Nearly a decade ago, Shinji Mikami and Capcom unleashed Resident Evil 4. The game not only revamped the series, it set a new standard for viscerally satisfying third-person gunplay. Over the last nine years, players have mastered this gameplay style with the RE series and other franchises. Now Mikami is back to put our honed skills to the ultimate test. Tango Gameworks’ premiere extracts the essence of RE 4’s satisfying gameplay and progression loops while expertly ratcheting up the skin-of-your-teeth survival elements and suffocating atmosphere.

The Evil Within is what you get when you take the most iconic horror clichés, blend them into a bloody pulp, and spread them across the sturdy bones of Resident Evil 4. I can’t overstate how firmly planted The Evil Within’s roots are in RE 4, but that’s a wonderful thing given the 2005 GameCube title’s legacy. Everything from the core combat, A.I. behavior, and escalation of the enemy types feels like the incredible Capcom classic. 

Mikami isn’t resting on his prestigious laurels – where RE 4 and its successors were a step toward over-the-top action, The Evil Within is a return to terrifying form. This is one of the most tense, unpredictable, and demanding horror games I’ve ever played. One moment you’re sneaking through a medieval village taking out zombies with the slick stealth system, and the next you’re flung into a room with gigantic doll heads stacked to the ceiling. The Evil Within offers no respite. Even the act of saving your game is an unnerving affair, though I won’t spoil how. Tango Gameworks draws obvious inspiration from horror movie classics like Ju-On and Saw, but the way the team incorporates these themes into the gameplay makes you feel like you’re surviving one of the craziest horror films you’ve ever seen. The multi-limbed, black-haired Laura is one of the most disturbing creatures I’ve ever encountered in a game, and she’s only a fraction of the fright.

Jump scares and the gorgeously executed ominous lighting set the tone, but the scarcity of resources and lethal enemies generate the most anxiety.  Similar to early Resident Evils and more recently The Last of Us, feeling “safe” sometimes means tip-toeing into a trap-infested murder maze with a single bullet in your chamber – because at least you have something. I love playing a modern horror game where finding a couple loose shotgun shells feels like stumbling upon El Dorado. You can drop matches on fallen enemies to light them on fire for a fast, ammo-saving kill. I love the satisfaction of waiting for an approaching enemy to walk near a prone corpse, setting both monsters ablaze in a clutch two-for-one. On multiple occasions I threw every last bullet, shell, and crossbow bolt at the enemy, only to limp away with nothing but having survived. One emergent, standout moment involved a standoff with an enemy wielding a single-action pistol, both of us circling each other before I narrowly downed it with my final bullet with only a sliver of health left. Tango Gameworks has mastered the ebb and flow of rationing out resources before dramatically stripping them away – something I found consistently intense and never frustrating.

The Evil Within is a wonderfully horrifying experience, but I have some minor gripes. Texture pop-in is distracting from time to time, and a handful of archaic trial-and-error instant-death moments – like fleeing down a hallway from an invulnerable beast – become tedious instead of scary after a few repeated attempts. I died 64 times, and while I know the vast majority of those were my fault, the rest of my failures felt like remnants of the worst elements of the modern Resident Evil games. Speaking of which, the story and actors are as cheesy and heavy-handed as ever. The premise of detective Castellanos enduring a perpetually warping nightmare is great, but the driving narrative forces are at best enigmatic and at worst embarrassing. 

Horror fans shouldn’t let the disappointing story deter them one bit, however. Few Paranormal Activity fans care how these malevolent demons come back again and again – what truly matters is that the audience’s nerves are frayed until they’re raw. The Evil Within excels at keeping your palms sweaty while delivering a harrowingly rewarding gameplay trial. Watching the credits roll with a sigh of relief doesn’t feel like winning; it feels like surviving.

Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.