The Evil Within preview: A master of horror gaming returns to an old haunt
Console-style survival horror games might not have a huge following on PC, but The Evil Within deserves attention: it’s the work of Shinji Mikami, who pioneered the genre with the original Resident Evil and overhauled it with Resident Evil 4. The Evil Within is his attempt to strip survival horror of its accreted dross and recapture its core appeal: namely, being trapped in a scary place with something that really wants to kill you.
At the beginning of the game, four baby-faced cops – including the player character, Sebastian Castellanos – respond to a call for backup from officers who have found themselves under attack in an insane asylum. The opening of The Evil Within is highly reminiscent of the first Resident Evil, from the haunted house setup to the ever-so-slightly wooden writing.
A few minutes in, Sebastian is captured and wakes up dangling from the ceiling surrounded by corpses. He’s the prisoner location of a monster the developers have given the working title ‘Chainsaw Guy’. You may be able to guess what Chainsaw Guy’s deal is.
Escape involves a linear series of stealth challenges, starting with swinging from side to side to reach a machete jutting out of a nearby body. Later, Sebastian uses thrown items to distract the monster as it searches for him in a hospital ward, and hides in a locker as the creature breaks down a locked door. These mechanics suggest the dynamic horror game that The Evil Within could become, but this sequence is highly linear.
As Sebastian escapes the asylum at the conclusion of the chase, there’s a sudden and genuinely surprising change in The Evil Within’s scope. I won’t spoil the moment here, but the notion of a single-location horror game is revealed to be a few orders of magnitude wide of the mark.
I was also shown a later area where Sebastian, now armed with a pistol, explores a small house. Ammo will be strictly limited, but enemies can be stunned and set on fire to conserve resources. After a few one-on-one scraps, a horde of monsters assault the building. While the decision to fight or flee is left to the player, eventually you’ll be forced to retreat – at which point, The Evil Within pulls another perception trick, subtly altering a location you’ve already explored to confront you with an altogether bigger, scarier and more imminently lethal foe.
It’s this to-and-fro between scripted scares and tense exploration that makes The Evil Within exciting. There’s also a simplicity to its interface, and a brutality to the design of its monsters, that recalls progressive indie horror games like Amnesia. Mainstream survival horror is in desperate need of revitalisation, and this is shaping up to be the game to do it.