While Shinji Mikami might be attempting to bring survival-horror back to its roots with The Evil Within, he’s also certainly breaking convention. For one, his new game is built on a heavily modified id Tech 5 engine, a benefit to now being an official part of the Bethesda umbrella and different for being Western-developed, and for another he’s playing with horror in ways no other survival-horror title has ever attempted.
It’s not specifically groundbreaking, but there’s a mysterious element to The Evil Within that is likely the scariest part of the game. Out at a pre-E3 event in Los Angeles, we were shown this in short-form: at one point the game’s protagonist, Detective Sebastian Castellanos, is avoiding the undead by descending to an already creepy basement level of an equally creepy cottage. Once there, however, a shift in visuals displaces the detective and now we’re standing in a long hallway with a single door. Sebastian turns to go back the way he came but another distortion comes and before we know it he’s enveloped in a sea of blood that spews forth from the newly planted door at the end -- a clear nod to Kubrick’s The Shining. The blood vanishes as quickly as it came and now Sebastian is standing in the dilapidated corridors of the Beacon Mental Hospital -- the location in which his nightmare first began. Ahead of him, at the end of the corridor, is a room with a single light source highlighting a bodybag, like some horrifically directed stage show. But this is survival-horror and with the path behind seemingly blocked off, Sebastian is drawn to the spotlight like a moth to flame.
I don’t need to tell you that, right on cue, the bodybag turns to bodybags
, plural, before exploding into a fountain of blood and the four-armed creature introduced to the world in The Evil Within’s debut live-action cinematic trailer
pulls herself up as if escaping from the pits of hell. Sebastian turns to run in one of the game’s escape sequences, of which at this point we’ve seen two, offering up a uniquely scary camera angle and contextual trip and vault system. Our hapless detective struggles to move over static gurneys and other impediments before he fully trips and the monster bears down on him. Struggling to deal with the horror before him, Sebastian fights back but his defense is more akin to a kitten fighting off a lion, and with a swipe of her clawed hand the demo ends and we’re left gasping for air.
Of course I’ve only described the end of what we were shown, but for the purpose of getting deeper into what’s on offer here than a simple breakdown you’ll be able to read everywhere else from those who attended, I’d rather just leave you with the same sense of dread I was left with when all was said and done. And as I mentioned in the opener, the game isn’t specifically breaking any new ground, but in the wake of so many survival-horror games these days taking a more action-oriented route, it’s the horror component to The Evil Within that is its strongest point, a conveyance I hope to successfully relay throughout this piece, because it really is the most lacking element to the modern interpretation of the genre.
“So since Shinji Mikami defined the genre, it’s been a long time,” says Tango’s Masato Kimura who serves as a producer on The Evil Within. “So the definition of the genre has broadened; [it’s] widened and has evolved a lot.
“But the very important things for survival-horror are fear and of course ‘scare’; how scary it is -- those are horror elements, and you have to [be able to] overcome that fear, or beat that fear,” he adds “So the balance between those two is very important. We [Tango] have our ideal balance of those two [but] modern horror games have a difference of opinion about those balances.”
It’s true that we’ve seen a shift in what it means to survive in modern horror games, which could be attributed to an overall shift in the challenge of most action titles: regenerative health, metre to metre checkpoints and seemingly unlimited ammo, all of which have irked most hardcore gamers, but in the this space, specifically, it negates the point of the genre in the first place. To hear that Tango not only recognise this, but actively stand against it is a sign the studio want to take it in new (and old) directions.
There are simple things they’ve done here too. For example, early on in the piece Sebastian awakens to find himself strung upside down amidst a veritable meatlocker of other unfortunate souls whose fates have already been signed, sealed and quartered. That is apart from another victim close to the detective, but out of his -- or the player’s -- periphery. A hulking butcher completes the scene, taking his tools to this faceless fellow but again, completely out of your line of sight. The sounds, however, are among the most unnerving I’ve encountered in any horror game I’ve played, and operate as our living (digital) evidence of the horror Sebastian now faces. This isn’t the whole face
of the game though, and the team would be remiss to not award the player retribution and power in intermittency as a reminder they can
survive, something the team is very conscious of.
“[Just] because it’s a scary game [doesn’t mean] you can keep scaring people for the [duration],” Kimura-san offers. “So [you need] a scary area [then] a safe area where people feel safe, then a scary area again. We showed you two areas: maximum horror where all you can do is run away, and then the battle where you can actually go against the monsters -- so you need that kind of curve in gameplay.”
We weren’t specifically shown this curve, only intensity and tension. The few minutes of the game where Sebastian was exploring weren’t at all safe. The team has done a remarkable job as far as level design is concerned, doubling up on corners and the player line-of-sight so as to ensure you can’t swing the camera around and prep yourself for the dread ahead, rather your only tools will be diligence, smart thinking and the all-important conservation of ammo -- a hallmark ceremoniously returning to the genre with The Evil Within.
“For this game what we’re trying to achieve is the player character, Sebastian, and his emotional feeling in the game... we’re trying to synchronise that with the player,” Kimura-san explains. “So whatever the character’s feeling in the game, we want players to feel that same kind of feel. So the limping walk -- it’s difficult to control [and] it’s stressful to Sebastian, but it’s also stressful to the player.”
This “limping walk” he refers to is a component we’re not unfamiliar with as far as survival-horror goes, however, a quick spray of a medicinal aerosol you made out of strange, colourful plants isn’t the order of the day here, at least not early on. The butcher scene I talked about earlier has said meatman swinging his chainsaw at Sebastian and connecting with the back of his leg, hamstringing the character -- and player -- to restricted movement and a sense of context to the lower level of violence to come (read: we’re not even at the highest point of horror yet, Dorothy). The result is another escape sequence that sees Sebastian tripping and clawing his way out of being the next tree-lopping victim of this overzealous logger. To relay to you that this is more than intense, is an understatement, but the helplessness of the character despite your ability to get away is a hallmark long-missing from survival-horror, so despite my shortness of breath, it was wonderful to see it in full swing
“One thing that we really appreciate about Bethesda... because this is a business right, there are things like schedules and stuff like that, but beyond all that Bethesda always tells us that quality is number one, so make sure that quality is what you are most satisfied with,” Kimura-san tells us, “So this is Shinji Mikami’s typical style of making games: he listens to all the staff in the studio for new ideas. So he tries to put all the ideas in then try them out and, you know, keeps some of the ideas and throw away some of the ideas. There’s a lot of ideas from a lot of different people -- there’s no one inspiration; it’s all kind of one [idea] combined.”
Knowing that at its core, The Evil Within is being constructed by a developer, and leading designer, with an all-in approach is refreshing, but to also have a publisher whose willingness to bankroll ideas that not only buck the norm, but outright strip them of any modern components of marketability, leaves me breathing a massive sight of relief. The game looks gorgeous. It has that Japanese horror feel we love with Western sensibilities built in. There’s a maturity to Mikami’s movement and horror design that brings his style into the new and, potentially, beyond. But most important of all is the greater sense of mystery. If the key art leads me to believe anything, it’s that we might be dealing with deepseeded issues within the stoic detective Sebastian or, just maybe, we might be dealing with the mind of the brilliant Shinji Mikami. Whichever the case, based on my exposure to the game and time with Kimura-san, I cant wait to learn more about The Evil Within.