Friday, October 23, 2015

The Evil Within - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Trapped somewhere between Silent Hill and Resident Evil lurks The Evil Within. It's a game that feels very torn on what it wants to be, featuring dozens of high action set-pieces confusingly combined with ammo starvation and psychological ruses. Many contest that these elements form a cohesive and varied experience, but the game felt like it had split personalities for me: too often it left me warm and then cold. Despite whatever gripes I may have, it is competently put together and has some really clever ideas implemented into it—it just wasn't to my tastes, unfortunately.

The best thing the game has going for it is tension. In The Evil Within, you almost never feel safe—either your health is low, your ammo is dry, or you have a boss that can instantly kill you breathing down your neck. This isn't a game like Resident Evil where you can easily end up with a stash of green herbs and magnum shells to steamroll the end of the campaign with; at all times, The Evil Within is out to drain you of your munitions and make you fight to get them back. It's definitely a cool motif that you don't see in a lot of games these days—even in The Last of Us I had enough ammo stockpiled to feel comfortable, while here I rarely had more than what was loaded into my guns.

But the way the game goes about draining your ammo is obnoxious. There are segments where you're locked in a room and must fight off waves of enemies, and these occur semi-frequently. The stealthy playground chapters of the game (3, 13) are among my favorite because it's the game at its best—giving you a wide variety of tools but few instances to use them, forcing you to use your wits and make hard choices on when to expend your bullets & bolts. The singular room skirmishes are none of that: they're more twitchy than strategic, where whatever weapon has the most ammo dominates the field, and staying mobile is your top priority. Then you have sections like the one on top of the bus in Chapter 12, where you're just standing around shooting at guys with guns and dynamite, praying the wonky pistol accuracy doesn't screw you over.

Speaking of the dynamite, the instant death attacks in the game are also vexing. I do agree that they add to the tension (Laura in particular is probably the most menacing creature), but they're also so sudden that they teach you very little. For instance, in the chapter where Ruvik chases you, it's a terrifying reveal that works well within the framework of the game—but Ruvik himself is not fun. He teleports around and since your perspective is limited you can easily lose track of him and get killed instantly. When I tried to hide he found me (and killed me), so I resorted to just standing in the corner of a room and juking him as soon as he got close. This boiled our encounter down to a very simple tactic, and whenever an ominous tone would augur his arrival I felt like sighing out of frustration, solely because I didn't want to lose my precious progress. Again, it is tension, but it's not fun when it happens to you enough times that the fear factor is drained and all you're left with is the agitation of starting over.

The chapters themselves go on a bit of a roller coaster of length and quality, ranging from great to "isn't this over yet?" Chapters 11 and 12 are considered the nadir of the experience, and for good reason—centering the action around fighting zombies with guns is another "tense but not fun" situation. It was a damn shame having to grind through all these guys when the game had recently introduced its coolest and most intimidating enemy yet—Trauma—but only used it for a scant total of three encounters (one of which is stealth-only). This was another case where the game felt like it was artificially inflating the difficulty to increase adrenaline, whereas using more creative scenarios (like those seen in Chapter 10) would've worked wonders.

Gameplay aside, the visuals are utterly fantastic. It does lead to some lag and dropped frames (on my PC at least) but I didn't mind as I was too busy running for my life or staring at some nicely detailed grimy walls. The art direction here is positively captivating, as the Silent Hill-esque deformation of interiors and enemies is both jaw-dropping and revolting. The ruined Krimson City is one of the most impressive landscapes I've seen in a while (probably my favorite thing in the game honestly), and the grotesque, revolting viscera imagery is unapologetically gnarly. The final battle in particular is astoundingly creative... from a visual standpoint at least (playing it was unmitigated dreck).

It's a pity that the story doesn't support this nightmarish dreamscape better. Sure, what's there isn't awful, but it really doesn't lean into its potential either. Ruvik's mind is corrupted beyond repair but other than being the subject of bullying and an unfortunate incident, it doesn't logically lead to the vile imagery you see in Chapter 15. On top of that the protagonists are pretty boring and stale—I can't name a single interesting trait about Kidman—and all the journal entries you collect about Esteban don't lead to anything interesting. Since you're shuffled around to areas and places instantly there's no sense to the progression and it's hard to care about the plot, as the characters are senselessly whisked off to different attractions. The entire game suffers from "why did/didn't Ruvik just do X"; honestly, reducing the story to a quarter of its size would've helped quite a bit.

Coming out of The Evil Within, I felt really torn on it. I thoroughly enjoyed some ideas it had (stealth, ammo starvation, lurid imagery) but found myself detesting other sections (arenas, guys with guns, insta-deaths). You feel on edge while playing the game, partly because you never know what to expect, and partly because you know it doesn't care about playing fair (Oh I'm supposed to kill the Keeper now in Chapter 13? And three dynamite guys in Chapter 5? Really?) To a degree I noticed that a lot of my gripes are minor annoyances, which I can admit is usually the earmark of a decently-made title. The Evil Within is what it is, and I'm glad that it found an audience that appreciates it... but for me, I'll likely slide it next to Halo in my mental archive.

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