An exploding head is just about the last thing you’d expect to feel comforting, but somehow The Evil Within manages to convey a deeply nostalgic assurance with every skull you burst. Plant a shell or two in an enemy’s face and a warm, frothy spray of gore bubbles forth like the lemonade of childhood, coupled with a sound effect as crisp and ripe as the crunch of a summer apple. This kind of pleasurable association is fortunate for The Evil Within, because it has a long shadow hanging over it, and it’s not the shade of the as-yet-unnamed malevolent force that serves as the game’s antagonist. Rather, Shinji Mikami’s latest bears an inescapable similarity to Resident Evil 4.
Not content with elevating headshots to an art form, containing a shopkeeper that spawned a thousand impressions, and having a lead with tremendous hair, Resident Evil 4 set the template for the modern thirdperson shooter. It’s one hell of an act to live up to, and of the few developers that haven’t balked at the thought, almost all who have tried have failed. Mikami, however, following forays into schlock horror (Shadows Of The Damned), schlock sci-fi (Vanquish), and slapstick punching (God Hand), appears to have stopped fighting it and embraced his heritage.
The opening section of The Evil Within’s playable demo proudly displays that history, starting you off on the outskirts of a rural European hamlet. Corrupted villagers dump bodies onto a bonfire while you watch from a distance, waiting for your cue to march in and start shooting. Even the letterboxing is familiar. And, of course, when we score our first headshot, the resemblance becomes unmistakable – the bubbly crunch as you nailed another Ganado through his rustic Spanish hat is up there with the greats in terms of rewarding player feedback, and the equivalent here is every bit as satisfying as it was back in 2005.
This adherence to the Resident Evil 4 template is about more than aesthetics, though. While dapper protagonist Sebastian Castellanos is a bit more mobile than Leon Kennedy and his aim is a little less shaky, he’s just as capable in combat. On anything above the default difficulty, the demo’s setpiece fights are precise and deadly. Your zombie-like opponents are the usual loose grouping of shambling, groaning foes, but this time come accessorised with crowns of barbed wire, glowing eyes, and embedded shards of broken glass. As with The Evil Within’s spiritual predecessors, enemies are closer to Romero-slow than 28 Days Later-fast, but their lethargy seems to be carefully calibrated. They’re paced ponderously enough to be threatening and inexorable, but not to the extent that lining up shots is trivial.
For all in The Evil Within that’s familiar, there are some twists on the formula, too. The game frequently toys with psychological horror, unpredictably shifting location and warping the environment, and puts a savage garnish on its combat by introducing a drop and burn system, whereby temporarily knocked down enemies can be rendered permanently out of action by setting them on fire. It’s jarring, however: your opponents flare up so easily from a single match that it’s a wonder they don’t self-immolate from the static charge they build up from shuffling around on the carpet. Still, before upgrades, Castellanos can only carry five matches.
Sometimes not even fire will save you: we find ourselves frequently pursued by enemies who can only be avoided. The first, and by far the most distressing, of these is a livid clot of female limbs that vomits black hair out of its front end before scuttling after you. Any attempt to fight this psychiatrist’s gold mine just leads to it smashing your head into the concrete, so you’re left with no option but to turn tail and run, feathering the sprint button to avoid depleting your stamina bar and nerve-shreddingly negotiating tripwires as the thing gives chase behind you.
The second one you face is less effective, however. A hooded, mutilated apparition who pops up several times during our demo, his leisurely pursuits are vaguely comical, especially given that you need only outpace him for a few seconds before he gives up. Despite this, he’s still a threat – get within touching distance and you’re dead – and needs to be respected as such, even while you’re leading him on a merry dance around a desk. And having an invincible thing chase you towards an impossibly distant, slowly closing lift door is like putting a dog in jeopardy in a movie – it’s cheap and manipulative, but undeniably effective.
Yet while its setpiece tricks may be cheap, the project as a whole clearly hasn’t been. The Evil Within is as lavish in its production values as it is with its blood, blending the ambience of a Peter Cushing horror flick with the polish that a Peter Jackson budget can buy. Bethesda’s backing is obvious: the mansion section’s introduction is finely detailed and often beautifully lit, with Tango Gameworks lovingly depicting moonlit pine forests and crumbling ruins. The attention to detail comes through just as strongly in the tangible kickback of the weapons, the precision of the controls, and the physics powering the soft swishing curtains. Little but the occasionally punitive checkpoint restarts betrays that this is a game still months away from release.
Mikami, however, finds himself in a difficult situation having invoked his own past. Should he stray too far from his heritage, fans will grumble; stick to what he knows and he’ll face just as many critics. The Evil Within very much plays it safe – if that’s the right word for a game set in a mansion containing secret industrial-meat-grinder traps and homicidal, glass-faced madmen. The game may startle when a burning ghost sprints unexpectedly out of a door or a corpse jolts into life, but on the basis of what’s been shown so far, it’s rarely going to surprise.
Safe, violent and unsettling, however, could be a pretty good deal. After all, the thirdperson shooter may be a crowded genre, but who is Mikami really competing with, other than himself, in this niche? Resident Evil 5 baked to death in the African sun thanks to blockheaded AI; Resident Evil 6 splintered into four separate games of wildly varying quality; Dead Space looks to have been put on ice after a grab for the mainstream dissipated the tension. So in this instance, familiarity may breed conviviality rather than contempt. Slipping into Castellanos’s shoes, poking your head over his shoulder with a squeeze of the left trigger, and finding yourself stalking down a dirt path towards a haunted mansion or a murderous old-world village is like coming home. A gory, dangerous home, perhaps, with camp dialogue, creepy shop-window dummies, and farm-implement-wielding evil peasants, but home nonetheless.