A shot in the dark?
Survival horror, it's safe to say, is in a dark and foggy wilderness of its own at the moment. Ever since Resident Evil 4 revitalised the genre with its pitch-perfect blend of tense action, extravagant horror and pounding atmosphere, many games have strived to emulate and evolve its formula but few have succeeded entirely. Even Resident Evil 4's official follow-ups haven't managed it; Resident Evil 5 is a solid but clunky retread, and part 6 succumbed to a major personality crisis.
Elsewhere, survival horror has increasingly followed the action part of the equation while gradually losing the fear and sense of oppression. But now, having left Capcom a couple of years after Resi 4's release, director Shinji Mikami is returning to horror with The Evil Within, releasing on current and next-gen consoles, as well as PC, next year. Having gone through its current demo with a fine-toothed comb, we reckon it might finally be the follow-up that his genre-changing masterpiece deserves. Here are seven reasons why.
Shinji Mikami is directing it
Alongside Silent Hills Akira Yamaoka, there is no-one more important to survival horror than Shinji Mikami. Having effectively created the genre in Resident Evil, he then rebooted it into a finely balanced horror-action hybrid in Resident Evil 4, simultaneously cementing the basic mechanics of pretty much every third-person action game since. While Mikamis work on Resi 4 is often falsely blamed for destroying the genre he created, the fact is that the game was (and still is) a tightrope-walk of punishing, nerve-wracking, back-to-the-wall encounters and exhilarating spectacle, wrapped up in an atmosphere so oppressive it could keep a small nation subjugated into slavery for a generation.
With core shooting mechanics pitched halfway between empowerment and panic, and a basic gameplay model forcing clever use of space in order to avoid severe punishment, Resident Evil 4 is one of the most demanding, shocking and tonally affecting horror games in history. So when Mikami says hes making a new survival horror game that plays even more on the genres roots, paying attention would be a very good idea.
The apocalyptic rural horror vibe is back
Early footage of The Evil Within mostly centred around the asylum serving as the games starting location. As such, wed expected said container for the mentally unusual to be the main setting for the game. It seems not. Following his initial imprisonment and escape from said facility, protagonist Sebastian (after a period of time we cant yet determine) eventually finds himself outside the building. Having experienced a couple of earthquakes along the way, it then turns out that the seismic seriousness was a lot greater than initially suspected. The whole world, stretching right up to the horizon, has been shattered into twisted wilderness.
Blasted landscapes, twisting, gloomy countryside, wooden shacks, dank tunnels; we currently have no idea of the reasons for or nature of this world, but it already certainly looks to evoke a familiarly nightmarish stranger in a strange land vibe, albeit one more apocalyptic and surreal than that of Resident Evil 4s rural Spain.
Evasion is a big deal
While you will be doing some shooting and killing in The Evil Within, running away seems to make up just as large a proportion of the game. In fact the noble art of scamper-based death-avoidance made up roughly 90% of our demo. Not only that, but the act of running away has now evolved into full-blown hiding, via a proper stealth system. Sticky cover makes an appearance, but before you worry that things are already going a bit action-horror, know that weve thus far only seen it used for cat-and-mouse evasion, not for cover-shooting.
The Evil Within is less about using cover to safely fight gun-toting zombies, and much more about sneaking around cupboards so as not to be spotted by the nearby undead behemoth who will definitely kill you on sight. But assuming that stealth does bleed through into combat, we can imagine it working as a modern extension of Resident Evil 4s door-blocking, ladder pushing evasive play, with line-of sight being as big a life-saver as whatever limited weaponry you might be carrying.
Crowd-control looks to be a big deal too
Remember how every one of Resident Evil 4s major skirmishes was a gloriously fraught, improvisational sandbox demanding tight use of space and creative environmental navigation in order to round up and dispose of the throbbing horde? While Resident Evil 5 emulated it pretty well, The Evil Within might well evolve it.
While weve only seen one outright combat section so far (a familiar cabin siege in which legions of monsters poured in through the windows), the defend/control model seemed to be in full effect, only this time bolstered by the use of booby traps. In a manner similar to that of The Last of Us, deployment of pre-crafted mines became a major theme, allowing entry points to be covered as Sebastians limited shooting abilities covered anything that made it through. But unlike TLOUs Kill em all approach, this particular skirmish was cut short as overwhelming numbers forced a hasty retreat. If the rest of the game keeps up this level of oppression while evolving the idea of spatially-driven, evasive combat with traps and snares, it could be horribly exhilarating.
Hit-and-run tactics are returning, but nastier
A heartening revelation during our demo was the appearance of an evolved version of Resident Evil 4s hit-and-run mechanics. A key tactic in that game was the use of a crippling leg-shot to set up an enemy for a punishing melee hit; a tactic that became invaluable when you realised that a tactical roundhouse could scatter whole crowds if deployed upon the right target. Resident Evil 5 muddied the purity of the tactic by allowing co-op set-ups and executions, while Resi 6 loosened things up further by allowing melee any time, provided there was enough juice in the stamina bar.
The Evil Within seems to be bringing back the purity of Resi 4s system, only with a few fiendish twists. Rather than knocking down a stunned enemy down, you can now set fire to them with matches (provided you have them). We dont yet know if this fire will spread to other enemies, but its a good bet that it could provide a great crowd control possibility. Though similarly it could bring massive risks in tight spaces, particularly given that enemies can play dead and make a flaming leap at your very flammable face just as you think theyre safely barbecued.
It knows the importance of 'that one, terrifying enemy'
Combine Resident Evil 3s Nemesis with Resident Evil 4s Dr. Salvador, and then mix liberally with a huge slab of rotting meat, previously belonging to a bull who may or may not have died after being unleashed in a china shop. Thats The Evil Withins Chainsaw Guy; a single, brutally oppressive, seemingly unstoppable enemy who comes at you with the tenacity of a terminator and smashes any hint of bravery you might have accrued into a course pate of sadness.
Youll first meet him in the kitchen near the start of the game. Then hell pursue you across the length of a drawn-out, claustrophobic chase sequence, tense enough to feel like it lasts longer than your life to date. Then hell slowly stalk you around a small set of winding rooms, as you cat-and-mouse your way about using cover and misdirection. Then youll find yourself hiding in a cupboard as he grunts and sniffs at the door. After that, were not sure what happens to him, but we can almost guarantee hes not gone. Mikami knows that one relentless, dedicated enemy is more intimidating than a legion of identikit zombies. This latest iteration of the concept looks to be ferociously well-realised.
It's deliciously mean-spirited
While later survival horror games have often gone easier on the player, tempering tense moments with calm periods and cathartic shoot-outs, The Evil Within can be flat-out sadistic in the way it piles on the stress. At times its impossible not to imagine Shinji Mikami sitting in a grimy, steam-gushing control room behind the scenes, pulling infernal levers and smashing bloodied buttons with a hideous cackle, like some nightmarishly brain-wronged Wizard of Oz.
Example: Its near the beginning of the game. Youve just escaped the meat-hook youve been unconsciously dangling from, snuck around the hulking Chainsaw Guy in order to snag the key to the door, and now youre away. But oh no, youve tripped the alarm, and now Chainsaw Guy is right behind you. Oh dear, theres nowhere to go except along this infeasibly long, narrow corridor. Oh crap, now hes nicked your leg and youre limping. Bloody hell, this corridor is long, isnt it? But look, a door! Surely theres salvation through there! Oh no. No, theres no salvation. There are just huge spinning, wall-mounted blades, moving steadily in towards the centre of the room. For no good reason whatsoever. And youre still limping. Why, Shinji, why!?
Looking pretty good?
So there are our considered thoughts at the moment. Needless to say, the more horror-hungry amongst us are excited. But what do you think? Is The Evil Within looking like a return to form for the genre, and a noble successor to one of its greatest? Let us know.
And while you're here, check out some of our related content. If you too are missing real terror in your games, check out Andy's editorial asking "Where have all the survival horror games gone?". And if you want to keep up on every breaking detail on The Evil Within, keep an eye on our game-hub page.