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Exploring the Different Approaches to Survival Horror in The Evil Within Series

To me, the Evil Within franchise is something of a fascinating thing. Part of that is due to how straight-up perfunctory the writing in the first game is, but the other reason is due to the radically different approaches to similar subject matter each game takes. Despite sharing a name, The Evil Within is a radically different game from The Evil Within 2 in many ways. Today I want to take a look at each game, and what they do well and not so well.

The Evil Within

Billed as a return to form for Shinji Mikami, the guy who directed the first Resident Evil, as well as several of the follow up entries, the original game in the Evil Within franchise is an odd, odd beast. It ostensibly follows the exploits of Sebastian Castellanos, a grizzled detective, who—get this—has a dark past and a drinking problem. He is called to a hospital where a horrific massacre has taken place and is pulled in to the world of Stem, an odd, shared consciousness realm where he must survive in the world of a vicious killer named Ruvik.

The really bizarre part of the original game’s storytelling is that the above paragraph already has much more information than the game gives the player from the get-go. It’s extremely hard to describe to someone who hasn’t played the game, but it feels like entire scenes of exposition are missing, with things just kind of happening with very little rhyme or reason. For instance, Seb’s partners, Nicole and Joseph, reference an “accident,” but unless you go through the game’s many hidden files, you never get a good idea of what this accident was. Then there’s the weird-ass body horror stuff, where—for instance—Joseph Ota briefly turns into a bad guy and tries to choke Seb out, only to turn back to normal (and for the characters to say absolutely nothing about it).

Sebastian stands in front of Beacon Hospital

The very nature of the game’s base sci-fi idea is also hazy at best. Stem is a system that was originally designed for psychologists to go into the minds of troubled patients, but the specifics of the machine is muddled and confusing. In the game, Seb is trapped in Ruvik’s mind, but what about all the zombie-like enemies you face? There’s an in-game description of the enemies where they’re apparently other victims of Ruvik’s, but considering the amount you run in to, how is it possible that the cops never caught him? Seriously, you down well over two hundred enemies during the game’s run time, and the very nature of Stem never really becomes clear.

Things only get more obfuscated as you progress through the fairly linear story of the game. At seemingly random times, Sebastian will be teleported to a new environment with very little reason why or how. Why does Ruvik, a serial killer in the modern-day, apparently have mindscapes in the form of medieval castles? What happens in his mind that suddenly transports Sebastian from an asylum to a ramshackle village? And, if the enemies you face really are former victims of Ruvik, why are some of them dressed like monks and peasants while others wear modern clothing? Even more so than a lot of the Resident Evil games, so much of the story makes so little sense when you give it even the briefest amount of thought.

However, as far as gameplay and pacing is concerned, this extremely loose premise allows the developers to really get creative and unpredictable with their environments and set pieces. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense that Sebastian would go from a village in Ruvik’s mind to a gruesome factory filled with ground up bodies, but it gives the game a hyper-unique aesthetic that manages to surprise every step of the way. And really, that’s what you want from a game of this ilk. At the time of the game’s 2014 release, the medium was slowly moving away from the linear, set-piece driven nature of games like Uncharted and Gears of War, but The Evil Within served as a nice horror-themed compliment to those types of games.

That’s not to say that the game just hands the player victory just by playing it. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Evil Within combined the linear nature of early 2010 action games, but maintained the resource managing mindset of survival horror titles of old. Ammo is comically scarce, meaning that every single shot feels like you’re disposing of valuable resources. Even though you can craft ammo for your surprisingly ubiquitous crossbow, even bolts for that feel rare enough to be a real commodity instead of a given gameplay element.

Sebastian walks through a ruined city

In other words, you feel like you’re barely scraping by pretty much every step of the way. You can sneak around environments and stealth-kill enemies, and even on the normal difficulty, the game is absolutely balanced so that players have to take advantage of that. If you go into the game guns blazing, you will quickly find yourself short on resources and ammo, which can lead to real problems later on. The game has plenty of hidden stuff that allows you to power yourself up though, like weapon parts and green gel, which can upgrade your guns and Sebastian’s own health and stamina, respectively. In other words, the scarcity of resources makes exploring the fairly confined environments feel rewarding.

Oddly enough though, the game mostly apes Shinji Mikami’s masterpiece Resident Evil 4 for a good chunk of the run time. Don’t believe me? The first chunk of the game takes place in a primitive village setting before going into a castle, and it’s punctuated by siege-style set pieces, where you must defend a point from enemies, and has wild, off-the-wall bosses that defy description. There’s even a rather iconic enemy who can kill Sebastian in one hit that wields a chainsaw. Rather than having a sack on his head, though, he has a metal contraption that covers part of his face (although that just kind of makes him look like a rendition of Resident Evil 4’s Garrador, the dude in armor with giant Wolverine claws). This culminates in you defeat the final boss with a rocket launcher, in true Resident Evil fashion.

Sebastian runs from a terrifying monster with long hair and multiple arms

Somehow, despite the positively messy and underwritten narrative, the game manages to come together to feel like something wildly unique. It rewards careful and skilled players in a myriad of ways, such as optional boss fights (like one against a giant dog reminiscent of Sif the Great Greywolf from Dark Souls) and extra supplies, as well as keys, which can unlock lockers in the game’s poorly-explained hospital hub room. The first time through the game, the player genuinely does not know what to expect from the story next, and that serves as its greatest strength. That unpredictability makes it more fun than it should be, given its many disparate parts.

Perhaps the best way to summarize this first game is by describing a moment that happens about a third of the way through. Sebastian, at this point, has waded his way through too many extremely bloody environments to count. He’s either shot or stabbed so many aberrations that it would give the average person PTSD.  He shifts from an asylum type environment to a tunnel that is filled with bodies and has ankle-deep blood puddles. He runs into one of his partners and simply says “something’s wrong with this place,” in a calm voice.

The original Evil Within is a real oddball of a title, exemplifying an odd mixture of linear action game design with survival horror sensibilities. This wild unpredictability is what makes it an enjoyable game, but no one could have predicted how different its sequel would be.

The Evil Within 2

The sequel sees Sebastian falling on hard times, sort of like Ethan Thomas from Condemned: Criminal Origins. The weirdly unexplained accident from the first game is given full context; Sebastian’s daughter supposedly died in a house fire, and his wife left him because of this. As such, he has fallen on hard times and descended into alcoholism. His time in Ruvik’s mind during the first game has left him horribly traumatized as well, but he’s offered a chance at redemption when he is approached by a corporation known as Mobius to go into Stem once again and retrieve his daughter who, to the surprise of no one, is still alive.

This sequel retroactively fixes many of the problems with the story of the original. Sebastian is given an actual personality outside of general confusion and indifference towards to horrifically whacky shenanigans going on around him. Stem is explained a bit more, with his daughter apparently being the perfect mind to build a mental landscape known as Union. And there is an extended cast of characters who are given the proper development for the kind of story this sequel tells.

The biggest shift in direction, though, comes from the game’s structure. Whereas the first game was a mostly linear experience with some mild explorative elements, the sequel is, at times, a full-blown open world game. Or maybe a more appropriate way to describe it would be a fairly linear game with wide open environments you can explore at your own pace.

Sebastian stares at a large blue eye in the sky

The premise of the game, where a corporation tried to create a mindscape that resembles small town America, is really interesting and this allows for a more grounded, relatable set of environments. The first major environment you explore is the main street of Union, and it’s a certifiable horror sandbox. You’re given a general direction to go in and told to “have fun and survive.” It lets the gameplay fast and loose with the rules of the original and lends a certain unique quality to proceedings. The undead from the original game return and they populate the streets of Union, meaning that much like the original, you must fight for every inch of space. There are houses, trains, warehouses, and more to explore, and it makes everything feel a bit more intense since it’s immediately more relatable from a real world perspective.

Plus, like any good exploration driven game, going through the game’s environments are fun. You find ammo and crafting supplies, but there are also side quests to uncover and complete that go a long way to making the in-canon-fake world of Union feel more lived-in than the original game’s sometimes incongruent environments. And sometimes the side quests you stumble on really do feel incidental. There’s one spanning the majority of the game’s run time involving a creepy floating ghost lady who can kill you in one hit that particularly stands out since it almost felt random the first time I encountered her. In hindsight, she pops up in the same location every time, but the first time around I was simply exploring the open world when I came across the side quest, where you’re transported to a hospital reminiscent of the location of the massacre from the first game.

It comes together really nicely, almost echoing the likes of the Silent Hill franchise in terms of mixing supernatural horror with grounded, real stakes (going back and playing the original games in that much-loved franchise, you realize just how exploration-driven they are at points, which works in its favor when compared with its rival franchise Resident Evil). It almost feels like you’re a survivor of some kind of apocalypse, scrounging around for supplies.

Of course, this more open set up comes at a cost. The first game’s greatest strength is just how unpredictable it was with its environments and set pieces. The second game has a fantastic sense of exploration, with hidden weapons and items lurking around every corner, but it forgoes that creativity from the first game. Environments are largely pretty grounded, barring a few encounters with the game’s first antagonist Stefano, who is a serial killer that photographs his victims as perverse art. The monsters, while having a few standouts, are largely far too grounded when compared with the original, which had outlandish, wild designs.

Sebastian fires a shotgun at a group of flaming enemies

But none of that takes away from how enjoyable a stealth action title this sequel is. It has arguably better pacing, with player-driven exploration and a much more focused, easy to understand storyline. It sacrifices a lot of what makes the original unique with its shift to a more open approach, but it stands tall as one of the better horror offerings from the past decade.

And what is the point of all this discussion of this series? I guess that it makes me wonder what comes next. The second game wrapped up the series’ story arc up to that point pretty definitively, but so far both installments have had wickedly different approaches to the mental horror the story offers. Despite each game’s shortcomings, of which there are many, the series is a testament to the power of sheer creativity and ingenuity in game design, for better and for worse. And even though, at the end of the day, I don’t find either game particularly scary, it’s been a fascinating series to follow so far, and I’m extremely curious about what comes next.

Collin Henderson

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.

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