavy focus on expanding and clarifying the story, as well as adding new revelations as to the origin and purpose of the STEM research. For me, that's a good thing - fewer meaningless engagements between me and figuring out what's going on. There are also some new enemies and bosses, occasionally frustrating but with cleve and interesting design. If you enjoyed the core game, the story DLC is a must.

The Executioner mission, though, didn't sit well with me. It's a first-person arena brawler with what little story there is told entirely through text. At least, I assume it's entirely, because that's how it opened and I couldn't finish the mission. It's a weird genre shift and just didn't hold my interest.

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