The Evil Within: That’s not how you’re meant to use barbed wire

I hated The Evil Within at first. It really doesn't make a great first impression. Or even a great second or third one. During the very first playable scene in the game in other words, that all important moment when you’re first handed control of protagonist Sebastian Castellanos the thing jitters and shudders, its frame rate very noticeably dipping below acceptable levels, even though there’s barely anything happening on-screen.

To make matters worse, about a third of the available screen space is cut off by a pair of thick black borders (one top, one bottom) that squish the viewable area into an awful letterbox aspect ratio. I’m sure someone thought this was a great way to enhance the atmosphere, or perhaps it’s used as a means to keep the game’s occasionally dismal performance up by artificially limiting the resolution, but whatever the reasoning behind it, it’s a shocking design move. Fortunately there’s been a patch released since (on PC, at least) that allows the option to remove the bars, but the idea that they exist at all is deeply offensive. To me at least. Die-hard fans will vehemently defend the genius of those black bars until they’re blue in the face, but I didn't spend obscene amounts of money on my television just to have a third of it declared a no-go zone.

So yes not the best start for The Evil Within and I. It’s no help that from the offset the narrative flow is completely bonkers, offering hardly any explanation as to who these people are and why I’m with them and oh wait I think I’m a police officer and why is everyone in this hospital dead surely this is where people go to be not-dead oh NO what is wrong with that guy’s FACE?!

The story eventually begins making more sense once you’re beyond the game’s halfway mark and you can start piecing things together, but mostly it’s just a procession of disappointingly boring characters spouting nonsense about nonsensical things in between the parts where your cheekbone is being chomped on by repulsive monsters. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s a deceptively ambitious, unexpectedly thoughtful plot hidden somewhere in the rubble, but it never fully surfaces, instead preferring to hide behind an endless stream of demented imagery and tireless tension.

Here’s the thing though: the unpredictability of the plot bleeds into the actual gameplay, and that unpredictability is part of what makes The Evil Within such an attractive modern survival horror outing. If you’ve been following the game’s development at all, you’ll know that Shinji Mikami, the original creator of  Resident Evil  (he also directed development of  Resident Evil 4 ) and who helped produce some of Capcom’s best-loved works ( Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe , anyone?), is credited as director of The Evil Within . And it shows. The pacing is meticulous, crafted by a team that knows when, how and for what length of time to keep the player on edge. Give the player a security blanket to hold for a few moments, cultivate a false sense of security and then set the blanket and the player’s heart on fire.Tying directly into the narrative, the unsettling environments are never quite what they seem and can suddenly shift from an abandoned hospital to dark, dank catacombs without a moment’s notice.

It’s far from the most frightening game out there, often relying on jump scares to jolt your adrenal glands but it’s fantastic at sustaining tension and generating general unease via careful use of audio, jarring visual effects, clever lighting and obscure camera angles. Music explodes into action during appropriately explosive moments, and the sound effects serve up an assortment of bloody squelches, sudden metallic scratches and bloodcurdling moans. For the majority of the time, however, The Evil Within  is more Dead Space than Silent Hill, more action game than horrific thriller. There’s a range of weapons to find and employ against the various enemy types, and ammunition is scarce enough that there’ll be times when you’ll stare at your inventory and wonder how in the nine hells you’ll survive your next encounter with just the breadcrumbs and bent paperclip you have left in your pockets. Early on in the game, stealth is your greatest ally, letting you sneak up behind enemies and knife them for instant kills, while hiding under beds and in cupboards lets you avoid curious beasties but the stealthy approach is quickly rendered useless as you advance deeper into the game’s chapters.

Along the way you’ll collect a resource that lets you upgrade Sebastian’s capabilities and weapons, raising your health limit or damage output, and increasing the amount of ammo, matches and syringes you can carry. The game’s variety of horrific bosses are sure to stick in your mind well after the credits roll, but encounters with them usually follow the same pattern first you’re forced to run, later you’re required to fend them off in a confined space while simultaneously attempting to perform some important task. Nevertheless, boss encounters are always harrowing, despite the fact that the strings pulling them are in clear view. Annoyingly, much of the game is plagued by fussy controls, which make lining up interactions (especially in the midst of combat) often needlessly frustrating, particularly when it results in yet another death animation ora huge chunk shaved off your dwindling health bar.

Many wonderful quirks have made their way into the game’s mechanics. At first, some are slightly off-putting but later, as you come to appreciate their purpose and the fact that the game’s stringent set of rules ties nicely into the narrative, you'll find their inclusion plenty meaningful. Enemies who are downed by your shots often aren’t  really  dead, and must be set alight with a match to ensure their demise.

Nearby enemies can also be caught in the small blaze, so dead/downed bodies actually become a commodity and you’ll eventually learn that a well-timed match drop can conserve loads of ammo by insta killing multiple foes. Small hand axes dish out one-hit kills but they perish after a single use. Your sprint ability is hilariously limited (before upgrading it, at least), allowing for a pathetically
short dash before you have to literally stop and catch your breath, unable to move. You’ll find other curious mechanics in the game, some highly inventive, others initially stifling but most suit the game perfectly.

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