What’s the difference between homage and ripoff?  Penny Arcade said it best, “whether I like it or not.”

If you’re looking for a prime example of what a horror game ripoff looks like in the year 2014, I’d point you toward The Evil Within.  It’s not surprising since the project was helmed by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil, a game that bordered on being a George A. Romero ripoff.  The fans embraced the game and it was hailed as a homage instead largely because it was a different sort of video game.  And that’s entirely the problem with The Evil Within.

Everything The Evil Within does has been done before and better by other video games.

The Art:

The worst offense The Evil Within commits is that it triggers very little emotional response.  It waffles between torture porn and jump scares (the two cheapest forms of horror) to generate fear but fails to deliver any lasting impressions.

The initial plot?  Cop investigates gruesome murder.  Is knocked out and then transported to a more twisted, evil version of his world.  From there it migrates from one horror trope to the next while touring your standard “scary” spots: Hospital/Asylum, cultish church, and a colonial town runes.  A forced, artificial atmosphere and dirtscale level design drag down most of the scenes that show any signs of creativity.

It wouldn’t be a horror game gestalt without the forced “maybe I’m just going crazy” thing tacked on.  Of course, you’re promptly told the answer the moment you ask.  Then the answer is repeated over and over again in case you missed it.

I don’t expect much from horror plots but I don’t like my intelligence insulted either.  And insult is something you need to get used to if you intend to play The Evil Within.  The game thinks you’re a drooling idiot and hammers you with every bit of plot or anything that might once have resembled nuance.

Bad or generic plot?  That’s okay, that can be rescued by good characters, interesting development, and dialogue.  Too bad there aren’t any good characters in this game.  There’s a one-note archetypal protagonist and a supporting cast of cardboard cutouts that exist simply as cutscene fodder.  The “disembodied, intangible evil” antagonist responsible for everything isn’t kept disembodied for long.  He’s given a rather androgynous body and a bathrobe mere minutes into the game ruining any suspense immediately.  Melodramatic, phoned in voice acting cripples the dialogue and makes some cutscenes a chore to watch.

There is a spark of awesome in the monster design but the best stuff is used up on some of the more disposable enemies with the “boss” encounters leaning on old tropes like human centipedes, overweight butchers, and naturally some sort of enemy with a geometric shape for a head.

This is a game suffering from a crisis of identity.  It would almost be impressive at the amount of other stories and games it manages to crowbar together if it weren’t for how fucking forced and boring it all is.  The confused direction doesn’t stop with the art.  The gameplay falls into an old trap of the genre.

The Gameplay:

The greatest challenge for the horror games is striking a balance between survival and action.  Always running away can get tedious – so puzzles , exploration, and stealth become core mechanics.  They lend themselves really well to the genre.  Atmosphere and tension build naturally as players explore.  A good story becomes a great bridge between the gameplay.  The Evil Within was advertised as a survival horror game.  And they fucking lied.

The Evil Within takes the standard third person adventure game approach.  And then it falls into the trap.  Hard.  It adds guns.  Well, three of them.  But if the atmosphere and story are bad (which we’ve established they are), it’s difficult to be afraid of things you can shoot.  Time to staple the survival tropes back on.  Enter the “limited ammo” thing and a saturation of enemies immune to them.  I haven’t seen a more overt attempt at forcing survival elements into a game.  Or guns into a survival game.

It takes finesse to pull off survival and action in the same game.  Invincible enemies and limited resources aren’t inherently bad.  But there must be meaningful choices to offset them.  That’s when The Evil Within shits the bed.

The gunplay is competent but generic.  The lack of weapons serves to highlight its limitations.  And there’s stealth because it’s not survival horror without it, right?  Of course stealth in The Evil Within means there’s a lot of time spent by a grown ass man hiding under the bed.  Eventually the game forgets about stealth with several forced action segments in closed rooms before.  Like all other games that fail to mesh action and survival eventually you get “the sweet gun,” in this case a crossbow, and stealth completely falls off.

Oh, right, puzzles.  It’s not a survival horror game without some kind of puzzle.  Well there’s the standard Bethesda lockpicking mini-game.  It’s been re-purposed and inserted into the game in the form of booby-traps that a bunch of ghosts and demons had the time to set and scatter throughout the game.

Obvious run from the fucking thing scenes occur.  You run and you don’t really feel bad because you’re used to not fighting things at this point.  Most other encounters you run from because combat is meaningless.  Sometimes you’re locked in a room or there’s an environmental hazard to end enemies with.  You run around a chair or some other debris until the thing falls down and you escape or set it on fire (matches being limited mind you).  Sometimes enemies are invisible and you feel like you’re being cheat coded – this is not the same as suspense or fear.

There’s also the intangibles.  The Evil Within just isn’t a well tuned game.  A lot of it feels forced and insincere.  Just removing the bad stealth or fixing it wouldn’t have fixed the game.  There’s a lack of direction that shows through from the core of the gameplay.

Summary:

I’ve encountered less original games with worse gameplay but The Evil Within has found a new combination to piss me off.  It’s like craving caviar and a milkshake and deciding to order a pizza topped with the two.  Then when the pizza arrives the delivery man kicks you in the nuts.  And the pizza is over priced.  Sixty fucking dollars overpriced.

Many horror game aficionados were looking forward to a new game from the creator of Resident Evil.  Unfortunately The Evil Within has more name than game and I suggest skipping it.