It sometimes seems like survival horror, as a genre, was around just long enough to create a generation of fanatics before essentially disappearing. Its flagship franchises have either disappeared or been subsumed into what amount to reskinned action games. Horror's certainly still around, but survival horror was in many ways an artifact of the late '90s that arguably overstayed its welcome, and in evolving the genre to match modern standards, many studios also managed to evolve it past horror.
The Evil Within is a deliberate attempt to bring the genre back, from Shinji Mikami's new studio Tango Gameworks. Mikami's name is on almost everyResident Evil game that came out before 2005, which gives him a genuine claim to the title of the guy who both created the genre (with the garbled translations in the original PSOneRE) and eventually signed its death warrant (withRE4's runaway success). If anyone was going to say with a straight face that he could "bring survival horror back to its roots," it's Mikami.
What's strange is thatThe Evil Within feels more like one of the first fewSilent Hill games than anything else, by virtue of deliberately playing with perspective, geography, and supernatural themes. Two playable levels were on show at E3, and both were set in the sort of decaying environments that theSH series is known for, with an equal emphasis on sound and slow, methodical exploration. Bethesda went so far as to block off a chunk of the show floor and leave in the dark to create as immersive an atmosphere as possible for the game.
The plot ofThe Evil Within hasn't really been revealed so far. A cop named Sebastian Castellanos is one of the responders to an incident at a local hospital that has resulted in the deaths of most of the people inside, and security footage indicates that at least a few of the murders can be attributed to a strange man with a burned face in a white hood, who stares back at the security camera as if he knows Sebastian will be watching it eventually. Sebastian is subsequently knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up, he's somewhere else, being pursued by the guy in the hood and forced through some kind of dark, alternate reality.
That makes it sound linear and sensible, but it isn't. That's what I can piece together from what was shown. Classic survival horror has always been more about scaring you than making sense after the fact (or scaring youbecause they don't make a hell of a lot of sense), and so far, so good.
Sebastian is armed with his police-issue revolver and shotgun, a combat knife, and the Agony Crossbow, which is equipped with pointed, flaming, frozen, and electrified arrows. You can also pick up and use weapons from the environment like axes and bottles, which break after one use but can also do a tremendous amount of damage. You can also scrounge up mechanical parts by defusing traps or simply by finding them lying around, which are used to create more arrows and other refinements.
Just the same, ammunition is at a premium, and by itself, violence isn't enough to permanently kill most enemies. You have to take them down and then set them on fire with one of a limited supply of matches, much like using kerosene to perma-kill zombies in the GCNResident Evil. Sebastian can also utilize stealth, using the knife to bring down enemies from behind, but that isn't a permanent solution, either.
The two levels on display at E3 were set in a seemingly abandoned rural town and an old insane asylum, both of which were inhabited mainly by shambling corpses. In both cases, the man in the hood from the hospital reappeared, which forces you to run away; bullets simply didn't affect him, and the one time I let him catch me, Sebastian flew across the room right into an explosive trap and a hungry zombie, forcing me to restart. Moral of the story: Don't let the hooded guy touch you.
In both cases, exploration was required to find caches of ammunition and "green goo," a substance that will be used in the final version of the game to upgrade Sebastian's statistics, and the level's layout wasn't entirely sensible or guaranteed. I descended into a basement at one point to find an escaped mental patient, and by the time I turned around, the stairs simply weren't there anymore. When I searched for a way out, a flood tide of blood swept through the hallway, washing Sebastian into what might have been a sewer.
Like some of theResident Evil games and most of theSilent Hill games, the stages inThe Evil Within have the bizarre continuity of a fever dream, where part of the atmosphere is their unreliability. Another weird moment was in the asylum, where a half-hidden passageway behind a fireplace led to an isolated workbench, on which was a human head with the skull cut away and the eyes still twitching. Probes were thrust into the exposed brain with notes on the effects they caused nearby, and no obvious reason to try and figure out why this was happening. It was just there, one more random act of sadism for a very large pile, and I had to just walk away. I had no idea what to do, guessing wrong was draining my health, and — last but most importantly — the guy was still alive.
The Evil Within had some bad early press about it, but I think that's almost guaranteed. This isn't an action or adventure game playing with some of horror's tools; instead, it's a straight-up horror game, and that's the kind of thing that always accumulates some bad press because it got into the wrong person's hands. The controls are a bit awkward, of course, as they always were, and some of the writing thrives on the obvious ("There's something wrong with this place," says our hero, Sebastian, the professional detective, as he's knee-deep in human blood), but that was always part of the bizarre charm of the genre. It's silly after the fact and absolutely terrifying in the moment.
Like they sometimes say in "Fangoria," though, either it's in you or it isn't; you're either following this game with careful intensity, or you aren't reading this preview at all. Horror doesn't have a lot of casual fans.
It hasn't been long enough to callThe Evil Within old-school, but it's a horror game of the sort that hasn't been made for a while, with a heavy emphasis on atmosphere, a limited capability for you to defend yourself, and enough sheer weirdness to put you off-balance and keep you there. I'm not going to make any bold, sweeping statements after having played only two carefully picked levels, but I'm ready to play the full version and see where Tango is going with this.
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