Preview: The Evil Within
A sun-drenched morning in London’s Haymarket, just removed from the throng and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, does not naturally bring a sense of terror.
Nor does the gleam of Bethesda UK’s glass walls, with the sign of summer’s arrival streaming in through the windows. It all changes as a chittering group of game journalists in shirt sleeves and short trousers are bundled into a room shrouded in black and silence, the only light coming from the flicker of monitor screens lined up in small pods.
If the pall of darkness alters the mood, the statue of Skyrim’s Dovahkiin standing in mute sentry dishes out the creeps. Sitting in the dark in front of The Evil Within, headphones on, I half expect a PR to sneak up behind me and shout ‘boo’.
It doesn’t come. The Evil Within’s scares are more subtle, more lingering, like a slow injection of dread that crawls up the spine rather than claws at your chest. This is the newest game from survival horror grandmaster Shinji Mikami, the man behind the original Resident Evil and credited with creating an entire genre. Mikami instilled fear through disempowerment, hobbling both player and protagonist with carefully limited mechanics and impossible odds. Even when Mikami reinvented the discipline with Resident Evil 4 —a work that has influenced video game blockbusters for a decade— the most pervasive fear was of being overwhelmed and underprepared.
Following 4, Mikami left Resident Evil behind. It hasn’t been the same since, making its protagonists formidable and weaponry plentiful. The greatest compliment I can pay The Evil Within, Mikami’s first game with his new studio Tango Gameworks, is that it feels like the game Resident Evil 5 should have been. Yet freed from the shackles of that series’ bioweaponry lore, Mikami is able to explore the psychological terror of the mind. This is darker, more twisted. And after two hours in its company, The Evil Within feels like the horror comeback we all hoped it would be.
You play as Sebastian Castellanos, a detective called to the scene of a gruesome massacre at Beacon Mental Hospital. As Seb creeps among the blood and bodies, he’s caught, drugged and packed off to a twisted world where most of the inhabitants are zombified ghouls known as ‘The Haunted’. Sebastian must investigate, escape and try not to get his face chewed off.
The Evil Within feels like a compilation of video game horror’s best bits; Silent Hill’s psychological milieu, the newer trend of heart-in-throat evasion as seen in Amnesia and Outlast, but we start with a direct, ghastly tribute to Mikami’s previous horror. Sebastian is with the skittish Doctor Jimenez, trying to find Leslie, a patient. The pair trace Leslie to a small village, darkness shrouding wooden cabins, punctured only by the yellowish glow of oil lanterns, shadows dancing on the wooden slats.
One glow burns brighter than the others. It’s a bonfire. A cluster of humanoid shapes shuffle clumsily around it. A woman screams. She’s being carried by an elderly lady with a tent spike through her brain. The woman struggles, kicking. Screams turning to guttural shrieks as she is tossed onto the fire before Sebastian can unholster his pistol. My gut sinks, the same feeling I felt when reaching the bonfire in the Ganados village in Resident Evil 4.
I start to fire as the haunted turn —slowly, deliberately— towards me. They are quicker than they look, lunging towards me as my bullets slap into undead flesh. They may as well be spitballs. I back peddle. Firing. Firing. Until one catches a pursuer between the teeth, head exploding in a fountain of crimson. Another falls. I light a match and set him on fire. They might come back if I don’t burn them. He writhes in the flames, but silently. Somehow that’s worse.
The combat is classic survival horror; panic-infused and often spent pacing backwards praying for your targets to fall before you run out of bullets. Disempowerment, see? It’s an effective thing. Yet Mikami’s horror hiatus, spending time on action games such as Vanquish, has also informed The Evil Within. Sebastian carries the ‘Agony crossbow’, a weapon of last resort. You can craft different bolts: flares to daze the haunted so you can move in for a knife kill, harpoons to impale them onto walls, explosive bolts to, well, you can guess.
Along with stealth kills, the agony crossbow seems to bring a sense of flexibility and improvisation when you are faced with a room full of ghouls. It’s enough to give you an escape route, but your ammo capacity is limited so that you don’t feel overpowered. At least in this section of play it does. Balancing Agony so it is a satisfying tool to use while not making you a killing machine will be integral to The Evil Within’s tension.
Running you down with beasties isn't Mikami’s only method of getting under your skin, of course. The Evil Within builds an atmosphere so thick I can almost taste it. I imagine it’s foul and metallic, like rotten meat. The game has a gruesome obsession with blood. Rivers of crimson flow down corridors as Sebastian hallucinates, while gallons of it form a waist-high pool in a filthy cellar which is anything but a dream. Keys are buried in men’s guts and one puzzle tasks Sebastian with inserting a probe into the brain of a man whose head has been removed from his neck and sliced vertically in half. That doesn’t stop the man’s eye swivelling towards me imploringly, as I drain the blood from the particular lobe demanded by the demented voice on a nearby tape recorder.
That voice belongs to Ruvik, who seems to be the game’s main antagonist. At times Sebastian will have ghostly visions of Ruvik’s past. A small boy meticulously dissecting the brain of a pig, say. “Peel away the skin” he incants monotonously before fading from view. Ruvik, now fully grown and dressed in a hooded robe, stalks Sebastian throughout a section of the preview. You can’t harm Ruvik, bullets pass straight through him as he walks towards you with a methodic grace. He’s barefoot. For some reason that makes me uncomfortable.
Your only option against Ruvik is to run and hide, shutting yourself in wardrobes or scrambling under a bed. Watching as those feet pad delicately around the room, praying he wanders off. The particularly diabolic thing about Ruvik is that if he catches you, he doesn’t kill you. At least not right away. Instead his touch drains your entire health bar save for the tiniest of slivers. You then have to stumble on, hoping you don’t come across another haunted whose barest touch would finish you off, but a life-saving medicinal syringe. Even these come with a caveat, sending you into a brief woozy stupor. At one point my relief at finding and administering a health pack turned to immediate horror as Ruvik swam into view behind the haze of drugs.
There are plenty of cruel tricks to keep you off-balance in The Evil Within, but nothing as much as the devilish architecture of the thing. Directing horror is a tough task. directing video game horror even more so, as players can be looking elsewhere as a monster closet snaps open to an audience of none. Mikami and his team manipulate through sound and design, drawing the ears with the creak of a door or faraway scream, drawing the eyes with pockets of light or bloody remains. You are going to be toyed with. Bait and switch that has you peering one way before turning back to be set upon by a hungry zombie. Walls that appear from nowhere. Corridors that go on forever.
It is about never feeling safe. I’m being chased by a porcelain-fleshed arachnid with the head and dishevelled, jet-black hair of a Japanese yūrei girl. From notes I find scattered around, I think her name might be Laura. I’m running. I don’t want to look back. I can feel her. Those bandy legs scuttling up my spine. Sprinting through claustrophobic corridors, stumbling over corpses, scrambling over toppled furniture, slamming through doors. My panicked sprint leads me to a dead end. Cornered I turn and see the spider scuttling down the corridor, with no obvious means of escape. Then a haunted bursts through a previously closed door to my right. I bound through it as the monster devours the unfortunate ghoul.
Up ahead is a half-open service shutter, I duck under the metal door, turning and slamming the button to bring it screeching to the floor. I can hear her outside. She screeches and the metal barrier between us bends. I cast my eyes over the room, which has little in it but maintenance shelves and bloodied corpses. She crashes into the door again. I ready my weapon… but then it stops. I exhale. Relief washes over me. Then one of my dead friends twitches. Blood begins to splutter from his chest as, one by one, eight porcelain legs tear through his torso. ‘Clever girl’, I whisper ludicrously, as ‘Laura’ descends upon me.
As we file from the darkened room and into the brightened reception area, I see a platter of wraps has been laid on. I choose one somewhat at random. It’s fresh and tasty. But as I chew through the slightly mushy food, my mind wanders back towards blood and brains, metal and rot. I politely make my excuses and leave, lunch half-finished. It’s good to have you back on the horror beat Mr. Mikami, though I do hope I’ll be able to eat falafel again.