Shinji Mikami’s directorial path in the last couple of decades has been an interesting one. What most people remember him for is the original Resident Evil, a game that arguably influenced pretty much every horror game released afterwards. He then passed years obsessively trying to make a new and improved version of that original game (Dino Crisis, Resident Evil’s remake), just to then finally embrace its naiveties with the huge b-movie self-parody that was Resident Evil 4. Now, four years since his last game (the completely insane action-shooter Vanquish) he now comes back to the scene with The Evil Within (Psychobreak in Japan), which he states will be his last game as director.
While this kind of statement seems to be thrown around quite a lot in the industry, The Evil Within surely feels like an end point, or at least like a point of closure for Mikami. After various shots at horror, and the subsequent self-critique through parody, The Evil Within puts it all together. It mixes ideas from all his previous games, delivering an intense experience that manages to go from the genuinely creepy to the over-the-top absurd without ever feeling discontinuous.
The Evil Within sees us taking control of Sebastian Castellanos, a police detective that, following unclear circumstances, ends up trapped in the mind of Ruvik, a sadistic scientist obsessed with researching a way to link minds together (this seems like it should be a huge twist, the game doesn’t agree and explains it casually after a couple of chapters). Nonsensical as it is, this setup allows Mikami to not worry too much about developing a linear plot and to instead lead the player through a psychedelic journey that explores a vast set of thematic and ludic concepts, continuously flinging him from one setting to another.
It almost feels as though Ruvik is there as a stand in for Mikami himself, as if the game is not just an exploration of the scientist’s damaged mind but also of Mikami’s unending creativity. Just like Ruvik desires for Castellanos to uncover the circumstances that made him who he is, Mikami desires for the player to explore his past, present and future ideas. Despite his antagonistic role, Ruvik almost never express animosity towards the player, often pitying him and challenging him, rather than directly assaulting him. He acts exactly as a game designer would, expressing himself by creating deadly challenges. The only way to understand him is for the player to survive those challenges, delving deeper and deeper into his mind to uncover his tormented past.
The most emblematic moment, when looking at Ruvik’s duality, is probably the ninth chapter. This is a section of the game specifically focused on exploring Ruvik’s past, from his infancy to his rise as a sadistic genius. Most importantly this level is set in a perfect representation of Mikami’s ludic past, being an almost exact remake of the iconic first Resident Evil 4 prototype. Ruvik stalks the player through a huge mansion almost exactly like the chain-ghost did in that prototype; the only chance for the player to survive is to run, hide and solve a series of puzzles very akin to the one found in the first Resident Evil (an almost unique instance in the game). It’s also interesting to note that the mansion itself can easily bring to mind the setting of that first Resident Evil.
The game is filled with these reimaginings of concepts from Mikami’s past but, rather than just be stuck in memories, it manages to build from them. Mikami uses to his advantage the mix of silliness, action and horror that characterized his career and structures the game around an almost cinematic system of tension, terror and relief. Action-heavy sections are used to create tension through the need for the player to tightly manage his resources; horror-oriented setpieces are used to capitalize on that tension with eerie situations and terrifying bosses (the first encounter with The Keeper stands out as a really well designed “horror” boss-fight). Finally, fast-paced over-the-top action is used to break the tension from time to time, giving the player moments of “power” that truly help to valorise the feeling of “powerlessness” that the rest of the game incites.
This structure sprawls through a huge size of content. The game is divided in fifteen chapters, each one with its unique concepts and gameplay quirks. Sadly, this huge concentration of old and new ideas means that inevitably some chapter end up not working as well as the others. While there are absolutely brilliant sections, like the one in which invisible enemies are used to make the “object moving by themselves” trope a very tense horror-shooter mechanic, there are also a couple of low points, especially towards the end. The one that sticks out the most is the eleventh chapter, that sees Castellanos having to cross a flooded city haunted by a zombie shark. This ends up just not working as a horror mechanic, mainly because it devolves into almost a puzzle game, and there is no tension when you already know that stepping into the water without every bait set into place means instant death.
The ludic frame through which the entire game is delivered is the one of a classic over-the-shoulder third person shooter. However, unlike Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space, The Evil Within always feels like a “horror game”, even in its most action-oriented sequences. Many design decisions factor into this unique feeling, like enemies taking a lot of time to kill and almost every action implying the spending of precious resources. The core of it though is probably the shooting controls themselves. This is not the light-gun inspired Resident Evil 4, nor the stylish Vanquish; The Evil Within’s guns are sluggish and imprecise, it takes ages to actually get an enemy into their sight (not helped by the fact that the evil mind-zombies are not always of the slow kind) and it’s almost impossible to headshot constantly and quickly with them. The player is never in complete control, he cannot plan his gunfights because a single zombie dashing towards him can mean a heavy loss of time and bullets, and a loss of time and bullets means having to frantically rethink his whole strategy.
The Evil Within is an almost bloated game, a product permeated for better and for worse by Mikami’s style and creativity. It may be almost incomprehensible without knowledge of the author’s body of work, and it’s definitely a bit self-indulgent, but there is still a lot to like in it. Sure, a couple of chapters don’t really live up to the rest of the game, there is a bit too much reliance on trial and error rather than tutorialization and the upgrade system feels a bit useless. All of this however is definitely overshadowed by all of the good ideas in it, and by the fact that Mikami seems to have truly matured as a designer, finally managing to use Resident Evil’s mechanics to create a game that’s genuinely scary. If this is truly Mikami’s last game it is a fitting send-off, a mix of gore, comedy and horror like only he could have delivered.
8 / 10