The Evil Within preview: a survival horror fan’s best worst nightmare

It will drag next gen's crisp visuals and raw computing horsepower through blood, dirt and darkness

When Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami announced his return to survival horror with The Evil Within, his thinly veiled criticism of the excess of action in the genre he helped define was a damning indictment of the industry’s focus on homogenising the AAA videogame market.

Whether it was the languid, almost begrudging jump scares of Dead Space 3 or the shambolic mess that was Resident Evil 6, a once pioneering horror franchise that seemed embarrassed about its legacy, the thrills and chills of survival horror became a niche experience. While this ironically led to some of the genre’s freshest outings in the realms of indie development with Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Deadly Premonition, it took the overwhelming critical acclaim of the magnificent The Last of Us to dispel the belief that the grotesque in gaming should be left to rot.

While The Evil Within may not eventually surpass Mikami’s magnum opus Resident Evil 4 in terms of quality, its arrival on the latest generation of consoles couldn’t be more timely as it seeks to drag the current hardware’s crisp visuals and raw computing horsepower through blood, dirt and darkness.

Despite prior warning about the game’s fear factor over email by Bethesda’s PR, the first part of the demo was still an unsettling introduction to The Evil Within's morbid, vile and twisted world that delicately balanced the cerebral scares of J-horror with grindhouse depravity. The enemies, which shamble and threaten with greater impetuous than traditional undead foes, are fleshy nightmares garbed in barbed wire, gore-drenched rags and armed with a manner of blunt objects. On first impressions, The Evil Within is shaping up to be a survival horror fan’s best worst nightmare. 

The demo’s first cinematic encounter is with an engorged doctor, gleefully operating on an equally repulsive inhuman corpse. Blasting his skull apart with a carefully aimed pistol shot was enough to see him fall, but I was soon to realize that anything other than a clean headshot results in your target rising slowly back to their feet. The solution to this is immolation by virtue of matches, one of the game’s many scarce resources. There are four quick inventory slots that which can be filled with health syringes, guns and the game’s signature crossbow that can be customized with explosive, shock and harpoon bolt variants that make up part of the game’s crafting system.

Aside from an ineffective knife, handheld melee weapons are available as a temporary solution to the scarcity of ammunition, while bottles can be used to distract or lure one of the game’s various abominations into the right position for a sneaking takedown. The game’s stealth dynamic was one of the few disappointments I encountered, with the first part of the demo’s scientist companion far too eager to attract attention and foil my careful approaches. Although this improved when I was later left to confront the horrors alone.

With gun in hand The Evil Within closely resembles Resident Evil 4’s third person shooting, where the aiming reticule is slow to focus unless stationary, adding nervous intensity and strategy to gunplay. A twisted detour into an abattoir of mutilated bodies and pools of crimson also introduced manipulatable environmental hazards to abate the incoming hoards. While explosive traps – that can be dismantled for bolt parts if successfully disarmed – littered many of the obvious escape paths.

After being submerged in a corridor that filled with blood (pulled from The Shining, but chilling nonetheless) and being hunted by a deformed wraith girl with the limbs of a giant spider, I continued onto the second part of the demo taken from chapter 8 of the final game. While the first part of the demo from chapter 4 mixed schlocky gore with kinetic shocks, the latter echoes the haunting aura of the original Resident Evil.

The enjoyably campy quips of protagonist Detective Sebastian Castellanos do little to distract from the ominous creak of a wrought iron gate that leads to a creaking mansion, shrouded in mist. Beautifully lit in the game’s modified id Tech engine, the halls and bedrooms of the mysterious estate are vintage Mikami. The tonal shift between the two chapters is severe as Mikami’s signature grand pianos and ornate paintings now adorn the walls creating an atmosphere of disquieting unease. It’s a far throw from the first demo’s oozing claret pustules that dripped from the walls of decaying wooden shacks. While the versatility of the frights is encouraging, it will be a tough act to balance two disparate areas come the game’s release in October.

This second area also introduces logic and item puzzles into the survival horror gameplay and reveals parts of the game’s cryptic backstory involving the hooded antagonist Ruvik and a missing girl called Leslie, although the actual plot is left largely under-wraps expect for a few audio logs, notes and ghostly flashbacks.

While I’m promised there is more to come in the final game in the form of character upgrades, a gripping story and a cavalcade of unknown terrors awaits.