The half hour I spent with Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within felt eerily familiar. While the debut title from Mikami’s new studio Tango Gameworks, the game itself borrows a lot from his past directorial efforts. Most notably, unsurprisingly, is now classic Resident Evil 4. There is, however, enough to make this a new experience, and a rather unnerving one at that.
Preceded by a hands-off theatre demo that functioned more as a collection of quick tips to not immediately be confused with the subsequent hands-on session, we are told that we will be given the choice of two different demos. The two options are offhandedly referred to as level four and level eight, the former of which was Mikami’s recommendation for the best The Evil Within experience. And who am I to argue with the guy who created Resident Evil?
You start off at the inclined walkway up towards a house, darkened by the night, and led by a stranger. From the words coming out of his mouth, it sounds like he’s a doctor because we’re looking for his patient. As we approach the house, I notice two things: 1) there’s a bonfire just 20 yards or so away and there are some angry-looking people circling it, and 2) this game feels a lot like RE4. It controls nearly the same, from the ambulatory systems to the gunplay and the like.
There are some key differences, though. Pulling up the inventory keeps time ticking along much like in Dead Space, though there is mild time dilation as something of a halfway concession between the two stances in action horror inventory. Next, there is a dedicated melee button rather than pulling out a knife and awkwardly aiming it, though melee in this game merely pushes foes away, not kill them.
That is perhaps the sharpest contrast. Enemies go down from gunfire and whatnot, but to kill requires either extreme force via an explosion or fire. A separate inventory tracks how many matches you can hold, which tops off rather quickly in the single digits. When an enemy falls after enough shots, you need to run up and torch them, but vigilance is still required as they have a tendency to lash out from the ground and ding you with annoying but meaningful amounts of damage.
Some things, however, remain the same as I approach the front door and double tap the interaction button to slam it open rather than slowly and cautiously eek it ajar. On this bottom floor, we come across what appears to be another doctor friend, but as he turns around from his mutilated patient on the table, he lunges towards us. (It’s not entirely unexpected as it is nearly beat-for-beat identical to the opening moments of RE4.)
I drop him with some shots from my pistol and light him up. I poke around the desk and drawers behind the operating table and find an x-ray printout. It shows a chest with a key somewhere around the spine. Turning around to the body, I’m given the option to interact with it and do so. This affords me the opportunity to hover around the scarred, pale chest with a knife. Moving it around makes absolutely no sense as stick direction has no correlation to knife movement. And out of frustration, I keep mashing every button on the controller with little to no feedback.
Eventually I find the right spot and drive the knife into the body and only get some money out of experience. It was disappointing to say the least. But after killing a few more dudes upstairs, I leave and sneak into the next house adjacent to the intensely uninviting bonfire. Very directly the only option is to head down to the basement, which I do reluctantly. How many basements end up being good news in horror games?
However, all we find here is the lost young patient. Rushing over to him, the doctor friend escorts him back down the hall to the stairs while I loot the place for ammo and upgrade gel, the latter of which will be used—according to the preceding tutorial—in weird electrical chair-looking things to improve skills and abilities. But when I catch up with them, there’s a problem: the stairs are gone.
Bewildered by the blank wall, I turn around and the hall goes all hazy, riddled with static, and then the doctor and patient disappear after the kid gives some sort of creepy psycho premonition speech. The hallway ends at a door that wasn’t there before, and the other side appears to go on interminably. It’s disconcerting to say the least.
I go through the door and I come back into the hallway again. I go down the hall, and the door is still right there. I approach the door again and suddenly a wave of blood comes gushing out and I’m dropped into an impressively dark room, its centerpiece a massive pit of broken metal walkways and hundreds of gallons of blood. Going around, I pick up some ammo and disarm a trap. Spotting more traps and more ammo, this is beginning to look a lot like a battle arena.
Which it is. After fully exploring the area (there’s a stairway that connects where a ladder leads and some platforms and rooms interconnected to the blood pit), I approach the one well lit door and Ruvic, the spooky white hooded fellow that appears every once in a while, appears. He summons a bunch of bad guys for me to kill and then peaces out like a wholesale dick.
I immediately and unintentionally (but gladly) take out a few dudes right off the bat by tripping an explosive trap, unfortunately damaging me quite severely. No time to heal, though, as dudes are on my tail. I scamper away, though, to the ladder and climb it, seeing if old RE4 tactics hold up. While the other side of the ladder platform is a staircase, the bad guys can’t jump the gap between the two like I can.
So I camp out on the top, letting them stand up one at a time before downing and torching them. Soon, however, I’m out of matches and running low on ammo. Even with the ammo load-up beforehand, I never held more than two full clips for both my shotgun and pistol, and that was the most I’d had for the entire demo. The bigger problem, however, was the lack of matches.
There were, however, some explosive canisters lying around. Two, actually, which was quite fortuitous considering there were only two enemies left. One was easy enough, forcing him to chase me by one and shooting it as he passed it. The other was a bit tougher since the canister was at the top of the ladder and jumping the gap caused him to climb back down for the stairs. In the end, I healed up and exploded it right under both our feet.
It was a tiring exercise. Not necessarily exhilarating but also not mindless, but the entire ordeal of kiting the last two dudes to make up for the lack of matches was rather boring. But I dip out through the diegetically highlighted door anyways. After a few more discombobulating mind tricks, I end up in another hallway, though this one seems disturbingly sterile.
Walking down the singular path, I end up in what appears to be an operating room. Recognizing it from trailers, the scare of a giant spider-like, multi-armed hair monster emerging from the ground isn’t all that startling. My awareness, however, doesn’t do much to impress the creature, so I turn around and run, recalling in the tutorial that some enemies should just be run from and not engaged. No idea if this was one of those enemies, but I run anyways.
However, with a sealed door at the other end, I figure I might as well try shooting it. It eventually stumbles and I run back into the operating room. I waste more shots into canisters that were apparently not explosive. I dump the last few rounds into the monster before trying to close the door on top of it, hoping it would be chopped in half or something. No dice. Out of ammo and out of options, I just let it kill me.
Walking out of the blackened demo room, I’m left with quite a few thoughts. First, I wondered what the other level was like. Fellow journalist and Joystiq managing editor Susan Arendt was in the room as well and quite literally NOPE’d out of there. Second, I wonder if the minor changes to the RE4 are enough to set The Evil Within apart, but more importantly if the changes are improvements rather than deliberately breaking what was once working. Find out on October 21 of this year.