It’s no secret that the survival horror genre has largely favored intense firefights over chilling frights in recent years. Series such as “Dead Space” and “Resident Evil”—famed for scaring the pants off players in the past—have been more focused on giving fans sore thumbs rather than nightmares. While these franchises’ latest entries have delivered awesome action experiences, neither recaptured the terror we felt the first time that virally-infected canine came crashing through “Resident Evil’s” mansion window.
Shinji Mikami, creator of Capcom’s seminal survival horror series, aims to return the genre to its nerve-fraying roots with “The Evil Within.” The forthcoming title—the first from Mikami’s Tango Gameworks studio—puts players in the sharp suit of Sebastian Castellanos, a detective sent to investigate a mysterious mass murder at a mental hospital. Beyond that setup, story details are scarcer than green herbs in Raccoon City, but our recent hands-on time sheds a bit more light on what Castellanos is up against.
Before we could dive into the demo, though, messages flashed across the screen that strongly suggested we weren’t about to enter another zombie shooting gallery. After digesting helpful hints like “hide under beds” and “run,” we found ourselves in the campaign’s fourth chapter, braving a thunderstorm outside a run-down hospice. According to the panicked doctor accompanying Castellanos, the facility was the last known location of an apparent person of interest named Leslie.
Taking those pre-game tips under advisement, we hoofed it from a big burly ghoul who happened to have an ax planted in his head. With our pulse appropriately spiked, we made it inside the building and began exploring its unsettling interiors. We didn’t see much at first, but the eerie sounds filling the dark corridors were enough to keep us on our toes. Floors creaked, flies buzzed, and a calm voice recited disturbing dialogue, like “Peel away… no tearing” and “The good doctor is here.” As we passed through some bloody tarps, the voice became louder, and we got that same sinking feeling that we felt the first time we met “BioShock’s” resident psycho physician, Dr. Steinman.
It turned out that the menacing musings were being spewed by the sibling of the man we were with. The rambling madman was also a doctor, Leslie’s caretaker, and a night-terror-conjuring creep who was in the process of removing the skin from a corpse. He approached us with a bloody blade, but we fired a few slugs into his chest and set him ablaze—barbequing baddies is required in “The Evil Within,” lest you want seemingly dead foes to return for a rematch. While the immediate threat was thwarted, the crazy train had just started to pick up steam; following the attack, we were forced to dive into the squishy cavity of the demented doc’s victim (Leslie, perhaps?) and witness a flashback of the former physician tearing his own face off.
The first 30 or so minutes of our demo focused on story—and planting the seeds of our future nightmares—but things picked up after we left the hospice. Distant screams attracted more enemies, many of which had a number of sharp, pointy objects penetrating their heads. Thankfully, we were introduced to the game’s crafting system in time to deal with these walking pin cushions. Traps, such as trip wires and motion-sensitive explosives, can be disarmed if carefully approached; doing so yields a variety of items that you can then fashioned into crossbow bolts of the flash-bang, freeze, and incendiary varieties.
Over the next several minutes, we engaged in a shoot-and-burn spree, leaving lots of charred corpses in our wake. We never became too confident or comfortable, though, as the action was interspersed with moments that couldn’t be solved with firepower. Before the demo concluded, for example, we were faced with a hallway that filled with blood—“The Shining”-style—and a spidery female foe that made the good doc look like a lollipop-gifting pediatrician. Evading the former eventually led us into to the tentacles of the latter; we managed to escape her clutches, but were soon confronted by the game’s mysterious hooded figure and apparent main antagonist.
His appearance brought the demo—and Sebastian’s life—to an end, but “The Evil Within” wasn’t done with us yet. A second playable section, part of the game’s eighth chapter, gave us a glimpse at the title’s puzzle-solving side. In what we assume is an intentional homage to the original “Resident Evil,” the second demo found Sebastian in a mansion’s dimly-lit dining room. Following some brief exploration, the protagonist exited the eating area and stumbled upon a pair of monsters feasting on the corpse of an unfortunate victim. Sound familiar?
We continued searching, not really knowing what we were looking for. While we danced with a few freaks and unexpectedly got roped—literally—into a trap that threatened to turn us into sirloin tips, the mansion was quieter than the hospice. The hooded menace occasionally showed up to remind us how fast we could run, but we were generally free to look for clues and take in the oozing creepiness surrounding us. Of course, traipsing around like a first-time tourist wasn’t an option, as mysteries needed solving, and codes required cracking.
We encountered two puzzle types, one of which could have been cribbed right from the old-school survival horror handbook: A safe, sporting a pair of dials, could only be opened once its combination had been deciphered from paintings hung in the estate. While this riddle was a bit of a melon-twister, the next was a literal brain-bender; standing over a decapitated head, we had to probe its exposed lobes with a surgical tool. A diagram sitting beside the noggin offered some direction as to where we should start digging. With the appropriate region pierced, a story-progressing cinematic played to offer some insight into the sibling physicians’ past.
Complemented by a survival-focused crafting system, “The Evil Within’s” combat certainly provides its fair share of trigger-pulling thrills. That said, its lock-and-load moments seem to be organically woven into a larger tapestry of twisted storytelling, engaging puzzles, atmospheric environments, creepy characters, and well-paced encounters that provide more genuine frights than bullet fodder.
If our shaken psyches and sweaty palms offer any indication of what’s to come, “The Evil Within” should provide genre purists with plenty of reason to play with the lights on when it infects Xbox One and Xbox 360 consoles.