The survival horror genre undertook a lot of experimentation over the last generation, with more than a few mixed results. With its back-to-fundamentals approach, Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within paints the walls with surprisingly refreshing fresh blood, and more than enough chills and frights to bring out a few more grey hairs.
Tango Gameworks' debut title opens with the slaughter of detective Sebastian Castellanos' fellow officers. As he investigates this gory mass murder, an unknown, supernatural entity appears and he loses consciousness. He comes to in a living nightmare he must outlast.
While The Evil Within is the studio's first game, there's no shortage of talent on the development team. Mikami is the celebrated creator of Resident Evil, and it's his intention that The Evil Within should be a ground-up traditional survivor horror. So far, the results call to mind many of the strongest entries in the genre.
The camera is set over Sebastian's shoulder, which deliberately obscures some of the field of view, and inevitably Tango puts this to good use to ratchet up the unease. Stealth can play a major role in survival here, and if timed well, Sebastian can take down weaker enemies without the use of ammo. They'll probably get back up, however: to purge them from existence entirely he must set a match to these cadavers.
In this build, Sebastian is only capable of holding five matches and it seems likely that this is a deliberate limitation to inflate the risk and stack the odds against him. Sebastian can also hide from enemies underneath beds and tables or inside cupboards, and doing so will often be the difference between life and death. The very limited view whilst in these situations adds to the anxiety as the timing must be right in order to perform a stealth kill or slip away unnoticed.
Puzzle-solving also requires a bit of thought and precision. In order to save an innocent mental hospital patient, Sebastian enters a mansion in which he needs to open a heavily fortified door. After some exploration it becomes clear that the key to opening the door is to analyse and dissect brains that have been scattered around the house. Each operation has to be done with precision, whether it's to insert cerebral cortex correctly, or to stimulate that part of the brain that causes us to experience fear. It's grotesque and uncomfortable. Pieces of the game's backstory also unlock with each brain dissection and the game cleverly places enemies where some back tracking is required to keep the exploration and retreading both eventful and fraught.
To help drive up that fear, the game has a ghost-like nemesis, Ruvik, who appears randomly. His arrival is announced by a depression of the colour palette and a shift in the music. The singular objective is to avoid contact with Ruvik, whose very touch will result in death.
A highlight of this preview is finds Sebastian stuck in a dark sewer-like area full of blood and corpses. Scouring around the room for clues and ammo Sebastian prepares for the inevitable: a horde of abominations with a thirst to kill. Using the environment to his advantage, Sebastian must find a way to eliminate all the shambling dead in the room. There are ledges that can be climbed, spilled petrol on the floor and corpses that can be burnt just to name a few. Any of these scenarios can help with the kills otherwise the guns ’a’ blazin’ approach can also do the trick. It’s refreshing to see a survival horror title that provides options to completing key tasks.
All the weapons staples are present and accounted for, of course. Apart from the trusty revolver and shotgun there is a kind of crossbow of the “in case of emergency break this out” variety. Weapons and health can be set to the directional pad, and it's advisable to do so as opening the weapon radial menu only slows time rather than pausing it entirely. Ammo is scarce for the crossbow, but particular bolt kinds can usually be forged by collecting tools and components from traps, including motion sensing bombs a trip line devices.
Those that have experienced the kind of psychological trickery found in games like Eternal Darkness will notice similar traits in Tango’s first title. Entering a room can sometimes become a psychological loop that looks to confuse Sebastian or make him think he is trapped in a nightmare - and maybe he is. Buildings and environments can change in real-time which can confuse and play tricks on a mind that is already fragile from fear.
Indeed, there appears to be no shortage of fear, distress thrills in Mikami's next game. Now slated for an October release on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, The Evil Within looks set to herald a frightening and exhilarating new dawn for survival horror.