"Evil Dead: The Game is freakin' awesome," I gushed to the GamesRadar team Slack seconds after punishing a team of intrepid, but ultimately unsuccessful "survivors". Just in the nick of time, I had squashed their attempt at banishing the Kandarian Demon tormenting the area and won the match, and since there's a little more strategy involved in playing as demons, I was feeling especially pleased with myself. "Isn't it fun?!" agrees Alyssa Mercante, who recently smothered the entire dev team in a match for our hands-on Evil Dead: The Game preview. "It's the best 'one of these games' I've played," I declare.
Compared to its closest relatives, Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game, Evil Dead's greatest virtue is that it manages to feel both meaty and uncomplicated; it arms survivors with an arsenal of weapons and skills to fight off deadites and gives the bad guys a lot more to do than just bash heads, and yet somehow it's easier to pick up and play than both Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th.
Even though there's a short tutorial priming you for success as a survivor and demon, real matches have an in-canon narrator walking you through each step. And yet, if you're ever unsure about what you're supposed to be doing, you'll also find your current objective clearly laid out at the top right of the screen. Stuff like this makes all the difference for folks like me who feel like a nuisance trying to learn a new game while playing with people who already know what they're doing.
Who's laughing now?
Evil Dead: The Game also remedies an issue I have with these kinds of games where survivors are too often helpless against the bad guys. Just as Tommy Jarvis is no match for Jason Voorhees' machete and victims can only pray Sadako isn't crawling out of a well from behind the TV's static, your only real option is to run from your pursuer in Friday the 13th and Dead by Daylight. But Ash Williams, brilliantly voiced by original actor Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead: The Game, doesn't have a freakin' chainsaw arm for nothing. You can, and should, give deadites absolute hell when you see them. You'll find axes, hammers, pistols, shotguns, and rifles lying all around the map, and here they don't just stun the enemy, they straight up kill them.
I know I'm telling on myself here, but whatever, it's not the first time. Friday the 13th: The Game and Dead by Daylight are too scary sometimes. My nerves can't tolerate the feeling of powerlessness when I'm a survivor in those games; I find myself too often hiding and waiting for the bad thing to come get me and put an end to my misery. It absolutely shreds my nerves to be scrambling for an item or fiddling with a key while the pounding of my stalker's footsteps grows louder - the tension can be so bad that my shoulders ache the next day - so I mostly just run and hide and get nothing done. In Evil Dead: The Game, I'm a relentless killer whether I'm a survivor or a demon.
In one of my first few matches as a broad-chested warrior named Henry the Red, I lumbered around the map confidently, swinging a huge mallet in both hands against swarms of deadites, ramming into them with an old pickup truck, blasting them to bits with The Boomstick, and eventually sending the Dark Ones back to hell with my lightning-charged Kandarian Dagger. As my team emerged victorious in the ending screen, my real-life partner looked at me with wide-open eyes and said, "Holy shit, Joe." Not because what I was doing was particularly skillful or methodical, it was just the energy and aggression she wasn't expecting from me, a typically meek and passive player in horror games. Finally, I have the tools to emerge from my shell and actually get some shit done.
Again, it's a massive boon for my self-confidence that Evil Dead: The Game so neatly lays out what your tasks are, and that the gameplay loop itself is straightforward. Collect some stuff, fight off the occasional horde, collect something else, and head to the boss area to vanquish evil once and for all. Items, all references to the Evil Dead franchise, of course, are strewn around the map for you to collect, heal yourself with, and add points to your stats, which on console is as easy as pressing down on the D-pad. You'll want to keep an eye on your fear level, which you can bring down by being near a teammate or light source, and if you looted enough buildings you'll probably have matchsticks to light a fire and camp out for a minute.
Shop smart, shop S-mart
As I said before, playing as the demon requires a good deal more finesse. First, you have to collect as many spirit orbs as you can, as you'll need them to do pretty much everything. Then you need to track down the survivors, which you can do by keeping a close eye on the map and waiting for one of them to fire off a gun or start up a car or truck. From there you zoom over to an area with a survivor and set traps all around them, hoping they'll stumble across at least one. As you pull off scares and possess deadites and survivors, you'll gain XP and special abilities.
The game will alert you when one of your victims is fearful enough for you to take over their body and use it to attack the other survivors, so staying around as many survivors as possible is paramount. The thing is, and I cited this as one of the game's best qualities earlier, survivors are brutal! They have guns and sledgehammers and chainsaw arms, and demons have *checks notes* stationary trees to possess. It doesn't help that the ghost of Linda from the movies is all too happy to remind you that you suck and the survivors are winning. It can be incredibly hectic managing an army of deadites, but I found victory more rewarding as a demon than survivor.
My advice here is the same as I'd give for survivors: be ruthless. Especially as the game is still new and people are learning the ropes, I've found the best strategy for me right now is just to never give anyone a break. Zip around the map, collect all the orbs, summon as many skellies as I can afford, and get to Evil Ash as soon as possible. Then I can really start doing damage, as I gain the ability to dodge in fights, choke the life from survivors and add it to my own health bar, and resurrect any of my poor skelly babies the humans managed to defeat.
A blood-soaked love letter
Win or lose, Evil Dead: The Game has no right to look as good as it does. Granted, I'm playing on a PS5 and watching the action unfold on a 65" 4K TV with excellent HDR, but still, the lighting, the foliage, the weather effects, and even the textures might be the best I've ever seen in a multiplayer game. I realize this will sound ridiculous, but it's true: some of the nighttime shots remind me of The Last of Us 2, somehow bursting with color and dynamic lighting even in the grimmest, most poorly lit scenes.
It's stylish as hell too; not just the faithful costumes worn by the characters or the campy dialogue voiced mostly by the original cast, but even the presentation in the menus and in matches. The theme is built around '80s B-horror and chainsaws and plenty of blood - almost like someone spilled some over the film reel, laying a reddish filter over almost everything.
It's clear from the tutorial through every portion of the game that the developers at Saber Interactive ripped a page from the Necronomicon and wrote a love letter to Evil Dead with this game. There are more references tucked into the menus, maps, and modes than I have time to list here, and it looks and sounds just like the real deal. Scenes from the movies are played out in multiplayer matches and, more faithfully to the source work, in single-player campaign missions represented by VHS tapes accessible from the main menu.
The not so groovy
Evil Dead: The Game is a great time, but I do wonder how much gas there is in the chainsaw. The main game mode only has two big maps at launch, which means the points of interest and objectives will naturally repeat themselves over and over each time. I've played a good 15 hours and haven't even started running out of steam, but obviously your mileage may vary.
If I didn't have friends to play with, I could see myself tiring of the game's repetition a little more quickly, but luckily, my experience matchmaking with randoms has been surprisingly nice. To my delight, my teams rarely ever used voice chat, instead relying on the game's intuitive ping system to point out important items and whatnot. It's worth noting that there's no push-to-talk option right now, so you'll probably hear some background noise if someone doesn't have their mic muted for whatever reason.
Probably the biggest oversight to me is the lack of a jump button. Approaching obstacles will sometimes trigger an option to vault over them, but often you're left to walk all the way around something that could easily be jumped onto/over. That can be a huge problem when you're fighting off or running away from deadites, and it's gotten me killed more times than I care to recall.
The single-player missions are too dang hard, which makes unlocking new characters a grueling process. It took me four tries to get past the first one where you're tasked with digging up Linda's head and bringing it somewhere, and each time I succumbed to Henrietta's formidable belly and body gasses, I was sent back to the very beginning to try again. Aside from the lack of checkpoints, I think the problem is that there aren't enough heals laying around for you to loot, so if you even take a few hits before reaching Henrietta, you're entering a lopsided fight with very little health and nothing to heal yourself with.
Hail to the King
Those semi-minor gripes aside, Evil Dead: The Game proves there's plenty of undead life in this space. It's by far my favorite of the few asymmetrical horror games I've played, taking an already compelling formula, refining it, and lovingly dressing it up like one of the most revered '80s horror properties.
There's nothing terribly groundbreaking here, but instead a culmination of the genre's best ideas that finally gives survivors some agency and opens a big, inviting door for timid horror fans to walk through. Grab some friends and crack open a Shemp's Beer - or cola, in the game - as Evil Dead: The Game is a wicked, blood-soaked, supremely groovy good time.