"The Evil Within" was a slow seduction.
"Resident Evil" creator Shinji Mikami's newest game, and the first from his Tango Gameworks studio, begins with a stealth tutorial.
Detective Sebastian Castellanos is radioed to a bloodbath at Beacon Mental Hospital, where he and his partners are sucked into some hellish alternate-reality human butcher shop. After freeing himself from a meat hook, Castellanos has to sneak away from his monstrous, chainsaw-waving captor and flee the hospital.
I didn't hate it. But I didn't love it.
Mikami's "artistic" decision to sandwich "The Evil Within's" picture with black letterbox bars, combined with his camera's tight proximity to Castellanos' back, makes surveying the detective's surroundings an anxious bit of guesswork. Several decapitations later, I was taking my sweet time before every step.
But this first chapter was well-lit, and I had just the one prowler to avoid, so my tension didn't cross too far over the line between stimulating and frustrating. Mikami: Still quite good at survival horror.
For players of the designer's masterwork "Resident Evil 4," the second chapter pivots toward the familiar: Third-person shooting and maneuvering in a rural nighttime setting. Zombie-types (the Haunted) that shamble your way when they see you. Those damn camouflaged bear traps that announce their presence with a jarring iron clap.
On the game's default difficulty, "Survivor," it's a scrape.
Ammo is so scarce, you'll sometimes acquire less bullets than the amount you literally see in the box before you press the pickup button. At first, you'll likely kill more enemies with Castellanos' stealth takedown — which this chapter teaches. But his crawl is slow, and the busybody Haunted don't stay vulnerable from one angle for too long. Throw in those cursed black bars, and it's a feat when you can chain together a few takedowns before alerting the whole charred husk of a ghost town.
Still: So far, so good. I'd killed them more than they'd killed me, at least.
That changed in the third chapter, a fantastically designed hamlet whose houses were not friendly to newcomers — let alone those who'd navigate them in secret. So Mikami's curious decision to emphasize stealth in the first chapter got curiouser. The tone it set had already gone silent.
I'd sneak, and die, and sneak, and die, each time surprised or overwhelmed by monsters who clocked me via the level's many lines of sight. And when I thought I got the drop on one, a bear trap or tripwire bomb spoiled even that small victory. Then, when I'd finally survived all the Haunted residents on my 10th or 15th restart, I had to kill Chainsaw Charlie — but not before splashing the screen with Castellanos' blood another 10 times.
Now I was begging for mercy.
By chapter four, I'd shaken off the stealth impulse and started playing Castellanos as I would Leon Kennedy. But I was still screwed. Between the number of enemies, their Muhammad Ali-like head movement and the lack of auto-aim, my limited ammo was gone fast. Sometimes I just ran, but without the appropriate skill upgrades, Castellanos has worse wind than Homer Simpson.
No, it doesn't matter how you play "The Evil Within": It is an equal-opportunity punisher.
I waved the white flag in chapter six, when Castellanos is mysteriously swept to sunny cliffside ruins in one of several nonsensical scene changes to accommodate the game's barely comprehensible story of childhood trauma and experimental brain surgery.
Stuck in a series of tiny rooms with hordes of enemies hopping the windows while Castellanos' partner unlocks the next door, I died a good 15 times before I finally did it: I changed the difficulty to "Casual." I'd have stuck it out but for two things: Publisher Bethesda Softworks suggested "Casual" difficulty for critics, and I wanted to review this game before 2015.
Then, a funny thing happened: I slowly began to enjoy "The Evil Within."
I began to appreciate its knotty level design, its dreary decor of blood and rust, its unnerving police precinct where you save your game and buy upgrades. I began to delight in luring crowds of Haunted to oil slicks or corpses, where one match from Castellanos could immolate the lot. I began to take pleasure in the boss battles, which splice the strategy of stealth and bull's-eye shooting with frantic barrages against walking medical waste dumps and dudes with combination safes for heads.
Sure, I still hated the game's story and all but avoided its stealth. Its brainless puzzles failed to impress, too — save for one that, ironically enough, involved probing bisected skulls in some weirdo's secret mansion chambers. And the final boss is by far the worst in the game.
But with a few more bullets in Castellanos' clip — and bolts for his nifty crossbow — "The Evil Within" struck the right harrowing note.
Now, having finished it and discovered its deeply buried charms, I'm not only willing to survive Mikami's latest on harder difficulties — I want to. I doubt I'll do so as many times as I did "Resident Evil 4," but some nightmares just hit you harder than others.