The Evil Within – Preview

Title   The Evil Within
Developer  Tango Gameworks
Publisher  Bethesda Softworks
Platform  Windows PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Genre  Survival-Horror
Release Date  October 24, 2014
Official Site

I’ve never had what anyone would describe as a ‘good’ relationship with horror. Sure, we flirted with each other a couple of times and maybe shared an illicit week or two together in the form of Resident Evil 4, but we were never anything that you’d describe as ‘serious’. My problem comes from the fact that I’m too much of a smart-arse; I can essentially work out some of the ways I’m about to be scared, and so I walk into every approaching fright with a cocky swagger that’s immediately ruined by the fact that I’m still scared shitless the moment they happen. I know it’s going to happen, yet I still jump out of my skin and thus prefer to avoid the whole scene entirely to avoid coming across dumber than I already look.

As such, I was always going to approach The Evil Within with a certain degree of trepidation.  It may have helped that my last real excursion into the genre (not counting the half-hour I spent playing ZombiU or the two hours I spent playing Dead Space) was the aforementioned Resident Evil 4, which was also directed by survival-horror legend Shinji Mikami. However, I was still dreading the experience – not because I was afraid that it was going to be lacklustre, but because I was afraid generally.

The premise of The Evil Within is a vaguely-familiar one in the survival-horror genre – after being called to investigate a horrendous crime, our leading detective finds himself in a creepy hospital that’s become the scene of a series of a brutal mass-murder. While scanning the perimeters, however, he comes across the presence of a mysterious spectre that incapacitates him. Upon recovering consciousness, Detective Sebastian Castellanos wakes up to find himself in an unfamiliar place where the dead walk and his demise awaits him at every corner.

After witnessing the opening chapter at E3 last year, I found myself taking on the mantle of the good detective throughout two chapters of the upcoming spook-’em-up. The first segment of gameplay took place during chapter four, and tasked our hero with helping his scientist friend track down a patient. The words ‘escort mission’ alone are enough to send chills down the spine of many a gamer, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite there being a heavy emphasis on stealth, the addition of another body to account for did nothing to diminish the tension.

If you want to keep your head firmly on your neck and not otherwise decapitated, then you’d be wise to take a sneaky approach, for the most part. Enemies are easily alerted by the sounds you make, so it can be paramount to keep your head down and your step light when the situation calls for it. Your foes will also tend to keep a short, simple route as well, often in such a way that confrontation with them is all but inevitable, meaning that there’s often nothing you can do to get by them completely peacefully. If you have somehow attracted their attention, whether by making too much noise or by accidentally leaving your light on, then your HUD will start displaying a scanning eye, letting you know that a monster’s not only nearby, but it’s onto you.

Thankfully, stealthier players can be rewarded with an insta-kill move, where Sebastian will draw his knife and plunge it firmly into the back of their skulls. However, if you do want to get past without a fight, you can find one of the myriad of bottles that are left around each area and throw it in a different direction to draw their attention away from where you need to go. Or, you could just emulate Indy Jones and just shoot them instead of dallying around with fancy tactics. However, that latter strategy may cause you to draw the attention of the other monsters around you, and it’s no guarantee that they’ll stay down, either.

In The Evil Within, the enemies you fell may not stay that way for long, and unless you shoot their head clean off the rest of their body, it’s only a matter of time before they get back up and continue stalking you. The only way to keep them dead for good is by setting the corpses ablaze and leaving them nothing but a pile of useless ashes. That being said, matches, like all resources, are limited, meaning that you’ll sometimes have to leave a corpse unsullied and risk going back up against it later on. Considering that some areas are open and require back-tracking, this is no easy decision.

What will make these areas more palatable for the more easily scared is the addition of save rooms, which will start playing music as you approach them. For the purposes of the preview, these rooms were disabled, but it isn’t too hard to imagine that some of the more hardcore players may choose to eschew these of their own volition in order to increase the challenge.

As Sebastian crept around with his scientist buddy, it was clear that it’s the actions of the player, not their companions, that’ll do more to attract the attention of the horde. He’ll not only crouch down and stay out of sight as you do without prompting, he’ll also make himself scarce if you attract the attention of the hordes and only return when every immediate threat is taken care of, allowing you to concentrate on looking after yourself.

If you’re familiar with some of Mikami’s earlier works, then the combat system won’t come as too much of a shock to you, as the over-the-shoulder third-person camera system he invented and arguably perfected makes a welcome return here. There’s no unnecessary fiddling around with inventory here, either, as everything Sebastian can use right now is assigned to a radial menu that’s accessed the moment you click the right thumb-stick.  To make things easier, you can also assign weapons and items to the D-Pad, making it possible to quick-select your guns in a time of crisis.

In both levels of the demo the amount of weaponry was pretty sparse. Alongside a six-shooter revolver and a shotgun, our hero can also equip a crossbow, and this is where things can get a little more interesting, provided you find the different kinds of bolts on offer. In practice, however, I found myself relying on the pistol for the most part, only moving to the shotgun if the enemy looked rather formidable, or if I had to deal with multiple foes at once. Your guns aren’t totally accurate either, as I discovered when a carefully-aimed bullet missed someone’s head and buried itself in the doorway next to them instead. It’s a great way to up the tension, but it could prove irritating when resources are often so limited.

Although he’s a detective, Sebastian isn’t exactly a powerhouse. Instead, he occupies a comfortable middle ground between being capable of taking care of business, but not being so strong he can mop the floor with everyone, or so weak that he’ll die if a gnat coughs on him. At best, he’ll take three hits before he’s knocking on Death’s door, but enemies are occasionally spread out enough that you can think tactically about how best to proceed with whatever health you have left.

Those who know their survival horrors will also know that best laid plans will often go awry, and one of the best things about The Evil Within is the way that it will often train you to think in a certain way, then pick the best moments to subvert your expectations. One of the first doors I went through had an enemy immediately behind it ready to attack me the moment the canned animation finished, so from that point I was on edge every single time I had to go through one, dreading what lay in wait for me. Then, five minutes later, I went to open a door, only for a terrific jump scare to occur that involved a burning lady and caused the controller to temporarily leave my hands. The moment I thought I had it figured out, the game flipped the script on me with expert precision.

Later on, a chase sequence trained me to think that I could always escape those situations, but moments later I was thrust into one where the only possible path left me hopelessly cornered. Guns aren’t entirely accurate, so you intuit that head-shots aren’t always guaranteed. You’re told early on that some chests might be booby-trapped, so from that point I was on-guard every single time it looked as though the game was going to provide me with resources. You can defuse bombs, but you’re only given one shot to do so and failure can wipe out your health-bar and alert every enemy in the vicinity.

Perhaps the cruellest way that The Evil Within keeps you on your toes is with your ghostly aggressor. Not only will he show up in cut-scenes to knock you unconscious and warp you to the next location, but he’ll appear during regular gameplay and reduce your health to zero if he touches you, leaving you to desperately find some first-aid and deal with the consequences of his visit. Worse, his appearances are completely randomised, so you’ll never truly know when he’s going to strike until your screen comes down with a sudden tinge of blue. Thankfully, his presence will only last for a few seconds, but that’s all it’ll take for him to ruin your day. At one point, he even showed up while I was in the middle of a fight with someone else, hit me, reduced my health to zero and left me desperately floundering to escape the encounter with my life.

Everything about the design of The Evil Within seems as though it’s been tested time and again to perfection, and done in such a way that it’ll always be the scariest it can be. Even basic mechanics have been finely honed in such a way that they’ll constantly give the game a palpable sense of suspense and tension that never goes away. The way Sebastian walks through doors is done in such a way that the camera will always track behind his back, meaning that you’re only able to catch tiny glimpses of what you’re about to walk into. The canned animation lasts just long enough that you’ve only got moments to react if there’s something wicked waiting for you, so every door becomes a bated-breath affair.

There are occasions where you can plainly see objects or commands that aren’t needed on lower levels of difficulty, but will become absolutely necessary on higher ones. While I didn’t need to hide under a bed or in a wardrobe at the time, if I were playing through on a higher difficulty where resources were tighter, or if my life hung in the balance, then they’d soon become my salvation. Some puzzles will solve themselves automatically if you’re on the easiest difficulty, but they’ll become much harder and require more steps if you’re not.

Even the sound design is incredible, and it’s further proof of just how much time and effort has gone into The Evil Within. Every single decibel of sound is used expertly, not only bringing constant tension to the proceedings but allowing you to pinpoint where monsters lay in wait and just how far away they are. If nothing else, it’s bound to pick up a couple of awards for the sound design alone.

Almost everything about the design and the mechanics are so deliberately done that they probably wouldn’t entirely stand up to scrutiny if it were any other genre, but here they all combine to form what may well be the most definitive statement survival horror may ever make. Even the fact that the HUD is so minimal that I had to consciously adjust to button prompts NOT appearing by every door to tell me I could open it communicates nearly everything you need to know about the way The Evil Within is made in comparison to most modern titles.

That being said, it’s SO well-made that what niggles there are end up grating. For example, one chase sequence I played through was really tense, but slightly too scripted to entirely work. During the early stages of it, I ran to a door and tried repeatedly to open it in vain, only for it to finally decide to open the moment when the monster chasing me was close enough that it was cinematically tense, rather than actually so. The fact I was standing there trying to open a door for about five seconds meant that the scene felt more artificial than it should, because I was only ever allowed to be ‘just’ out of the monster’s reach.

Also, there’s a mechanic that requires Sebastian to collect green goo that’s contained in jars and found on the corpses of some of his foes, but it feels too ‘gamey’ in comparison to everything else to such a point that feels entirely out of place. I get that it’s how you’re able to upgrade your character, but not only does it break the immersion to see green jars everywhere and to see a number go up every time you collect one, but there’s never an element of risk to acquiring them and the game doesn’t even bother to hide them. Considering that everything else has been honed so carefully, it feels like there could have been a much better way of implementing the system without ruining the immersion by having hundreds of green jars scattered in plain sight.

Finally – and I fully admit that this is just nit-picking – the whole section of chapter eight I played just doesn’t make any logical sense. The action begins when you enter a creepy mansion and  the person you’re chasing locks themselves behind a giant set of doors inside. To progress, you need to go to three entirely different places of the mansion and torture some (somehow still alive) brains in order to trigger their individual mechanisms which, when combined, will allow you to open the giant doors.

However, the progression of the level makes it clear that you’re the first person to complete each puzzle, and they’re all designed in such a way that they could only ever be activated once, and once the doors are open they’d essentially be impossible to close back up again. It’s just really weird and jarring that the person you’re chasing must have gone through the same process to open the door as you have to, despite the puzzles making it clear that that’s impossible, and that they can’t be closed in the way that they were to you when you entered the building. I know it’s just how survival-horror games roll, but considering how little else I could find fault with, it was something that particularly stuck out to me.

After trialling both chapters available to me, it’s clear that The Evil Within is something special. In fact – and this is going to be one of the oddest statements I’ll ever have made – it’s so good that I never want to play it again. As I said at the beginning, I’ve always had a sketchy relationship with horror, and this is no different. Throughout my play-time I don’t think I managed to rest easy even once – I was constantly jumping out of my seat, breathing so heavily you could probably hear me in the next room, and when I finished each chapter I had to sit, take a massive sigh of relief and spend five minutes composing myself before I was able to move on.

In the space of about ninety minutes, The Evil Within got to me, and it got to me in a way that no other game in the genre has managed to before. It’s not just a promising return to survival horror, but it’s so brilliantly-designed, so psychologically tense and so scary that I never want to play it again. Whatever you do, please don’t make me.

Last five articles by Edward


One Comment

  1. Tim Tim says:

    I’ve got a lot of high hopes resting on this. However, I do worry the delay into October won’t do it any favours. Coinciding with Halloween makes sense, but, even with Mikami’s name attached, putting it up against sure-fire hits such as Batman, Alien, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed and COD seems suicide. August is the right time to release this – it worked well for BioShock, it worked for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it worked for Sleeping Dogs. If Tango need more time then Bethesda should push it back to early 2015 I reckon.

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