What is "Survival Horror"? The term, originally coined back in 1996 with the release of Shinji Mikami's Resident Evil, officially means something along the lines of de-emphasized combat and the confrontation of traditionally horrific ideas and enemies. This typically is heavily inspired by the horror genre in film, from camera angles to themes and copied visuals too. However, beyond a resurgence of independent games in recent years, survival horror has floundered in a wallow of action gameplay. Some might say survival horror has been absent from the medium for some times, with Resident Evil 4's modernization not just transforming the genre but creating a new one altogether.
Enter The Evil Within, Shinji Mikami's directorial debut with Tango Gameworks. Touted as a true return to survival horror, fans have been salivating at the mere though of a resurgence of the glory days. Not everyone is so confident in the return of the king, however. The fear being that with Shinji Mikami's shift in direction in recent years, directing God Hand, Vanquish, and Resident Evil 4 itself, has resulted in him having lost touch. Luckily, Bethesda recently decided to show us The Evil Within -- after all, what better way to persuade gamers than to let them experience for themselves. While the game wasn't playable, we were shown two full areas in a sufficiently dark room.
Let me be the first to say this: Shinji Mikami is back. Survival horror is back. The Evil Within creeped me out so much that I am quite literally looking over my shoulder at the door unconsciously as I'm writing this article; I don't even want to play this game.
Here are my impressions of The Evil Within.
Fair warning, there are spoilers from the two areas shown to us in this early demo. Considering how important surprise and mystery can be to survival horror games, I figure some readers may want to skip the body of this text and just go to my final thoughts.
The Evil Within
There are no cut corners in The Evil Within. I was terrified from the moment the demo started. It begins with Detective Sebastion Castellanos and his partners reporting on... well, it's unclear exactly what's going on. All that's apparent is he's going to a mental hospital where things have gone bad. The hospital is in what seems to be a bustling major city with tall buildings all around. It's alive. However, as soon as we pull into the hospital's parking lot everything is clearly wrong. The lot is filled with empty cop cars. Sebastian has to go inside, but if I was controlling the game I'd turn him around and never come back. Masato Kimura, The Evil Within's producer and our demo driver, decides to keep going. I decide we won't ever be friends.
In the hospital is everything I expected to find -- dead bodies, no signs of what killed them, no blood and no shell casing, just silence and way too much tension. Okay, so now we're going into a mental hospital full of murdered people where at least a dozen cops are MIA. This Sebastian is either brave beyond all reason or a complete idiot. He goes on to find the security room full of cameras and a lone doctor survivor. The man whispers a name and then Sebastian moves to a wall of cameras where he sees a mysterious figure being shot at by a handful of police officers. The shots, they do nothing, as the figure seems to appear wherever he pleases, stabbing all the way. I'm not sure why I'm surprised when he looks directly at the camera, but he does. Then he's next to Sebastian with his knife and the screen goes black.
I want to clarify at this point that Sebastian has had no weapon the entire time. The entire experience has been linear, though its all been extremely intuitive what with his partners guiding him to specific locations. Despite this, from minute one, the atmosphere is palpably terrifying. Despite the partners Sebastian feels alone, weak, and entirely too open to being stabbed in the neck. When it's finally about to happen and we can see it, hear it, feel it, no, I'm not surprised -- I'm terrified.
Of course the stage doesn't end there, however, oh dear no it only gets worse. Sebastian wakes upside down hanging from a hook in some sort of meat locker. Surrounding him are fellow police officers and... less formed chunks of meat. Worse, however, it the monstrous butcher who brushes past you just as your eyes come into focus. There are sounds of chopping, tearing, and the masked butcher walks by again with half of a police officer. If you turn, you'll see the other half dropping gore. I consider escaping from the presentation, but it's too dark to even see my hands.
Naturally Sebastian is able get down from the hook. Naturally there's a locked door. Naturally, the key is hanging next to the butcher as he, well, butchers a stack of ... meat. What follows is perhaps the best survival horror sequence I've seen in years. It's not just an escape from a horrifying and indomitable creature filled with puzzles and references to previous works of horror, it's a quick devolution into insanity. Just ten minutes prior we were in a police car with our partners investigating a crime, and here we are being chased by a masked butcher with a chainsaw through rooms filled with saw blades, our leg sliced (yeah, we didn't start this chase with that) and no weapons. Suddenly we're back in the mental hospital and it doesn't make me feel any better.
As we struggle towards the lobby the earth begins to shake. It should be the most exciting feeling in the world, finally reaching the doors outside, but it's not. Everything feels wrong -- and it is. The doors open. Streets are cracked and broken, buildings toppled, even the parking lot is gone. The world has ended.
And in one level The Evil Within has done more than any horror game I've played in years. You can't turn around, you don't want to go forward, you want to stop and huddle on the floor and cry. Except you can't, because all you have left is survival. Even though you know every step forward may, no, will be worse than the last, there's no other step to take.
At this point what we've seen of The Evil Within has been entirely linear with no combat whatsoever, yet as I'm watching combat is the furthest thing from my mind. Of course, as we finish the first area of the game, we decided to jump to a later stage to show off combat. Welcome to Perth House. As we jump back behind Sebastian we find he still doesn't look so great, unsurprisingly, and he's found himself a gun. He's following a path through the wilderness that leads him up to some sort of cabin. A cabin in the woods. How fitting.
Immediately after Sebastian enters the cabin that old, classic Resident Evil feeling sets in. Sebastian is very clearly low on resources -- he's hurt, he needs ammo. He scours the place, searching shelves and drawers and while there are some items it's clear we're never going to have full pockets in this game. Just enough to get by. Then the enemies show up, dudes with nails through their face and you can't help but look at your paltry pocket full of bullets and wonder how this is all going to work out.
The answer, as it always is, is lots of running. Headshots do more damage, leg shots will topple enemies, and the only way to truly kill them is to burn their bodies. Yes, matches are a finite resource as well. When the whole town decides to burst through the windows even a few mine traps won't hold them all off. So we resort to doing some damage, backing up a bit, doing some damage, backing up a bit. Sort of like how survival horror games have taught us over the years, right?
Just as it looks like we're almost done with the enemies and our bullets are getting low, we turn through a doorway that doesn't seem like it was there before and all of a sudden we're somewhere else. Somewhere that looks oddly like a hallway in the mental facility. Even from my short introduction to The Evil Within its clear the game likes to mess with expectations. Areas are more like Escher labyrinths where space is malformed. It's, well, it's something that should be expected from a survival horror game.
Of course, this hallways doesn't lead the player in the directions they'd expect. At one point it leads to a doorway that's very clearly a reference to a certain elevator from The Shining. Sebastian's pants were already bloody anyway. It finally leads to a bloody morgue and a spotlight over a pile of bodies. Even as we approach it's clear something is waiting for us there. Enter the bloody, four armed witch from the original live action The Evil Within trailer. There's no escape.
I wanted to introduce The Evil Within with a recap of the drama around what modern survival horror is. After all, Bethesda and Tango Gameworks seems to be pitching The Evil Within as the genre's resurrection, a return to form, true bloody horror and all that jazz. To be honest, I could go on arguing the finer points of this argument for some time and it's clear to me that Bethesda isn't wrong in this regard. That's how I wanted to start this article, but that's not how I want to end it.
Ending in such a fashion would be so disrespectful of what The Evil Within achieved in the brief time I had with it. The entire way though watching The Evil Within's demo I didn't think about the genre and how this game fit into the picture in any regard. I sat on the edge of my seat, I watched attentively, and yes, at times I was legitimately scared. The Evil Within is an experience to behold, that much is clear to me.
Ghostly maniacs with short, sharp knives, bulky masked monstrosities with chainsaws, thin bloody demons with claws that crawl and climb, and at the center of it all Sebastian. A man, alone, hurt, lost, with a pocket full of shells and nothing but the path ahead of him and no idea where it leads. The Evil Within is scary, it scared me, and that makes all the difference.