The Evil Within is a worthier successor to Resident Evil 4 than 5 and 6, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually a good game. Not at all actually. Despite all the years between the two, everything TEW does RE4 did better. The narrative pacing is absolutely wacked. Giant swaths of the gameplay are straight-up ripped from RE4 with little elaboration, innovation, or deviation (that whole town section near the beginning especially). The upgrades/leveling system adds little to your sense of character progression. And really, the game throws so many batshit instadeath scenarios at you wall-to-wall it’s hard to feel that you’re getting any stronger, unlike how it felt gathering your arsenal in RE4.
The thing that bothers me most about The Evil Within actually doesn’t have much to do with how it plays, though. Like, there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding a formula that works and running with it. It’s not going to be as revolutionary or even as fun as the first to pull that formula off, but, hey, people like familiar things.
I think a more insidious but important part of the Evil Within works to its detriment: Its setting. Or lack thereof. You never really feel connected to anywhere you get thrown into in The Evil Within. It all feels like a set of random setpieces, cliches and tropes, without a lot of cohesive thought behind what leads one to the next. With no history or connective tissue between any of the game’s various levels, The Evil Within fails to offer the player a sense that they’re actually present within the game. It makes it so hard to actually care about learning more.
The Evil Within uses a great deal of old time-y generic insane asylum imagery throughout the game, much the same as what we see in a game like Outlast or the film Grave Encounters. It’s sprinkled throughout the loading screens, the safe area where you save and power up. But in the actually game, the asylum setting doesn’t last very long. It starts beautifully, with a trio of cops out to investigate a crime at the local city mental hospital. It’s rainy, there are cop car blue-and-red lights flickering, and it is eerily absent of people despite dozens of cars around. Inside, the hospital a bloody mess. A bit 0 to 11, but okay. Then our mystery antagonist sees us through a security cam, teleports to our location, and flings us into a nonsense nightmare that lasts the entire rest of the game.
You never get a sense of place in The Evil Within, which takes away from both the player’s enjoyment and the scare factor. The imagery and the creatures all just kind of become filters, not adding anything to each locale’s lore or history, because there isn’t any per se. Again, no connection. The first sequence, for instance, in which you are escaping from a chainsaw wielding maniac, barely makes any sense as a place. Does this dude live here? Does he actually have a backstory or did he just come into existance? Why does he hang you up before chopping you up? In addition to how the gore and violence are turned up to such an extreme that it barely registers, there’s this sense that you’re playing through horror movie scenarios with absolutely no context. From here you jump back to the city, to a pueblo/fortress sorta place (again ripped straight out of RE4), to various bizarre crypts, urban buildings drenched in blood and random traps, a decrepit mansion, anachronistic medieval castles with modern-ish machinery, etc. etc. After a while I have to ask: Why am I here? Why am I supposed to care?
The story eventually explains why things are so chaotic and mismatched, but it doesn’t really matter. Again, there’s no cohesion from one place to the next. The damage is done because we’ve already spent most of the game with no connection to where we are. Characters, sure, but not location. There’s no significance to where you are, so it’s tough to feel compelling to explore, to learn anything.
The Evil Within is more confident in what it wants to be than Resident Evil 6 was, but not by much. RE6 didn’t know what kind of a game it wanted to be, where to focus the scares and where to focus the combat, how to incorporate both those elements, and thus ended up gluing four mediocre games together. The Evil Within knew it wanted to be a loosely more freaky RE4 clone, a return to true “horror” horror, but it failed to pin down its setting. A lack of a definite setting didn’t make the game completely fall apart as a result, because in bits its not that bad, but it’s still the biggest lost opportunity for me. The thing I couldn’t really forgive the developers for dropping the ball on.