Now then. Let me start by saying this: I don’t have a lot of experience in “survival horror”. Or horror in general, if you don’t feel like subdividing into smaller categories. I’ve played my share of games, but there are still huge gaps I haven’t put much effort into filling. How big are these gaps? Well, let me put it this way: the first Resident Evil game I played from start to finish was Resident Evil 5. I’m not much in the way of the horror genre, and with the Month of Pumpkinpalooza almost over I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out. I should try to broaden my horizons.
So that’s why I tried out The Evil Within. Not finished, mind, because I never would have done that in time for this post. But I’ve taken strides with it. And conceptually speaking, there’s no beter game to start out with. It’s by the guy who practically made survival horror a thing (plus helped with Killer7)! It sounded like a nightmare come to life thanks to a couple of previews! It’s a bold counterclaim against the mindless power fantasies that are trying to strangle the medium into submission! What’s not to love?
It turns out there’s a lot. I’ve spent a LOT of time waiting for the game to get scary -- and, you know, good. And right now, I doubt it ever will.
I haven’t gotten as far as I want to into The Evil Within, in all fairness. And I’ve heard that the opening hours are supposed to be pretty rough -- after which things (presumably) get much better. But even if that’s true, I can’t help but wonder why things had to play out the way they did. I can’t help but think that maybe I deluded myself into thinking the game would be something that it isn’t -- that any problems I have are just born from misinterpretations and assumptions. The Evil Within is clearly trying to be something, and fiercely. It’s just that that something isn’t all that compelling.
Basically, its opening hours paint it as Resident Evil. As in, all of them.
The game starts out with you rolling up to a big scary facility -- a mental hospital -- that looks like a mansion…and then later in the game you actually go to a mansion full of big dumb death traps (RE1). You play as Sebastian Castellanos, a detective who along with his police officer pals (RE2) heads in to investigate a mystery. Then things get weird, and there’s a big dumb cutscene that has the entire city getting busted up and collapsing all around you as you try and drive to safety (RE6…or alternatively, the movie 2012).
And once the gameplay starts in earnest, you spend most of the first chapter dealing with a chainsaw-wielding madman (RE4 AND RE5). Then you go through a woodsy area while dealing with the zombies scattered about (any number of REs, but I’ll go with RE1 because it’s got a direct homage to the first zombie reveal in a cutscene), and you get chased by zombies into a village full of zombies that you have to deal with as they rush your location (RE4, with shades of RE5). New and exciting, the opening hours are not.
But is it scary? In a word, no. Not even close. But before I can go on and explain my issues and rationale alike, there’s something you need to know about me.
I used to be afraid of car washes.
I guess I was about four or five when it happened. I snuck into my mom’s truck one day before she could take off, and I suppose I had every intention of scaring her as some kind of prank. That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do to a person on the road, but luckily she knew I was in there and played along with my none-too-stealthy antics. (I guess that would be the precursor to me failing triumphantly at any given Metal Gear Solid game). Somewhere along the line, she took the truck in for a wash.
I know now that car washes are just a bunch of machines whirling and spraying soap and water. But back then, it was about the closest thing to getting eaten alive by some towering beast. It encroached from all sides with its whirring, roaring innards. I felt the pressure even from within my metal shell -- which at that time seemed ready to double as my coffin. And with the water sloshing all around me -- water, of course, being a weakness of mine even to this day -- it looked as if I was seconds away from digestion. Thankfully I made it out alive, but not without some…distaste for car washes for years afterward. Trust me, I’ve taken no shortage of heat for it from my family.
I don’t know survival horror or horror in general -- but just like anyone else on the planet, I know what it’s like to be afraid. Pared down to absolute basics, fear is all about a sense that there’s something coming to get you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a perception of impending harm and the very possibility of it -- more than enough to make you not want to even come close to the offender. Why don’t people want to go skydiving or scuba-diving on a regular basis? Because those things are scary as shit. Accidents can and do happen, meaning that any given person is entirely justified in shying away from potential death.
That all said, the allure of things like scary games or books or movies is that they’re out to do what art should do: make an audience feel something. It just so happens that the primary emotion it wants people to feel is fear. And really, there’s no better way to do so, because (unless you have some kind of heart defect) there’s no consequence to playing a scary game. In fact, it’s a welcome affect. A game that can successfully scare is a game that proves its quality and the skill of its creators. If a game can make you go “AAHHH! Whoa, that scared me! A-aha, you got me!” then that’s deserving of some praise…because if I had to guess, I’d say it’s something incredibly hard to do.
Okay, so what does that tangent have to do with The Evil Within? Well, at the outset it seems like it’s got the there’s something coming to get you part down. The problem is that there’s usually something you can do about it -- and it breaks the horror aspect of the game over its knee.
Is that inherently a bad thing? Well, no. If you’re a fan of, say, Dead Space, then this game is going to be fine. If you went into TEW expecting trappings like those, then you’ll also be fine. But even if there is horror -- and plenty of it -- later in the game, the opening hours don’t do anything to sell that. And remember, the claim that “the game isn’t scary” is coming from someone who was afraid of damn car washes…and is still left uneasy by water in any quantity more than a cup’s worth. I wanted to embrace that fear, so I could see and feel the developers’ craftsmanship for myself. But so far, I’ve been denied.
And it’s because of that denial that, as it stands, I’m sorely disappointed.
So let’s set aside the…familiarity…of the game’s proceedings. What’s left? How is it going to put the horror in survival horror? For starters, it tries to restrict your fighting ability. Sebastian isn’t exactly a walking armory at the outset, plus he’s got limited sprint ability, and his melee attacks aren’t what I’d call “harmful”. So he’s no one-man-army, meaning that the zombies are a legitimate threat.
I absolutely love how it’s 2014, yet very few developers have taken Dead Rising 1’s words to heart. To paraphrase: “Zombies are stupid and slow.” They’re not nearly as threatening as people want them to be. Sure, they might speed up a little if they spot you, but they come at you in a straight line, meaning you can shoot them in the leg or head to put a stop to them. On top of that, you can do instant-kill takedowns on them if you manage to sneak up on them from behind -- a vital gameplay conceit, to be sure, but it turns skirmishes from threats to your life to routine exercises. Even when you get ambushed.
When I played through a game, I didn’t feel like my virtual life was in danger. It felt like each area was a puzzle that needed to be solved -- a problem that I could handle if I broke down each issue and threat into basic objectives to clear. That’s true of every game, sure, but TEW doesn’t do itself any favors by making its horror aspects (its enemies, in this case) so rudimentary.
I can shoot them from afar, stab them up close, and even set them on fire with matches when they’re down so that other zombies walk into the fire and die instantly. Or alternatively, I can set a bale of hay on fire, and burn the zombie like that. Or double-alternatively, I can find a torch and turn my melee attack into an instant kill. I guess the tradeoff is that Sebastian can’t take a lot of hits, but I don’t understand why I should be afraid of these enemies.
That’s true of the chainsaw jerk you meet at the outset. Okay, sure, you can’t kill him or anything, and your best bet is to escape undetected (or just escape period, in my case), but I didn’t feel the fear factor from him. He’s gross-looking, I guess, but what else? He can instant-kill me, but so what? That doesn’t make him scary. That just gives him a slight stipulation -- another objective to the mission.
I mean, didn’t The Last of Us show that loading a game up with instant-kill enemies slowed the pace of the game to an absolute crawl instead of offering up tension or fear? Or am I supposed to be terrified just because “you can’t just run and gun, lol!”? Also, what does it say about the game when one of its core conceits -- something boasted about in the tips between loading screens -- is giving you some super-weapon called the Agony Crossbow? And then giving you the option to create explosive shots or weaponize the harpoon pieces you might find stuck in a wall?
Is…is this game supposed to be one big joke? Am I getting trolled here?
I just don’t understand the rationale here. Okay, taken as-is? TEW is a competent enough action game. Or competent enough, at least; it’s seriously rough around the edges at points, but I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the question I have is this: why did we need to have another action game when this could have easily been the horror game of choice -- scratching the itch of plenty of gamers, with the added benefit of a sizable budget and big-name talent? As it stands, TEW is pretty much the later Resident Evils, Dead Space (any one of them, arguably), and The Last of Us rolled into one. And sure, that’s good enough for some people. But I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.
The game puts on airs of being terrifying and oppressive and all of that horror stuff I’m eager to see, but none of it clicks. Oh no, the zombies are all bloody and have barbed wire lodged in their skin. Oh no, it’s an abandoned village full of decay and death. Oh no, it’s some weird facility full of butchery. Oh no, it’s a sewer level. (Mercifully, the game gets that out of the way fairly quickly.) Oh no, it’s literally a dark and stormy night. And even the set pieces -- because of course there are set pieces -- can’t get the job done. There’s a sequence where Sebastian has to slide down some trap chute and avoid whirring blades of death, but I barely had to look at the screen to avoid them. And you have to escape the chainsaw guy by…running in a straight line, which you would’ve done even without “scary” music pounding in my ear.
Seriously, am I getting trolled here? Or did the devs just think we’re all idiots?
The second biggest problem with TEW is that compared to some of its contemporaries, it doesn’t have the polish needed to compete. It’s noticeable almost from the outset; you can tell that there’s been a lot of effort put into rendering Sebastian’s face and model in general, but the people around him -- and given focus on in cutscenes -- almost look like late-PS2 models. (His female accomplice looks way off the mark, and it doesn’t help that she had maybe six words of dialogue.) Texture pop-in is a real issue in a game half-built on spooky scary textures, and it’ll rocket-launch you right out of the experience when you see a mess of polygons take up the better part of the screen.
The game is letterboxed, apparently from start to finish (unless you play on/mod a PC copy, I’ve heard), which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t take up valuable camera space so you can see where enemies are. And THAT wouldn’t be a problem if the camera wasn’t zoomed in unusually close to Sebastian, making your planning that much harder because you can’t pinpoint a zombie’s exact position.
Of all the things to get right about survival horror, why would they choose hindrances in combat…in a game that puts an emphasis on combat? Further, why would they make it so that zombies have the ability to find you instantly just ‘cause? And why would they make it so that even if an area is clear of zombies, if you step into a certain position you’ll make the game go “BEEP BEEP BOOP INITIATING ZOMBIE PROTOCOL” and send in a zombie ambush? And why is it that even if the melee attack is depowered at first, you can still part a half-dozen zombies crammed into one doorway like the Red Sea so you can make your escape?
Why do zombies turn around at random when you’re making your lethal approach? Why can you suddenly slide into your kill animation despite being a car’s length away? Why are there traps in places indoors and out that guard nothing? Why do you only get one shot to disarm explosive traps before they blow up in your face and take at least 80% of your health? Why would the game tell you to open treasure chests slowly for fear of traps blowing you to pieces and then not tell you how to open treasure chests slowly?
This game…it…it has to be trolling me. It just has to.
Maybe I wouldn’t zero in on those problems so much if there was something for me to latch onto. But there isn’t. The upgrade system, maybe, but that’s for all the wrong reasons -- because the last thing I want from a game trying to scare me and keep me on edge is the ability to turn myself into a super-soldier. Really, the biggest problem I have with the game is one that you could toss at plenty of the Resident Evil games (but let’s just pick on RE6, because it deserves to be picked on). Here’s the thing I have to ask: if the main character in this horrific situation isn’t scared, then why should the player be?
I ask this because -- as you can guess -- Sebastian Castellanos is a non-entity. You could legitimately replace him with a log, and not much would be lost. Honestly, it’s to the point where I wish he had no face, no lines, no presence, and not even a visible body, because the only reason he’s there right now -- besides setup for some ZOMG REVEAL that HE’S THE TRUE MADMAN KILLER WHATCHAMAJIGGER AND IT’S ALL IN HIS HEAD or whatever -- is to be the player’s proxy. He barely reacts to anything going on around him unless he gets seriously hurt (and even then…). I’m struggling to remember any dialogue besides “Out of ammo”, “Shit”, and “What the shit?” He’s so nothing it’s painful.
I can’t help but think back to one of the Kamen Rider installments I’ve seen (won’t say which one, because of spoilers). Basically you’ve got your hero who’s a bang-up guy out to do the right thing, and won’t give up or back down no matter the challenge. Typical stuff, to be sure. But then one of the later episodes rolls around and he’s put into a nightmarish situation where he’s the monster -- and he spends the majority of the episode freaking out, screaming in agony, getting knocked around, trying to save face in front of civilians horrified by his mere presence, and scrambling for safety.
It’s legitimately jarring because it’s so out-of-character for him. He’s scared out of his damn mind, and confused, and pushed further into a corner than he or any audience member could ever imagine. Inevitably he snaps out of the illusion and rejoins the good fight with revived passion (as one would), but with lessons learned and memories of the experience fresh in his mind. All things considered, it’s a sequence that totally works. Short-term and long-term.
Don't worry. I'll get to these guys someday.
The most you can get out of Sebastian is a faster heartbeat when he’s hiding under a bed. Is it possible that he’s gone insane already? Maybe. Could he go insane later? Maybe. Could he get progressively worse as the game wears on? Maybe. But here’s the thing: he’s in a scary situation now, so he should be scared now. He needs to react.
Think of how much more effectively the game could sell itself if he showed some emotion. He may look like a generic seventh/eighth-gen game protagonist (barring his detective outfit, which I’m actually a sucker for), but he could have broken the mold by way of having his tough-guy façade peeled away in a couple of strokes. He’s not in control of the situation. So why does he act like he is?
The answer that springs to mind is that he is. Because if the player is skilled enough -- if he/she can overcome the game’s quirks and issues -- then the player IS in control. And that might as well be the killing blow for any game that even dares to add in horror.
*sigh* Friggin’ hell.
I guess that’s it, then. That’s about as far as I can go with TEW -- or at least as far as I’m willing to go. Does it get better later on? Sure, that’s a real possibility. But that’s just it; it’s a possibility, not a guarantee. And setting aside the fact that it should be good (and, you know, original) from the get-go, it still doesn’t offer any assurance that all of the game’s problems will suddenly vanish just because you jump from one chapter to another. Sometimes games have a shitty start, and never ever get any better.
It’s such a shame, too. I wanted to like TEW. Hell, I wanted to love it. I wanted to see what I was missing in terms of survival horror -- but if this is the culmination of decades of the genre, then maybe my faith has been misplaced. Or maybe it hasn’t! Maybe there are good games out there, but for all its good intentions, TEW isn’t nearly as good as it could be or should be. So really, the only option left for me is cut it loose and find something else. Maybe then, I’ll find something that’ll give me the horror I’m looking for. Or, alternatively, justify the presence of a PS4 -- because once again, this game isn’t it.
Maybe I’ll give Outlast a shot. If my guess is right, you should, too.
Happy Halloween. Get your hands on some candy by any means necessary.
By any means.