As main character Sebastian Castellanos emerges from a grainy black and white sub-reality on a forest path with ravens lining the way and branches and leaves moving in the wind, there is a strange sense of déja vù that is shared between player and main character. As we come up on a large, mysterious mansion Sebastian puts it into words. He's never been there before, yet it feels strangely familiar. The same can be said of The Evil Within as a whole, as it mixes elements we are familiar with, but puts its own unique spin on them.
As The Evil Within was announced it was dubbed as Shinji Mikami's return to survival horror, having been instrumental in the creation of Resident Evil. But The Evil Within is more than a spiritual successor to the popular and increasingly action-oriented series, in fact it may have more in common with Silent Hill as far as narrative and theme goes. There are elements of the mechanics that mirror The Last of Us there are parts of the experience that remind us of Dark Souls.
Dealing with the not quite human enemies of The Evil Within is not as straight forward as dealing with zombies. You can hide in cupboards and underneath beds, use bottles to create distraction like in The Last of Us, sneak up on them for silent stealth kills, but you're also going to spend a match on some in order to burn them and make sure they don't rise again. The noise a not quite dead monster makes as it burns makes our skin crawl. Melee attacks don't do much good, but can buy you a little breathing room. And then there are enemies you can't deal with by any conventional means, you simply have to run.
Our hands-on section with The Evil Within includes two edited down chapters - 4 and 8 - and we're left trying to figure out the context. It's like being given a couple of dozen puzzle pieces and trying to figure out what the full thousand piece picture would look like. But we have some idea, and it would appear as if The Evil Within takes as much if not more inspiration from Silent Hill than it does from Resident Evil. We also thought of American Horror Story and Grave Encounters as we played through the E3 build.
Chapter 4 "Inner Recesses" sees Sebastian guiding a companion, a doctor who's looking for a patient of his, Leslie, through a hospice. As we canvass the open area outside the hospice it's clear we're not alone, a bunch of enemies circle a campfire and it's our first chance to sample the combat. Crouching in the high grass (you'll do a lot of crouching in this game), we took out the first couple stealthily from behind, and spent a couple of rounds taking down the third.
The doctor is not exactly the most intelligent A.I. companion we've ever had the pleasure of escorting, and while he does nothing that affects gameplay negatively, his chatter tends to be ill timed. We find Leslie. He seems out of sorts. Expected given he apparently resides in the nightmarish dimension. As the three of us plan to make our escape a character appears in a corridor. The doctor recognises the figure as Ruvik and asks us not to follow him as he walks away. There's really only one option here, to follow Ruvik and as we try and go back towards the doctor we're caught in a loop (by design, you try and walk back but there's a bit of static and you're starring towards the door at the end of the corridor again - typical horror cliché) where our only option is to follow Ruvik to a door at the end of the corridor. This is the point where an image of Admiral Ackbar pops into your head.
It is indeed a trap. We're locked into a larger room with some sort of foul liquid in the middle, lots of walkways and plenty of traps set up. Ruvik seals the exit with some sort of magic (apparently meat-based) and through what would appear to be blood magic, he spawns a large group of enemies that rise from the sludge at the center of the room. The first time we tried to negotiate this room we quickly moved to disarm the traps and harvest the materials in order to create ammunition for our Agony Crossbow - a handy last resort weapon that can send a variety of darts at enemies or your surroundings (setting up new traps). Not the best idea we've had. We're forced to try and fend for ourselves with our knife and melee attacks as we run out of ammunition. On our second try we crouch and stealthily avoid the traps, but leave them active for our enemies to trigger. Mopping up a few stragglers with said crossbow, we break the magical meat seal on the exit and continue our pursuit of Ruvik.
Only it's not Ruvik we run into next. Half spider, half woman, with a hint of the Icecream man from Legion, we're attacked by a terrifying beast and left with only one option. Run. Some enemies in The Evil Within (and not just in scripted events such as this one) you're simply not capable of damaging. We realise this as we watch the four-legged monster devour Sebastian in a scene that you don't want to miss out on. It's worth dying once or twice just to see what happens in The Evil Within.
The Evil Within turns opening doors into an art form. While other items you can interact with; objects used in puzzles, materials for crafting, weapons, medkits and ammunition, produce pop-ups to indicate that you can press a button to interact with them as you get near, you'll see no such thing with doors. A door that's locked or one that leads into a closet, or one that leads to another dimension (we did not step into another dimension through a door, but might as well have) all look the same to the player. You can open them slowly and quietly or kick them open. The latter will attract enemies, but can sometimes be a tactical advantage, while the slow relevation of what's on the other side (that includes an animation that lasts for a few dreadful seconds) makes for great tension. Most of the time opening a door is entirely safe, but just when you've started to relax about the process there's something there that will make you jump.
If the fourth chapter was mainly focussed on combat then chapter 8 "Cruelest Intentions" leans more heavily towards puzzles and exploration. It's set in the aforementioned mansion, a place were research of an unethical nature has been taking place. The doctor who now appears to be a villain and someone we're pursuing, now in the shape of some kind of spectral apparition, escorts an individual who lives in this mansion through a set of doors. They locks behind them and we're tasked with opening it by sending three sets of vile liquids through the lock mechanism.
Three sections of the mansion allow for three puzzles where we have to re-enact or complete some rather crude experiments on living (?) dissected human brains. We probe specified areas of the brains according to instructions from sound files, if we make a mistake Sebastian's health bar takes a hit. Merely a game mechanic or a clue about what's really going on here? There are random and scripted encounters with Ruvik, who appears in a blue spectral shape leaving us with only one option, legging it. On one occasion we ran in the wrong direction (there's a visual echo preceeding him to tell you where he's coming from), opened up a door and jumped up from our seat as he took out a chunk of our health. The Evil Within is atmospheric, fairly conservative with its scares, but you'll be crouching throughout most of the game to avoid detection and you'll likely light your lantern at the risk of attracting enemies just to ease your anxiety as the darkness grows thick.
We came away impressed by The Evil Within after a couple of hours and two chapters worth of scares. It may not impress technically, but it still manages to produce the kind of atmosphere that is key to the genre, and the fact that we're left with more questions after the session is an indication the game will deliver come October. It's the Japanese survival horror evolved.