Despite what the developers may tell you, survival horror is as dead as the butchered corpses that once tormented the genre. Franchises that founded the format – the likes of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and, to a lesser extent, Alone in the Dark – have gradually shed their endurance aspects, favouring rote supernatural shootouts in favour of the spine-tingling set-pieces that once set the category apart. Publisher executives would argue that that’s for good reason – truly terrifying titles such as Sony’s own Siren have struggled to find an audience in a modern era, and even relatively successful forays such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent have achieved little more than cult notoriety. As a consequence, the expectations of an entire fanbase fall at the feet of Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil, and the twisted genius behind The Evil Within.
We were lucky enough to get a sneak glimpse at the impending PlayStation 4 release late last week, which has been a fixture in our nightmares ever since. The demo opens with protagonist Sebastian Castellanos, a chiselled detective dressed in a debonair jacket, arriving at the Beacon Mental Hospital. The cops have been called in order to investigate a disturbance at the spooky setting, which architecturally pays tribute to the famous Spencer Estate. Swaggering through a torrential downpour, the camera adopts an over-the-shoulder perspective not too dissimilar to the recent Resident Evil games.
After a short snippet of conversation with his constabulary companions – spanning a second male officer and a female rookie – the hero steps inside the psychiatric ward, which is awash with mutilated bodies. With the cause of the commotion identified, the star taps into a nearby security panel, where he spots a hooded assailant dismantling a squad of armed army personnel. Before the character’s even had time to consider his odds against the spiritual assassin, though, he must deal with the sharp sensation of a syringe being shoved into his neck – and the onset of an untimely sleep.
The Evil Within has Shinji Mikami at the helm of its sickening ship, and that’s left us quivering over the depths that it will sink
It’s here that the demo opens properly, as the unsettling scene of a human abattoir gradually flickers into focus. Hanging upside down from a first-person perspective, the protagonist’s senses are awakened by a nearby squelching sound, which culminates with the introduction of the game’s main antagonist, a hulking figure akin to the likes of Pyramid Head and Nemesis. As the terrifying lummox conducts some preparatory surgery on a crimson coloured chopping block ahead, the hero is forced to animate his suspended cocoon in order to steal a knife that’s conveniently lodged into an unfortunate soul’s shredded torso.
Once free, the action transitions into a tense game of cat and mouse, as the hero attempts to escape from his eight foot adversary by nabbing a nearby set of keys. Unfortunately, this sets off an alarm, and prompts a chase through the dreary industrial setting, as the youthful Columbo tries to wriggle free from his crazed pursuer, who just so happens to have picked up a power tool in order to practice his very best Dr. Salvador impersonation. The star escapes, but only once the agitated antagonist has carved a deep cut into his calf, prompting the rest of the sequence to take place in frantic hops. The ensuing segment finds the protagonist and his attacker playing one-legged tag, as the former attempts to gain access to a nearby lift by distracting the lumbering foe with a glass bottle, and camping out in a locker in true Shibito shunning style.
It definitely does hark back to the days of Resident Evil 3, where you’re pretty much powerless to your enemy’s advances. There’s no way to fight the hulking creature – you must outwit him, or you’ll find yourself the special ingredient in his cannibal’s cocktail. And that naturally leads to the gameplay feeling extremely intense; while we weren’t in control, we found ourselves instinctively gripping the handles on our plump armchair. If that’s the reaction that Mikami was aiming to invoke – and we suspect that it was – then he succeeded with blood splattered colours. Still, we didn’t see what happens when you make a mistake, and that’s imperative in these games. There’s a fine line between fear and frustration, and the developer will need to find the right balance in order to ensure that the title doesn’t fall apart.
A second sequence – pulled from a later portion of the campaign – gives us a better look at the release’s dismemberment mechanics. Here the adventure pays tribute to Resident Evil 4’s infamous shack scene, in which the hero must defend a wooden cabin from the onset of the undead. Traps can be laid beneath the windows in order to give the coffin dodgers an unexpected dose of explosives, while the gunplay allows you to target appendages in order to slow the movement of your pursuers. It all seems mightily familiar, but the addition of some gnarly death animations augment a grotesque appeal to the otherwise expected action.
The best part of the demo, however, comes at its conclusion, as the hero sprints down a restless corridor. This passageway cycles between different environments, before settling upon an area from the aforementioned asylum. At its foot is a spider-like female, who cleanses her grubby gob with several litres of bodily fluid. It’s disgusting, and it’s complemented by the dark art style and grainy visuals. The animation and overall graphical quality is not yet up to par with other PS4 titles, but the studio’s still got plenty of time to apply a hearty hunk of spit and polish before the release deploys in 2014. At least the promise is there.
And that’s what’s got us excited for the final release. In truth, Sony’s next generation system doesn’t look like it’s going to be short on survival horror, with Outlast and Daylight also on the way. But this has the advantage of Shinji Mikami at the helm of its sickening ship, and that’s left us quivering over the depths that it will surely sink. We’ll be playing the horrifying hospital excursion through the slits between our fingertips, but we wouldn't have it any other way. If we’re already having nightmares over a slender serving of footage, then we’re destined to be psychologically battered by the time that we’re done with the full game. Just don’t book us into the Beacon Mental Hospital. Please, anywhere but there...
Are you shuddering over the prospect of The Evil Within? Are you a fan of survival horror games, or are you too tame to tackle the titles in the terrifying genre? Let us know in the comments section below.