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Friday, October 10, 2014

EB Expo 2014: Hands-on with The Evil Within

Impressions by Harvard L.

Tucked away in a dark corner of the EB Expo was Bethesda's booth for The Evil Within: a mock stone wall construction and a queue barrier decorated with police tape. On one side was the line to try out the game, and on the other was a maze like you'd find at a theme park, which would occasionally emit sounds of slashing and screams from the audience. For the purposes of the preview I stuck as close to the game side as I could - no amount of coercing was getting me into that maze.

Honestly, I was half excited and half apprehensive to play Shinji Mikami's latest foray into survival horror. Excited as the man behind the classic Resident Evil series by rights should have some novel takes on the modern horror genre, and apprehensive because I would probably be stuttering from fear as I walked out the booth. Earlier critics have already recognised The Evil Within's status as a mixture of new developments in the horror genre and classic survival horror (echoed by the attendant introducing the game, who convinced us that "this game is hard and you will die"). I mustered up the courage to at least try, in part due to my odd fascination with horror games. Here's what went down.

The demo at EB Expo thrusts players into Chapter 8 of the full game, where the protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, finds himself wandering through a forest path leading to a secluded mansion. Upon approaching the front door, we see a scientist figure guiding his disfigured patient into a passage, which then closes. Mad scientists and their deranged patients rank rather low on my list of things I'd want to follow, and yet that's exactly what the game was asking me to do. I proceeded up a staircase and started exploring.

What struck me immediately was that there were multiple passageways to go down. Lately, exploration has been rare in horror, with design focusing more on straight line paths that guide the player perfectly into well timed jump-scares. The ability to roam free through the mansion was quite refreshing, so I barrelled into a door only to have an explosive trap go off in my face.

Yeah, there are traps in this game. They take off a tonne of health. Said traps can also be disarmed by using the sneak mechanic, which I assume will be invaluable in the game proper. Sneaking lets you evade traps, enemy detection and can even lead to instant kill moves on unsuspecting enemies. I learned the importance of the latter ability when I encountered a monster and killed it with four shots of the game's pistol. You start with five bullets and I had wasted the first via misfire before even entering the mansion, so you can imagine my dread when another enemy popped out from behind the first. Melee attacks buy time but will never actually kill anything, so I decided to run past my assailant, through a corridor, around a corner and into another explosive trap. That was my first death.

Using lessons learnt from my previous attempt, I snuck through the mansion halls and disarmed everything I could find. You can scavenge parts from traps and other resources to eventually construct a makeshift, yet powerful weapon known as the Agony Crossbow, which can paralyse, freeze or explode enemies. I chuckled to myself at the noted similarity to Kirby's Air Ride of all things, and then met face to face with a ghostly apparition, which spelt an instant death. I couldn't tell if the game was unfair or I was just inept, but at this point I was starting to feel more like a thief from the Home Alone movies than Sebastian Castellanos, the experienced yet somewhat underequipped detective. Combine that with some long load times and my clumsiness started to feel even more embarrassing. I wanted to see all the demo had to offer, but run too fast and I'd surely fall prey to one of the mansion's many tricks.

Overall I felt two themes deeply resonated in this demo and will likely present themselves in the full game. The first is item and inventory management, since the player is always locked in a risk-reward scenario regarding their items. I expect you won't be given enough ammunition to kill every enemy you come by, and yet in a tense situation it's very tempting to shoot a downed monster a few extra times to make sure they don't get back up. And the second theme is the masterful switch between a brooding and urgent atmosphere. One minute you'll be sneaking carefully and in another all hell will break loose, so you're constantly alternating between slow and fast paced gameplay. The excellent control of tension makes exploration more compelling and really gets the adrenaline rushing when you're running for your life.

To close up I should mention the risk of making a high budget horror game like this when the genre clearly appeals to a niche. You're so disempowered in The Evil Within that the experience is unlike any other AAA title we've seen in recent times, and while the difficulty is punishing the design is carefully crafted to make you want to come back for more. There's this constant balance between life and death which makes the player feel like they could survive if only they were that little more cunning, that little more perceptive and maybe that little more brave. This is Shinji Mikami's signature, present ever since the genre's beginnings with Resident Evil on the PlayStation 1, demonstrating that old school survival horror has truly returned.

- Harvard L. 
EB Expo 2014: Hands-on with The Evil Within
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