By Jonathon Dornbush
Updated October 21, 2014 at 05:47 PM EDT
  • Movie

My play sessions with The Evil Within unintentionally developed into a nightly pattern. I’d start up the game and play through two or three chapters, only to find myself facing an annoying enemy. That annoyance would give way to outright anger—halting my progress until the next evening, when I would make quick work of the foe that had bested me the night before. The cycle would repeat in waves, infrequent highs that kept being dashed by too frequent lows.

There’s a great game within The Evil Within, but a series of questionable choices and bizarre narrative elements hold it back from being that game.

The Evil Within puts players in control of Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who, with his partners Joseph Oda and Julie Kidman, must investigate a multiple homicide at Beacon Mental Hospital. Once on the scene, however, a mysterious figure in a tattered cloak named Ruvik attacks Sebastian and transports him to a world of deranged horrors that he must fight his way out of to survive.

Unfortunately, trying to make any sense of the story after the initial setup is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube missing some of its colors. Sebastian’s backstory, which barely factor’s into the game’s plot, is riddled with cliches; Joseph and Kidman don’t fare much better, but only because the game barely takes the time to characterize them.

The Evil Within seems to delight in reuniting Sebastian with one or both of his missing partners during a chapter, only to quickly separate them—then rinse and repeat a dozen times throughout the game. The conceit doesn’t just prevent the player from making any sort of attachment to the characters—it also raises the same set of stakes over and over again.

The story becomes even more confounding when Kidman is reintroduced late in the game after an extended absence. She’s got seemingly ulterior motives that are never really addressed, yet seem to be the crux of her decision making. Additional content has been promised for after launch that will tell Kidman’s side of the story, but her actions seem to be intrinsically tied to the story to be pushed out of the main narrative.

It’s a shame how underserved Kidman is because her voice actor, Jennifer Carpenter, has proven to be charismatic in previous roles. It’s unfortunately emblematic of the game’s almost complete lack of female characters, though—and those that factor into the story are either mostly ignored or used simply as a motivating factor for male characters.

Add to all of this the absolutely wooden acting—made more disappointing by the voice work of Carpenter and Jackie Earle Haley, among others—and The Evil Within’s glaring story problems made it difficult to care even when the gameplay gelled together.

(Spoilers follow)

It turns out that the game takes place almost entirely in Ruvik’s mind, and the frequent location shifts allow for an ever-changing dynamic. Ruvik’s history gives him some reasons for acting like a vengeful, demonic psychopath, but it’s never presented in a particularly lucid or intriguing manner. Considering that Sebastian is presented as a man with a troubled past whose actions are motivated by his family as well, there are countless chances to parallel his plight with Ruvik’s—or to have these two characters clash in interesting ways. The Evil Within takes almost none of those chances.

(End of spoilers)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Despite these issues, something compelled me to keep playing the game (other than a sense of obligation). The Evil Within’s location-hopping kept things from feeling too dull, throwing the player through a nightmare merry-go-round of abandoned churches, abandoned hospitals, and abandoned city blocks. Because the world is a mishmash of ideas and memories pulled out of Jigsaw’s most twisted dreams, enemy designs are as often as twisted and sick as they are impressive.

Yes, the main foes resemble zombies with some extreme piercings, but they’re at least a refreshing breed of zombie. And a number of the more powerful foes—as annoying as they may be to fight—are bizarre yet intimidating undead human/animal hybrids, including the absolutely bonkers final boss, a foe whose might is hampered only by what appears to be orthodontic headgear. There is some clear, twisted ingenuity behind the scenes, but the actual functionality of these foes are less impressive.

The Evil Within plays much like its spiritual predecessors, specifically Resident Evil 4—one of the first enemies you have to flee is a chainsaw-wielding fiend, after all—for better and worse. At times, the game feels like a smart evolution of Resident Evil 4‘s blend of tension and combat. The game boasts a stealth element, so that you can kill the undead by sneaking up behind them. During its earliest and later chapters, this mechanic puts a smart spin on a familiar genre. I genuinely felt nervous terror while trying to evade or take down every enemy in my path. Approaching these levels like puzzles, I used my deaths as a learning tool to understand how to best approach my foes the next time around.

Unfortunately, these levels are too few and far between, as the game gives way to scenarios that required me to gun down almost every enemy in my way. The tension of dread or fear too often gave way to the tension of frustration, and I found myself disappointed by an experience that could simultaneously ignore and improve upon a decade’s worth of horror advancements.

When that tension dissipated, the cracks in the experience started to show through. The gore at times seemed to exist only to out-Saw Saw, and Sebastian’s acceptance of the ridiculous scenarios he found himself in and stilted, offhand comments came off as funny, but not in an intentional way.

The Evil Within‘s audio fares much better when it comes to its environment and creature design. The grotesque squelches and growls of the undead both inspired anxious anticipation for what lurked around each corner. It’s just a shame that often, when I did come face to face with the sources of those sounds, combat became an exercise in finding the enemy’s one flaw or tricking it into behaving a certain way. These fights often weren’t scary—and, more importantly, weren’t fun.

The Evil Within features a few truly ambitious aspects; when they work,Shinji Mikami and his team offer some powerfully horrific moments. But those beats come too intermittently, bogged down by a disappointing story and a frustrating blend of combat and stealth. The Evil Within aims to evoke the past while pushing horror forward—but its greatest enemy in that endeavor may be itself.

Resident Evil

  • Movie
  • R
  • 100 minutes
  • Paul Anderson (Director)