Prior to this hands-on, The Evil Within was shown to a rather vocal audience at PAX East in Boston. The reception wasn’t nearly as positive as Bethesda and Tango Gameworks would have liked and there was a definite air of dismissal around Mikami’s ‘supposed’ return to survival-horror.
“[People] thought, based on the demo they saw, that ‘oh, this is just another action game; it was really action heavy', and [they thought that] it’s not a true survival-horror game,” explains Bethesda’s Pete Hines, showing a bit of understandable frustration at the conclusion. Hands-off and without context, survival-horror is arguably the most difficult genre to demonstrate. Thankfully my hands-on featured two lengthy chunks of different chapters in the game, and ran for roughly two-hours.
What I can relay, based on this, is The Evil Within is absolutely a triumphant return to the field for Mikami and co, but further, it takes the game into areas even the celebrated developer’s previous efforts didn’t tread. The anxiety and tension that filled me was almost too much to bear, and I love this genre.
“It reinforced for us what we’ve believed all along -- survival-horror games are very difficult to show, because they just show so much differently than they play,” Pete adds. “Part of our thing for today was, we’re going to let folks play for a couple of hours, and if their feedback after a couple of hours is ‘oh yeah, it’s a real action-heavy thing’, then we have a different problem. But I don’t think anybody is going to come to that conclusion, having played this.
“It’s a really scary game, where you don’t actually spend a lot of time killing stuff. It hits all of the tones that we have said we would, and that people should expect.”
There's a saying that "anticipation of death is worse than death itself", in The Evil Within the anticipation is a palpable tool of progression on the player: you know that death could hit you at any point but how or even why is just as nerve-racking as when it comes and spits blood and guts in your face. All the death and blood and gore stops have been pulled out here -- there's no holding back from the player, leaving you rattled even in quiet areas with no enemies. If you ever feel safe in this game, you're doing it wrong.
This happened to me as soon as I started. I was in a village at night, accompanied by a doctor seeking out his patient, Leslie. There was no context to why I was there, or even where “there” was. The space reminded me of the village hub from Resident Evil 4 and even featured a bonfire in a fenced off area replete with a dangling body. In the distance, behind these fences you could hear the odd undead creatures of The Evil Within growling. An obvious threat, but nothing that was immediately jumping on me. There’s a pacing to the game that is both familiar and frightening -- Sebastian is marginally armed, and he’s obviously a capable officer of the law, but the spaces he’s in and the things he’s facing are anything but ordinary.
Opening my first village hut door was a particularly scary moment. True to form, the camera came in up close to the back of my avatar and the room beyond was only slowly revealed in my rather limited periphery. It’s a deliberate blinding to the player, and one utilised to craft tension. You can double-tap A and open the door with a forceful kick, but the subsequent noise this makes will attract unwanted attention your way. Moreover, the game is riddled with interactive objects sporting annoyingly realistic physics -- bumping into a table with a number of bottles on it, for example, knocked all of them over filling the room with a chorus of clangs. I cursed my own clumsiness and avoided attracting any baddies to my location, but the event itself had already done its job on my nerves.
It's difficult to relay this sense of dread while you play, but the more nothing happens the scarier the game becomes. Areas also don't always make sense, like a photo darkroom at the end of a corridor in a basement of one of the houses you visit in the village. It’s an intricate interior that results in nothing really happening -- there’s a heightened concept of contextual storytelling in The Evil Within and your surroundings are going to be just as important to as any cut-scene, provided you’re willing to seek out every nook and cranny on-offer.
In fact, one of the easiest ways I can think of to help get the game’s tension and horror/thriller stuff across is a straight cut and paste from my notes:
Some areas change after you've been in them, such as stairs disappearing from the basement you're in
"Fuck" is right. Sebastian is facing such an unreal challenge
No context here means this might read a bit strangely, but those notes were written in a short space, one after the other, when the game started really bowling flippers at me. The room became an enclosed space with no stairs, despite the fact that I’d just descended stairs to get in there, and then a long corridor appeared and, well, everything changed and shifted. And it’s in the displacement players are going to experience that the game shines, despite its action and tactical system also being a tension-building machine. You’ll learn that it’s sometimes better to run, regardless of the impediments in your path, or even hiding (which is just another anxiety-building mechanic) can be just as good, but that the game leaves you with tools like this to survive, rather than just guns and ammo is very important.
Ammo conservation is going to be an all-important gameplay style, and you can stealth-kill enemies, but face-to-undead face melee will really only buy you enough time to either run or use precious ammo to kill the enemy in front of you. Moreover, shooting enemies isn’t permadeath for them -- you need to set bodies on fire, but fire is also a limited resource. The balance and options where confrontation is concerned, so far, is compelling.
Visually the game is spectacular. The intricate design of walkways, staircases and pathways is one of the The Evil Within’s strongest visual elements. As surreal as everything is you're going through, it's all in believable spaces. How much the game opens up for you isn't clear, but judging by the level-design in the village and the mansion, you'll be able to revisit places and find new treasures or even new areas to explore. If exploring a tension-filled horror mindfuck of a game is your thing, that is.
It's already really creepy, but the audio, which I was told isn't even final is unease amplified -- the brewing storm that isn't here yet just helps craft tension to the nth degree, while the sludgy, squishy sounds of wet or bloodied flesh on flesh is almost too much to bear. Flies buzz, monsters growl as they breathe off in the distance and hollow footsteps always sound like they’re right behind you, even if you turn quickly and there’s no one there.
What'll be interesting is to see just how conservatively you can play. There were areas in the second chapter I played -- a mansion, for example -- I didn't engage in because I was already feeling too tense. Part of me wanted to power through to the demo end in order to get as much info for you here as possible, the other part, however, wanted to leave some of this for when I get to sink my teeth into it when it's released proper in a few months time. But that I had the option of performing some of the tasks rather than all available means there's going to be a differential in catering to players of varying ilk -- if all you want to do is finish the game and get out the other side alive, you can likely do that. If you want to learn everything possible, you can probably do that too.
“It takes a while to get through,” Pete reveals when I ask about the game’s length. “It’s meant to be difficult, it’s not a game that’s created for difficulty’s sake, but it’s a game where… part of survival-horror is being punishing, and dying, and figuring out how to use those resources in the right way, or figuring out when the answer to this situation is not actually trying to kill the thing trying to kill me, the answer is to run and hide, and get away. To do that, you’ve got to die, because if you don’t, the player doesn’t learn the risks of whatever else they’re trying to do.
“I’m sure that there’s been stuff where Shinji is like ‘I want to do this’, and we’re like ‘hey, that’s a little over the line’, but you can see what’s in there -- it’s a disturbing horror game,” he adds with a devilish smile. “The whole reason we wanted to work with Shinji is he fit with some very basic ideas that we had, which are people with a pedigree with experience making games, who are good at it and have strong ideas and beliefs on what they want to do. Whether it’s a first person shooter, or a free-to-play game, or survival horror game, it’s not about the genre, it’s not about the platform. It’s about what are you trying do, and how is it going to be different and how is it going to be unique?”
Unique is the right word here. Survival-horror is an established genre with a series of tenets and a specific tone that needs to be met. But before Silent Hill or Resident Evil 4 you could have suggested it had to be played out in a fixed-camera static environment -- so there’s room to move and expand the genre. The question is how? And is The Evil Within capable?
What I can tell you, after two hours with the game is this is absolutely an experience I'll be shipping my little two-year old off to his grandparents for. Lights out, volume up and all alone -- I may be white-haired and frail once the experience is over, but to be taken back to that place Mikami created oh-so long ago, with a new and heightened sense of psychological complexity, will be worth it. Blood, bone, guts and all.
The Evil Within is arriving on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on October 21.