Stace Harman submits himself to two hours with Bethesda and Tango Gameworks' gore-filled survival-horror title and emerges... relatively unscathed.
"The crossbow is by far the most interesting weapon, as by collecting scrap material from the environment and by disarming traps it’s possible to craft a limited number of varied bolts."
How do you like your scares? Are you a fan of the pervasive unease elicited by the likes of Daylight and Amnesia or do you prefer the psychological trickery of Eternal Darkness and F.E.A.R? Perhaps you like to kick it old school with the quiet-LOUD-panic-RUN moments of the early Resident Evils and Silent Hills?
Happily, The Evil Within is attempting to leverage all of these approaches to scaring you feckless. It’ll also pit you against disfigured monstrosities and stalking spectral enemies that must be evaded rather than confronted, all the while bombarding you with gruesome images and the unpleasant wet squelch of myriad macabre sound effects.
It’s an interesting mix of tactics and Shinji Makami, famed creator of the Resident Evil series and founder of The Evil Within development studio Tango Gameworks, is evidently hoping that this varied approach will keep you on your toes. There are numerous references to famous horror tropes and typically disquieting environments throughout, ranging from a mental hospital to a spooky mansion via a rundown village and, over the course of 90 minutes play from chapters 4 and 8, this amalgamation of scare styles and familiar settings delivers some very mixed results.
In the early part of the demo, police officer protagonist Sebastian Castellanos enters a spooky village with a NPC doctor in tow - having escaped the hulking brute lurking beneath Beacon mental hospital from last year’s E3 demo. Before searching for the doc’s missing patient and absent brother, the first item on the agenda is inventory management.
A click of the right-stick brings up Sebastian’s inventory and a few more clicks assign a pistol, shotgun, combat knife and crossbow to D-pad shortcuts. The crossbow is by far the most interesting weapon on show here, as by collecting scrap material from the environment and by disarming traps it’s possible to craft a limited number of varied bolts. This ammo ranges in purpose from blinding enemies to obliterating them entirely with explosive charges.
This last is important because knocking the not-zombies-but-seemingly-undead enemies down with standard firearms will only incapacitate them for a while, giving you time either to make your escape or set fire to the bodies with the supply of matches that Sebastian carries and that conveniently lie dotted around the environment.
"There are throwbacks to Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis where invincible foes can appear at any time, shattering the quiet and causing you either to roll your eyes or wet your pants"
Alternatively, a sneak attack, executed by approaching an enemy from behind – or while they’re stunned by way of the crossbow’s shock ammo – allows Sebastian to plunge his knife into their noggin to destroy the brain in much the same way that one might kill, say, a zombie.
It’s apparent that Tango Gameworks is quite happy to arm you with all manner of ordnance to take on your ghoulish foes and playing on Survival difficulty – the second of four levels available in the final game – there’s no shortage of ammo, crafting materials or matches with which to dispatch the freakish inhabitants of crazy town. Unsurprisingly, this surplus soon diminishes the capacity of these adversaries to unnerve you and so there are a handful of nasties that are impervious to your weapons so as to render you impotent and make you turn and run.
Here, the focus is on escape and survival, which requires evasion and a judicious management of Sebastian’s stamina meter as depleting it entirely causes the surprisingly unfit cop to stand awhile to catch his breath, irrespective of the horror that might be breathing down his neck. In some instances, there’s the ignominious option to hide in a cupboard or under a table or bed, which comes in handy in the latter part of the demo when a ghostly apparition of troubled young man, Ruvik, comes a-hunting and Sebastian must forgo his tough-guy routine in favour of cowering in, under, or behind furniture until the threat has past. There are throwbacks to Resi 3’s Nemesis in these parts and, like that game, these invincible foes can appear at any time, shattering the quiet and causing you either to roll your eyes or wet your pants, depending on how much The Evil Within has managed to immerse you.
Much of its atmosphere revolves around this notion of immersion. From two relatively short sections plucked from several chapters apart it’s difficult to get a true sense of how the story might build or to appreciate the context in which it’s playing out. However, when Sebastian approaches a creepy mansion and mumbles "I've seen that house somewhere before" it’s hard not to feel the same way. Later, when he finds a room in which there stands a grand piano, the Resi vibe is so strong that I expect him to play Moonlight Sonata to open a secret doorway. There’s also a door puzzle that involves travelling to far-flung rooms to activate switches, in a similar vein to Resi, only here you’re poking at brains and retrieving keys hidden in cadavers, rather than fetching emblems and bejewelled tiger eyes.
Initially, the amount of blood, guts and viscera is discomforting but weeping walls, menacing chuckles and buckets of gore have only limited power to shock and it’s not long before I’ve given up on quietly and cautiously opening doors for an all together more gung-ho approach. Kicking a door open, sending a misshapen creature sprawling with a close-range shotgun blast and then setting the writhing figure ablaze is an empowering moment, but the oft-repeated routine soon undermines the tension.
Similarly, Sebastian’s blasé attitude to the whole affair makes it hard to empathise with him or to remain disturbed by what’s being thrown at you. This is exemplified by a sequence in which I fight all manner of grotesque walking nightmares while wading through the waist-high blood of so many disposed corpses only to have Sebastian glibly declare that “something is seriously wrong with this place.” REALLY, SEB, Y’THINK?!.
"The amount of blood, guts and viscera is discomforting but weeping walls, menacing chuckles and buckets of gore have only limited power to shock."
Still, the same would be true of watching two separate snatches of a horror film and missing out everything else around it. A game like The Evil Within requires context to accurately convey its mood and tone. It’s also tough to ascertain where the distinction lies between the actual frequency of ammo drops and item pick-ups and how much the demo is geared to allow us ample opportunity to play with the toys and mechanics.
There are elements still under wraps, such as the ability-upgrade system and the variety of enemy types, but what’s currently here is solid, if familiar, and sufficiently entertaining for me to want to see more – a blood-soaked riff on the early Resi games can hardly be considered a bad thing, after all. The question remains, then, whether Shinji Mikami’s multi-pronged approach to fear and shock tactics in his new IP can capture our imaginations the way he did with his first foray into the survival-horror genre, 18 years ago.
The Evil Within is set for release on August 21 in North America, August 23 in Australia and August 24 in Europe. It’s coming to PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and 360.