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Shinji Mikami is an undeniable master of Japanese horror. Twice now, he's redefined survival horror, with Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4, and with The Evil Within, he's going for some sort of despicable hat trick. To complete the laboured sports analogy, he shoots and scores, but only narrowly misses the goalie's fingers.
Seb Castellanos is a police detective in the vein of Columbo, but his life is about to get more like Kolchak's when he's called to investigate a chain of brutal murders at the Beacon Mental Hospital. Ambushed by a mysterious hooded figure, he awakens hanging from a meathook, and his day goes downhill from there. A procession of horrors follows as he searches for his missing partners and uncover the truth behind the macabre history of the institute and the twisted hellhole the outside world has transformed into.
From the opening moments, there's an oppressive tension hanging over the game. This is a title that elicits a slow, sustained fear from the player, and while there are occasional jump scares as you navigate the dark, gore-soaked locations, it's much more about psychological terror. It also cleverly plays with the expected language of video games to better frighten you with no tutorial beyond basic controls, an early section lulls you into thinking you can pull off a stealth kill. You cannot, as you fatally learn.
Contrary to early impressions that painted The Evil Within as an unbranded Resi, it's actually a marked evolution (insert "evilution" pun here) of Mikami's previous games. While it retains a number of directorial idiosyncrasies, these Mikamisms esoteric puzzles, overwhelmingly powerful enemies, a series of increasingly sadistic ways to meet your end, and a relentless Nemesis-esque foe in Ruvik, the hooded stranger are no different to the hallmarks any other noted creator puts in their work. If anything, it's closer to Silent Hill, with many of the situations connecting back to Castellanos' own tortured past.
The controls are a leap forward from Mikami's earlier efforts, with the player having full camera and motion input. As a result, enemies are faster and more powerful than you might expect, compensating for your increased manoeuvrability with deadly might. Seb's eventual use of traps and tools, in addition to firearms and more archaic weapons, instils a level of strategy into your progression. Choosing whether to risk a gunshot, attracting other enemies, or lure a foe into a trap, leaving yourself vulnerable, creates a delicate balance of risk and reward. Crafting and levelling up, using components found through the game, add another layer of depth, with almost an RPG feel in places.
It's a weirdly beautiful game, too. The deformed monstrosities populating the world aren't going to be winning any pageants, but both the creatures and environments are masterfully crafted. Similarly, Masafumi Takada's incredible musical score helps ratchet the tension up to unbearable levels. The Evil Within is a game with the visuals and aural finesse to sit comfortably among horror greats.
However, for all it does right, it's not quite the masterpiece it could be. The dark psychology at work is clunky and overwrought in places, and the protagonist comes across as increasingly one-note, a typical jaded cop. He's actually less interesting the more we learn about him. Elsewhere, some of the set pieces feel like Mikami at his most self-indulgent weird and schlocky for the sake of it, rather than stylised. At these times, The Evil Within becomes almost predictable, with the creator too reliant on old tricks. The auto save system could do with fine tuning also, as it either records progress over-enthusiastically or with seeming epochs between saves.
Despite those flaws, taken as a full package The Evil Within is still Mikami's best game in years. It's atmospheric, chilling and often deeply disturbing, and likely the best big-budget horror game 2014 has seen.