Smith: Playing with evil

Video Games Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

It’s rare to meet someone who shares your nightmares.

I’ve never met “Resident Evil” creator Shinji Mikami, but I feel like he’s met me — perhaps in a dream. He makes my worst fears reality, creating the kind of grotesque video game monsters that can never be properly replicated in film. The first time I played “Resident Evil” in 1996, I called up my friends and demanded they rush to my house.

They had to see the demented workings of Mikami’s mind.

When Mikami returned to his roots with the very “Resident Evil 4”-esque “The Evil Within” in 2014, it got decent reviews, but quickly disappeared from the public conscious. I briefly rented it and came away disappointed, unimpressed by the sneaking mechanics, the clichéd opening environment, and the extreme difficulty. My will to keep playing crumpled within two hours.

I rediscovered “The Evil Within” last month through an online sale, and discovered the terrible mistake I made three years ago. This is the best survival-horror game since the original “Resident Evil.”

‘The Evil Within’ Released in 2014, Rated ‘M’

As much as I love Japanese game developers, I’ll never understand their propensity toward slow, off-putting intros. To its credit, the opening moments of “The Evil Within” are fantastic. You have to sneak past a bloody, demonic butcher carving up a …. something inside a ramshackle hut. If he sees you, it’s game over.

But then the game slows to a crawl for the next couple chapters. In an attempt to set a broad template that introduces the core game mechanics, Mikami made the mistake of dropping players into an uninspiring, old-fashioned village that feels like it was ripped directly from his previous work, “Resident Evil 4.” There’s not enough ammo and far too many enemies, and I died at least 20 times on the easiest difficulty.

No wonder I gave up three years ago.

I pushed ahead this time, my appreciation for the game slowly growing with each minute I survived. By the time I fought the chainsaw-wielding maniac at the end of the opening chapters, I was hooked. The encounter wasn’t exactly original, but devising a method to take on this behemoth (I died several more times) aroused my gaming intellect.

And then the real game started. An endless slew of horrifying, creatively crafted monsters started attacking me, and they looked anything but humanoid. The drab village setting gave way to nightmarish landscapes where walls grow giant, protruding eyeballs and a river of blood runs through a mountain of skulls.

Even when he fails, Mikami has a striking eye for cinematography. The imagery is on par with “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” which makes it one of the most visually arresting games I’ve seen. Ammo does become more abundant, but the difficulty never eases, and you’re constantly in fear for your life.

A lot of gamers complained about the narrow 16:9 letterbox ratio that creates black bars across the top and bottom of the screen, and I didn’t like it either — not at first. But the narrow perspective bolsters the gameplay, giving the environments a claustrophobic feel.

The poorly explained plot (you’re a cop stuck in a killer’s mind, ala “The Cell”) and cheesy voice acting muddy the narrative, but that, too, becomes part of the game’s charm. You never know what the hell is going on.

There’s nothing scarier than a murky future.

‘The Evil Within 2’ Released Oct. 13, 2017 Rated ‘M’

Artistically, sequels of any kind are a dicey proposition. Horror sequels usually are so bad, they taint the legacy of the original.

I’m happy to report “The Evil Within 2” does an admirable job of expanding Mikami’s universe. It’s easier than the original, plays better and adapts a limited open-world exploration system that takes you through a creepy, “Silent Hill”-esque town.

I got it last week and haven’t went a night (you should only play these games at night) without playing it.

But it’s not as good as the original. It’s not as weird. It’s not as scary. And the plot, while an interesting riff on the original, is too detailed, draining the uneasy atmosphere of the original with detailed explanations that ruin the ambiguity.

Mikami reduced his role on this game from director to producer, and it shows. The monsters are cool, but there aren’t as many. The narrow aspect ratio has been ditched due to consumer complaints, even though the developers said in an interview they liked the narrow perspective better.

“The Evil Within 2” is a very good game that could have been great if not for the homogenization of the series’ quirkiest elements. It looks a lot like “The Last of Us,” because “The Last of Us” sold really well. It has more action than the first game, because action games sell well.

I don’t have any insider knowledge, but it smells like a classic case of money men trying to turn “The Evil Within 2” into a bland AAA game to rack up more sales. That approach almost never works, though, and “The Evil Within 2″ has only sold a quarter as many copies as it’s predecessor in the same time period.

With those kind of numbers, you can forget about the possibility of “The Evil Within 3.”

That’s fine by me. I’ve spent the past couple of months lost in Mikami’s nightmares, and it has reinvigorated my interest in a waning genre now dominated by boring hide-and-seek horror games.

I’d much rather see what terrible visions Mikami has in store with his next franchise. If he gets another one.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye, a GateHouse Media Company in Burlington, Iowa. His column is printed each week in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.