The Evil Within is the best Resident Evil 4 imitation to date, and in no way is that a bad thing. The similarities are nearly endless — zombie-like creatures, chainsaw-wielding maniacs — but the most common thread is that both games are created by survival horror mastermind, Shinji Mikami. With the bar raised so high, you may question whether his first foray into the genre since making the iconic horror classic in 2005 could ever live up to expectations. The good news is that The Evil Within most certainly does. The other question you need to ask yourself is whether you’re prepared to accept what it offers: a relentless, brutal, and sometimes unforgiving survival horror adventure that will challenge even the most veteran of gamers. Still with us? Then read on.

The Evil Within prides itself in stacking the odds against you and revels in doing everything it can to put you at a disadvantage. Enemies invade you in greater numbers, ammo is significantly more precious due to its scarcity, and the game, quite simply, is genuinely harder than most. And yet, the game remains strangely fun despite this feeling of constant dread. Without spoiling anything, The Evil Within includes some wickedly — and terrifically — terrifying situations that will have your palms sweating and your blood pumping. It’s ability to build tension and build upon that feeling over and over again is a testament to the talent by Mikami and his new team, Tango Gameworks. Honestly, what more could you ask for in a survival horror game?

Mikami has stated that The Evil Within was designed to be a return to form for the genre, citing recent scary games (ex. Dead Space) as “action horror” instead of focusing on surviving. And while his vision remains true, the same can’t be said for the game’s incoherent and jumbled story. Even after completing all 15 chapters, we didn’t have the faintest idea of what actually happened. We don’t imagine it’s possible to summarize the plot in a few lines; it’s just that convoluted. The Evil Within pulls you in for the ride but never offers much in terms of explanation. Even the player character, Sebastian Castellanos, is laughably unfazed towards everything around him and much of his backstory is told through diaries you’ll pick up in safe rooms. We can respect a story that is open for interpretation, but when it spirals so quickly from the get go, it’s hard to stay invested.

"The Evil Within includes some wickedly — and terrifically — terrifying situations that will have your palms sweating and your blood pumping."

While the story and characters leave much to be desired, The Evil Within more than makes up for it by successfully bringing your greatest fears to life. Most of the game’s environments are downright chilling, effectively achieving an atmosphere so strong, it weighs on you. You’ll be taken through traditional horror scenery like creepy hospitals, churches, through dark woods and sewers. There’s great variety in the places you’ll see — even a few welcome surprises —and the lingering fear rarely wanes. Even on a second playthrough, that sense of uneasiness continued to flow through us with every step forward and each enemy encounter. The Evil Within does a sensational job on making you feel vulnerable and trains you to always stay alert, cementing the idea that death can occur at practically any time. And die we did — 94 times! Yep, The Evil Within graciously keeps a running death tally so you don’t have to (Thanks!), only revealing itself until the end of the campaign. Sometimes, the enemies aren’t even your greatest threat. Traps are littered in the most inconvenient of places in The Evil Within. There are bombs that will detonate if you run past them, trip wires set to explode upon close contact, numberous bear traps, and other heinous things. The good news is that death doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the player, as there is a fairly generous checkpoint system in place — although quitting a chapter entirely means restarting it from the beginning — so replaying a segment over again didn’t feel like much of a setback.

Most, if not all, of those deaths are from the horrific and unpredictable enemies you’ll face throughout the nightmare that is The Evil Within. Creature design in the game is top notch and inventive, with certain enemies — specifically bosses like the Keeper — being absolute highlights. In fact, these boss encounters are some of the more memorable fights we’ve witnessed all year long regardless of genre, and there’s a proud sense of accomplishment after defeating each big baddie. The Evil Within also features a limited stealth mechanic that can be used to help take down regular foes. Sneaking up from behind and removing an enemy one by one is satisfying, but The Last of Us this ain’t. Sebastian moves slower than we’d like and enemies seem to have a more heightened awareness when you’re trying to stab them from behind. We definitely found it useful at the beginning, but it ends up falling by the wayside once the game introduces enemies that can’t be killed by stealth, which left us with the only available option: bullets.

"...boss encounters are some of the more memorable fights we’ve witnessed all year long regardless of genre, and there’s a proud sense of accomplishment after defeating each big baddie."

Eliminating the vicious threats in The Evil Within must mean that Sebastian has a huge arsenal of weapons, right? Well, not so much — but they end up doing the job pretty well. Conserving ammo is absolutely crucial in The Evil Within and if you aren’t careful with the save system, it’s entirely possible to put yourself at a major disadvantage before heading into an enemy-filled area. Dispatching enemies with the pistol, shotgun, and sniper rifle is pretty standard stuff, but its the new Agony Crossbow that steals the show. This doozy of a weapon can help you out of a pinch thanks to special unique arrows with various abilities. There’s the explosive bolt that’s basically a sticky grenade. The freeze bolt completely freezes an enemy, allowing you to shatter them in pieces. And the electric bolt can electrocute a group of enemies in their tracks, making it easy to lob a grenade at their feet as you watch them get obliterated. The Evil Within forces you to become a better player as you go. You’ll realize what weapons and items work best against different enemies, that using the flash bolt can stun everyone in a room for a small duration, when to use and when not to use your matches, and so on.

Scattered about in every nook and cranny, as well as laying waste to enemies, are bottles of ‘green gel’ that Sebastian can use to upgrade his abilities and weapons. Most of the early upgrades can be unlocked quite easily, but as you progress through the game, deciding on what to spend the gel on becomes a much bigger and important decision. Do you spend it on increasing your pistol damage? Or, maybe you’d like to sprint for a longer duration. As simple as the system is, we found ourselves coming back to it frequently. It may seem like nothing, but something as improving the clip capacity for your shotgun could very much be your saving grace when surrounded by a horde of undead.

On the technical front, The Evil Within is at many times a beautifully designed game that accentuates atmosphere above all else. Other times, it can look a bit “last-gen.” The opening chapter in particular doesn’t give a positive graphical impression with some muddy textures and occasional framerate hiccups. Thankfully, the game looks and performs better after that. We did notice some texture pop-in now and again (mostly during cutscenes) but nothing major that took us out of the experience. A lot has been said about the games’ egregious letterbox mode which seems to be an intentional choice from the developer. We would be lying if we said we didn’t find it distracting at times, but after a few hours in we hardly noticed it.

Conclusion

The Evil Within feels like an old-school survival game made for the new-school generation. It doesn’t ignore what modern horror games brought to the genre, but it scales it down and puts the focus back on actually surviving. It’s an intense, pulse-pounding horror adventure that rarely lets up, but it’s also enjoyable to play and has some of most memorable enemy encounters this year in any game. It may not be for the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a hardcore and pure survival horror experience then look no further than The Evil Within.