There are few things in life we find genuinely scary. Needles - scary. Clowns - scary. Ed Miliband's face while eating a bacon sandwich - terrifying. But horror games? They're more of a mixed bunch. While there have been plenty of games that made us feel a bit uneasy (after all, a blob that can swallow his enemies whole? Brrr!), games that genuinely have the power to creep you out are fewer and farther between. While the PS4 horror demo P.T. had us sleeping with the lights on, and Silent Hill 2 sucked us in with an atmosphere to die for, and a story that was mysterious, depressing, and genuinely involving all at once, The Evil Within hits far wide of the mark.
We usually like to start reviews like this by telling you a little bit about the story, if only to set the scene for the horror that awaits. In horror games more than any, a decent story is essential, because if it's believable enough, it's the story that'll be keeping you up all night. But with The Evil Within, it's a little bit tricky to give you a proper run down of the story. Not because it's a terrifying tale we're afraid of giving spoilers for or anything - but because it's not actually all that clear what the story is.
The game opens with a cutscene showing Detective Castellanos, the game's chiselled protagonist, speeding towards a psychiatric hospital, where reports have been received of a mysterious event. A rapid response team was sent in to investigate earlier, but contact has since been lost - and so, as the guy who drew the short straw/the unit's crack cop, it's up to you to figure out exactly what's going on.
But after showing you pull up at the hospital, and getting out of the car, the game then promptly proceeds to forget it actually had a story to begin with, and instead spends the next six or seven hours or so dropping you into seemingly completely unconnected levels, with no real motive behind anything you do. It's perhaps the most counterproductive intro to a horror game ever, as when it should be sewing the seeds of mystery, planting red herring after red herring, and trying to encourage you to guess exactly what's going on, instead, you're lucky if you even get a single sentence in a cutscene that touches on the plot. Despite being dropped into totally different, and completely warped worlds with each level, the lead characters don't seem even slightly flustered by what they're seeing - and when the plot twist is eventually mentioned, there's literally no forewarning it's coming. In some cases, the mystery surrounding the plot might be interesting - but in the Evil Within, it just stops you having fun. With no idea what you're doing, why you should care about the characters, or why you keep teleporting from one place to the next, there's no incentive to keep going - and no room for any terrifying plot twists.
Instead, the Evil Within relies entirely on its gameplay to sell the game - and that's risky enough in a game that's been polished to within an inch of its life, yet alone in one that relies on every cheap trick in the book. Carved up into distinct levels rather than a more sprawling area you can explore on your own, each stage in The Evil Within is set in a totally different location, with seemingly nothing of note joining them together. You'll finish up a level in one place, and then start the next somewhere completely different - you could finish one in a forest, and start the next in a desert - and your character won't even notice anything's changed. Again, there is a reason for this - sort of - but it's not revealed what it is until you're well over half way through. Sadly, that doesn't change the fact you've spent your first six or seven hours with the game wandering aimlessly from disjointed level to disjointed level without a clue what you're really supposed to be doing.
The levels themselves do have some variety, but there's a few moments that are truly memorable, and even less that are fun (or at least, as fun as a horror game can be). Making your way around the grizzly locations, from a blood soaked dungeon where a mad axe man is getting far too into carving up his most recent victim, to a strange, abandoned town that's populated entirely by zombies, and booby-trapped to within an inch of its life, there aren't really all that many puzzles to solve, so instead the gameplay boils down to two things - combat with the zombies, and running away from anything bigger than you.
Thankfully retaining their braindead, slowly shuffling personas as opposed to the eerily-agile-for-something-that's-supposed-to-have-rigor-mortis zombies we've seen in more recent horror games, the zombies in the Evil Within are your main threats, and can be dealt with in three main ways. The first, perhaps unusually for a game like this, is stealth. Thanks to a handy eyeball icon that appears on screen whenever you're within a certain range of a zombie, and which opens wider when they've spotted you, you'll always have advanced warning when an enemy's near. Sticking in the shadows and sneaking up behind them, all it takes is a single button press to dispose of your enemies. While it does save on ammunition, stealth kills can be tricky to pull off, as your zombie friends are oddly observant - and, frustratingly, you can only use it on weak enemies, early on in the game.
The second method of dealing with zombies is perhaps more traditional - by using your boomsticks. However, while there's a decent range of weapons on offer (a pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, crossbow, etc), ammo in the game is rarer than hen's teeth, forcing you to pick and choose your targets. While most enemies can be dispatched in a few well placed shots, should you happen to run up against one of the game's fat zombies who - paradoxically - have more health (if only real life worked like that...) you can easily empty your pockets of all your ammunition, without managing to top him. Even on the easiest difficulty level, ammo is incredibly rare, and it can be a real challenge to try and save the most powerful weapons for boss fights.
The third option you have is to run away, but this can be somewhat counterproductive. First of all, there's a fair amount of backtracking in each level, so you'll soon find yourself having to run past enemies you once thought you were done with. But perhaps most importantly, there are plenty of sections where you simply have to stay, and stand your ground, and kill every enemy in order to continue. Forcing you to end two dozen zombies, and empty your guns before a gate opens, or a fire mysteriously goes out, you'll regularly feel you're being cheated out of your hard earned ammo, as the enemies keep coming - and headshots are mysteriously hard to come by.
In a nutshell, the combat in the Evil Within isn't great - but at least it's better than the awful boss fights. Again, there are a few ways to make a game scary, but the worst way by far has to be one hit kill bosses. You know the kind - you stray too close, they hit you, and you're instantly dead - so they're scary, in as much as you don't want to get too close, or it'll be back to the last save point for you. Much like the Last of Us, The Evil Within is full of one hit kill bosses - and mazes designed to hold you up just enough the bosses can get close enough to kill you. It's fair enough having an enemy that can do a lot of damage, but at least gives you room to make mistakes, but trapping you in a room, or dropping you into a narrow maze with an enemy a few feet behind you is incredibly annoying. One, known in the game as Laura, a creepy spider type thing with six limbs and killer limbo skills, pretty much sums up the game's approach to bosses. She's faster than you, she has huge arms that can reach you from around a mile away just by flailing randomly, and to top it all off, she can teleport. Teleport. You're never safe - and if she gets her ridiculously large hands on you, you've just lost your progress since your last checkpoint.
It's not just the bosses, either. Everything the game does to make itself scarier ends up just making it feel more frustrating. Take dashing, for example. Holding L1 (on PS4) lets you hobble along slightly faster than usual - but only for a few seconds. Once you've dashed a little bit, you'll be out of breath, and will slow down until the bar's refilled. And that's OK, if a bit annoying. What's rubbish is how the game basically ends up sealing your fate for you. Take a few hits, and your health will soon start flashing red - and that means death's imminent. In any other game, you'd put on a burst of speed to get into some open space, before jamming a health syringe into your wrist to recover. On the Evil Within, however, you can't do that - because as soon as your health drops into red, you can't run any more. And that means all the enemies have to do is scratch you that little bit, because as soon as your health turns red, you physically can't get away.
There are also several sections that seem impossible to get past without a certain type of ammo. One such section asks you to snipe at some zombies, each of which is inside a weird cage type thing, that contains a harpoon version of a gatling gun that they love trying to impale you with. These cages are all dangling precariously off a tower a few miles away, meaning you'll never manage to hit them with a normal gun - and leaving the sniper rifle as your only choice. The only problem is, there's precious little sniper rifle ammo around. We came down to our last bullet in this section, and just managed to clip the last enemy. What would have happened if we'd have missed?
A similar thing applies to almost every boss fight. Seeing as you pretty much rely on your heavy artillery to dish out the damage (mostly explosive crossbow bolts) - and seeing as you have to make these yourself, by collecting parts, which are even harder to come by than most ammo - we do wonder how you'd ever cope if you have accidentally used them up before the boss fights. We can't imagine it'd end well. It probably doesn't help that there's no map in the game, no objective information, and nothing in the way of a waypoint or marker, so if you do get lost, or simply don't have the ammo you need to complete a section, there's absolutely no way of knowing you've gone wrong.
Despite its average combat and annoying bosses, though, there are the odd glimmers of brilliance in the Evil Within - mostly when the game strays close to its Resident Evil roots. The mansion level they showed at Gamescom is mostly fantastic, with more puzzles than the average level, fewer annoying bosses, and the sort of atmosphere and story progression - told by random visions of ghosts/spirits - that the rest of the game so badly needed. The problem is, it's one level out of 15 - and it goes by far too quickly.
While hopes were high for the Evil Within, this is a game that feels too unfair to be enjoyable, and too bland to be truly terrifying. While the enemies may keep you on your toes, there's far too many cheap deaths, cheap bosses, and cheap thrills here, and nothing that'll keep you up at night. And for a game that seemed to have so much potential, that can only be classed as a disappointment.