We're in Japan and at the recently opened studio of Tango Gameworks, located not far from Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge. We're still in the dark about what we're about to see, apart from it being a new survival horror game, and the atmosphere is one of anticipation. The title The Evil Within presents itself in white letters on a black backdrop, and the presentation starts.
Before long we witness main character Sebastian hanging upside down from a butcher's hook in a dark and blood filled butchery. Nearby a beast of man, who bears a surprising resemblance to Bane from the most recent Batman flick, goes to work on another victim with a chainsaw. The desperate screams from the helpless man are only interrupted by the sound of metal carving through meat, bone, and tendons. And then there's silence.
It's enough to make you feel uneasy. The grotesque scene underlines that this is indeed a survival horror game. Not surprising given that Tango Gameworks was established by Shinji Mikami, who created the genre defining Resident Evil and who later reinvented the genre again with Resident Evil 4.
"We considered lots of ideas in the beginning," says producer Masato Kimura (Okami, Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry), who previously worked with Mikami at Capcom. "At the same time we quickly realised that what we really wanted to do was a new survival horror game. We firmly believe that this is a genre Mikami masters, and it didn't take long after we established Tango that the first concepts for The Evil Within started to take shape."
It's not difficult to spot that The Evil Within draws inspiration from Resident Evil. But let's start from the top. The player assumes the role of police investigator Sebastian, who receives word on a major incident at a mansion that has been turned into a hospital. You arrive at the scene with two colleagues. They're greeted by a foreboding scene. The rain falls from grey skies, abandoned police cars with both guns and ammunition missing. As the three officers enter the hospital they're greeted by a reception full of dead patients, hospital staff and police officers. A quick review of the surveillance system in the next room shows how three officers empty their guns at an invisible foe that swiftly takes them out. Before Sebastian knows it he's been knocked out and he wakes up hanging upside down in the meat locker previously described.
As far as the gameplay mechanics go there is a lot to remind us of Resident Evil (albeit with an improved camera). Sebastian limps through narrow passages with sparse lighting as he tries to flee from the chainsaw wielding butcher. But we're also treated to a few new features. If you press down one of the shoulder buttons Sebastian will sneak forward silently. At one point he has to hide in a cupboard to slip away from his pursuer. Another example is how he needs to throw a bottle across the room to distract the butcher, tactics we're used to in stealth games.
"Inspiration is not only drawn from my work on Resident Evil, but also from Western games," says Shinji Mikami. "A central component we like in Western games is that there isn't much difference between cutscenes and actual gameplay. It creates greater immersion, and that's an important part for a survival horror game to do it's job properly."
Another important feature is traps. This comes into play when Sebastian has to hide in a shed in a scene not unlike a certain sequence in Resident Evil 4. Naturally, traps can also create problems for you if you're not careful, Mikami hints.
The employees at Tango Gameworks all agree that it's an advantage that The Evil Within is the first game they are creating at the new studio:
"Since Tango Gameworks is a brand new studio, we enjoy the advantage of relatively large degree of freedom as far as developing the game goes," says Mikami. "We have no old concepts to hold us back or tie us down." Naoki Katakai, art director on the project, adds that the young team at Tango are fans of the genre and are enjoying the sense of creating something brand new. And while the market is being flooded with zombie games, there is no surplus of proper horror games.
The Evil Within sees an opening where for once the market is starved for horror. The fact that the game is being developed on next generation consoles also allows for the possibility that The Evil Within could elevate the genre to the next level. That's what Mikami hopes for. But as far as what specific things that next gen consoles allows for Mikami, Kimura and Katakai stay mute.
"We're still exploring the possibilities," says Kimuta. "Naturally you will notice a major step forward as far as audio and visuals go."
"The environments will be fuller and richer with detail," adds Katakai.
All this is very well, but there is no denying the demise of the survival horror genre over the last few years. The franchise Mikami helped create has moved away from its roots, providing us with something more appropriately labelled survival action, and the same can be said of other franchises. Is the survival horror genre dead?
"We don't feel the genre is dead, but it's difficult to master," says Kimura. "If you focus solely on the horror elements, people will be turned off by it cause it's too scary. But if you focus solely on fighting enemies, you end up with an action game. We trust Mikami to master this balance act."
Mikami agrees that the genre is far from dead. "This genre will never go away as people will always enjoy a good scare. We like mysteries and we enjoy the sensation of getting scared."
I can easily relate to Mikami's words. Scenes such as the one with the window in the very first Resident Evil remain with the player long after completion. And when it comes to horror, no one does it like the Japanese. Not only have they established video game franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but films like The Ring and The Grudge. What is it that makes the Japanese such masters of horror?
"You know what? It's not something I have ever really thought of," says Mikami. "It's probably just a cultural component. We have a long tradition of horror stories and ghosts in Japanese tradition, among other things Kaidan stories. Japanese people are introduced to mysterious and dark things from childhood, and in modern days this has also been visualised [in our work]."
Is The Evil Within an attempt to bring back the emotions of those childhood stories? Either way, we're excited about the prospect of a master of survival horror returning to his old haunting grounds...
The Evil Within launches in 2014 on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and next generation consoles.