9
Our overall verdict "gold"

Detective Sebastian Castellanos is about to have a very bad day. Called to the scene of a horrific mass murder at the local nuthouse, the detective is ambushed, knocked unconscious and thrown into a nightmare that tops anything you’ve had after too much cheese and a sweaty night under the duvet. A true horror game, The Evil Within is a real shocker. However, its biggest surprise is not the chainsaw-wielding sadist who tries to saw your leg off in the first chapter or the black-haired spider woman who leaps screaming at your face; it’s the fact that while everyone expected this game to be a cataclysmic mess, it actually turned out to be a piece of art.

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Graphically, The Evil Within is beautiful, which seems somewhat of a weird thing to say about a horror game. This is no Outlast. You’re not going to be squinting at a dark screen trying to make out what’s coming. Every environment is beautifully textured with fantastic light effects. From the opening misty-grey rain-soaked crime scene and bright flashing police lights, you can tell The Evil Within is going for something a little different. The sometimes-surreal graphics fit the game’s nightmarish feel perfectly, and the disturbing cut scenes are seamlessly integrated to create an experience that pokes at your sanity.

This game is not a traditional survival horror. It is not about plodding around a tedious asylum blowing off heads with a shotgun. Without giving anything away about the plot, the game’s dream-like environments change drastically from chapter to chapter and moment to moment. Literally, anything can happen. One moment you’re sneaking down a sewer tunnel dismantling bombs, and the next you’re driving a bus through a sixth-story window, creeping around a spooky mansion, firing sniper rounds into a man with a safe on his head or getting squished by a giant tentacle. There is no linear logic here, no cause and effect. Castellanos is lost and so are you, and it’s completely terrifying.

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Adding to your perpetual terror of never knowing what’s coming, is the perpetual terror of running out of ammunition. Stockpile as much as you can, take the time to sneak kill where possible and for god’s sake upgrade. RPG-style upgrades can be obtained by collecting jars of green gel from fallen enemies. When you have a plentiful stock and a convenient mirror, you can visit the nurse to save your game and receive some electroshock therapy involving a tin hat and a quick infusion of severe pain. Yes, saving and upgrading is just as surreal as the rest of the game. At particular points you will come across a cell door leaking creepy elevator/asylum music. Inside you will find a mirror that will crack and send you to a hospital with an attractive nurse and a room that will make you wish you’d gone with BUPA. Here you will be able to save your game and cash in your green gel for upgrades. Abilities, weapons and ammo stock limits are all available for improvement, and it’s that age-old conundrum of what to prioritize. Think carefully because your choices will have serious effects. I would recommend upgrading the damage impact of your handgun as that is the most common ammo you’ll find scattered about in various blood-streaked corners. You’ll be forced to resort to this weapon often when you run out of sniper and magnum rounds, shotgun shells and Agony Bolts. So, choose your poison, put on your tin brain-hat and be electrocuted by your chosen upgrade. Visiting the nurse never gets old as you will also find valuable story information and clues, and as the game progresses the hospital will start to … change. Creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I’ve heard The Evil Within’s story called weak, but I don’t agree. I personally got rather involved with it and it was one of the things that kept me going through all the boss fights and tricky areas that needed several tries. I was as interested in Ruvik, the antagonist, as I was in Castellanos’ story – perhaps more so. For once, I actually read all the collectable documents and listened to every audiofile. The cut scenes were a treat, neither too long nor too short, and the voice acting was spot on.

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For those who like a challenge, the difficulty level is brutal in places and I certainly had a few hissy fits and a vow never ever to play another horror game. The odds are never insurmountable, though. If you can keep your nerve, there is always a way. I had my biggest tantrum very early on, in Chapter 3 with the village and the sadist. It was absolutely and completely impossible until the sadist abruptly dropped, his chainsaw suddenly flaccid at my feet, and I realised actually how easy it was. Again in Chapter 15 when faced with not one, but two box-headed Keepers, I thought I would never defeat them. Then, after a quick cuppa, I swiftly beat the first Keeper by throwing everything I had at him and the second Keeper was easy peasy. Actually that’s a lie; a well-timed anomaly trapped the second Keeper in a corner allowing me to pump into him every bullet I had left in my inventory. I’ve never been so happy to experience an in-game glitch. Congratulations, whoever ballsed-up that little piece of programming, you’ve made my Christmas card list.

Released a week after Alien Isolation in the UK, The Evil Within is scary in a different sort of way. Where Alien Isolation exploits a primal fear of being nothing more than helpless, powerless prey, The Evil Within taps into something far more twisted and complex. It’s that illogical fear that there’s an axe-wielding stranger in the house, a monster under the bed, that the runner on the landing is really a giant tongue and the toilet has sprouted teeth. It’s that fear of what your brain will show you when you’re sleeping and that no matter what you do you’ll never wake up from it.

This is a meaty game. It took me just over twenty hours to complete and I died one hundred and twelve times (that’s not an estimation; the game tells you at the end). A nerve-shattering fight or a gruesome and bizarre death is never far away. The bosses are bastards, the ammo is in short supply and your journey through the game is a maze of illogical consequence. There are no cheap scares here. The Evil Within isn’t trying to make you jump out of your soiled underwear. This game aims and succeeds to disturb you and fill you with a dark and disgusting dread.

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Conclusion

The Evil Within ditches traditional survival horror tropes in favour of something much more surreal and twisted. Prepare to be turned upside down. Prepare to have your nerves shredded. Prepare for giant eyeballs and grotesque creatures. The Evil Within is nothing short of utterly disturbing and utterly brilliant. Prepare to play the biggest gaming surprise of the year.

Rating  9/10

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S J Hollis has been a keen gamer since the Atari 2600. She freely admits she thought E.T. was a good game but would like to stress her tastes have since dramatically improved. She is also an author, a morning person and thinks Elf ears are sexy. Follow her on twitter @SJHollis_