Having just finished The Evil Within, I couldn’t help but notice a certain similarity of this game to Alien: Isolation and a couple of other seemingly unrelated titles. They all do a fantastic job of making you believe they’re incredibly hard, while they aren’t.
The Evil Within is recognized as sort of a failed attempt at resurrecting the survival horror. The game was met without much enthusiasm and stands at around 70 % on Metacritic, with scores varying a bit between the platforms. To me, it’s a gem. A wonderfully insane mix of horror tropes that takes the over-the-top Japanese ideas and FINALLY finds a proper context for them: going crazy. In Resident Evil 5, punching a boulder out of your way seemed out of place. Here, anything goes. You are going insane, after all! (Or are you?) So don’t think about realism, just enjoy one the weirdest horrors you’ll ever see.
The game feels a bit clunky and controls rather sluggishly, but it’s a must in a good survival horror. It’s not a coindicence that the best titles from this genre are also considered the ones with the least approachable controls. When you aren’t an action hero and struggle to kill a single enemy, then every encounter, even on your 3rd playthrough, will remain tense.
However, the one thing The Evil Within has been criticized for the most is also the easiest to justify. The game is thought to be unreasonably hard (so much that its equally underappreciated sequel‘s hardest difficulty was made easier than the original’s default one).
Well, it isn’t that hard. Or rather: it is… in the first couple of chapters, and then it’s not, but you don’t know that.
There I was, carefully making my way around some twisted barbed-wired farmers, when I got to the first semi-open setpiece: a village full of zombie-wannabes and a locked gate. The key was on an extremely powerful opponent that could easily instakill me. This was still the very beginning of the game, so I didn’t have a chance to upgrade my abilities, nor did I find any reasonably strong weapon.
The summary of my playthrough told me that I had died 109 times in the entire game, and I feel like a third of these deaths happened in this spot. (However, the openness of the environment, the presence of traps and hiding spots made it a pleasure to try and try again, and when I finally succeeded, it was overwhelmingly satisfying.)
Not long afterwards, there was another difficulty spike: a four-armed monster that not only could take me out in a single shot, but also teleported and was immune to nearly everything but fire.
Never again has the game become such demanding and unforgiving. These two instances happened at the one-third point of the entire story.
The exact same thing happened in Alien: Isolation, in the medlab near the beginning, not long after the Alien comes into play. The fan community agrees that’s one of the toughest sections of the game. To me, it’s the toughest, and I’ve beaten Isolation four times, on two platforms, on the hardest difficulty, so it’s not like I experienced an unusual playthrough.
I’d argue that the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne do a similar thing with their early bosses (The Cleric Beast, Father Gascoigne, the Gargoyles), who – for inexperienced players – are tougher to beat than anything that comes afterwards. Note that these games are also (in)famously hard.
Was placing these incredibly tough challenges so early a design mistake? I don’t think so, even though common sense would suggest that such bits should be reserved for the end game, where all of the player’s skills are supposed to be tested.
By placing humongous obstacles so early, these games made me believe they are very hard – obnoxiously even – but after beating them I realized that, somehow, at some point I became able to beat large chunks of levels without dying. Of course I didn’t know that when playing, so I was extremely careful – and totally immersed.
I like to think this was an intended effect: to make the player fear what’s before him, but avoid punishing him to the point of frustration.
If the early game is so hard, one has to wonder: what kinds of insufferable horror are to come? Then, by making the rest of the game actually not that difficult, the designers prevented me from getting angry with it, and at the same time made me believe I was getting really good.
It’s a brilliant strategy, but a risky one as well. If you overuse it in your games, the player will be expecting a difficulty dip and could feel disappointed when the game proves predictable. I think I’m at such a point right now – I loved what they did in the games I mentioned, but I wouldn’t like to see this pattern repeating in the titles I choose to play next.
Also, there’s the danger of discouraging less-persistent players. I like my survival horror hard, but I think this early difficulty spike was one of the reasons The Evil Within was met without much fanfare.
Let’s also consider the game’s unusual cinematic aspect ratio. it made for beautiful film-like shots naturally occurring during gameplay and created this stifling, claustrophobic atmospehre, but at the same time it made navigation even harder and possibly fueled the frustration. Can this be the real reason why it has been widely criticized, and not the fact that it’s a game and cinematic tricks just don’t work?
The ultimate question is: was taking the different approach worth it?
The publishers would probably say that not really. The Evil Within’s and Alien: Isolation’s sales were disappointing. However, not every game has to be for everybody and I do appreciate the different direction they attempted. Both titles got a faithful following, so they certainly did something right, however maybe they shouldn’t have been envisioned as ultra-expensive AAA titles for their own sake.
Personally, I don’t complain. I applaud these studios for taking chances. If you’re looking for a different kind of design, just give their games a try.
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