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The Evil Within Hands-on Preview: Survival Horror gets a new lease of life

Masterminded by esteemed developer and Resident Evil creator, Shinji Mikami, The Evil Within has a fair amount of expectation weighing on its shoulders. Not only is it Mikami-san’s swan song as a game director, but it’s also the title that gamers are looking to reinvigorate the flagging Survival Horror genre. Indeed, while previous horror staples such as Dead Space and Resident Evil have moved into a more action-oriented path, and recent indie outings like Daylight have proved disappointing, it’s up to Mikami-san and his studio, Tango Gameworks, to provide those quintessential pant-wetting scares of old for disgruntled players.

Fortunately, in my hands on with two chapters from the upcoming horror romp at Bethesda’s U.K. office earlier this month, it certainly seems like The Evil Within is going down the right, blood-soaked pathway.

It’s hard not to see the similarities between The Evil Within and Mikami-san’s revolutionary 2005 horror title, Resident Evil 4. Mechanically, the game doffs its cap to Leon Kennedy’s hillbilly-blasting extravaganza in many ways, from its over-the-shoulder camera to the solid gun play. My hands-on consisted of two diverse chapters, both of which had me controlling a grizzly cop known as Sebastian. While fairly short, each demo offered up a unique slice of gameplay, with the first a more straight forward blood and guts blasting affair, while the other offered a more cerebral experience, with classic Survival Horror trappings such as quirky puzzles and exploration. Over the course of my two hours with the game, I painted the walls with brain matter red, soaked up some disturbing atmosphere, and uncovered the beginnings of a seemingly intricate storyline.

Thrust into a macabre world populated by grotesque, malevolent creatures, Sebastian finds himself up against zombie-like entities known as ‘The Haunted,’ who prove considerably tenacious foes. In fact, unless you decapitate them with a well-placed headshot, they’ll keep harassing you until you burn their corpse using matches you find dotted throughout the game world. Unlike recent horror games, ammo and supplies are not found in copious supply. Even though I was playing on the ‘casual’ setting, I found myself running out of ammo and healing items a few times, resulting in a grisly death for poor ‘ol Seb. Weapons come in the shape of rudimentary pistols, shotguns, knives and axes, though there’s also a useful bow capable of firing different ammo; the explosive-tipped arrows are particularly useful for getting you out of a tight squeeze.

There’s also a mysterious green liquid you can grab on your journey, which acts as part of an upgrade system not present in the preview build. As such, much of my time was spent battling foes as Seb traversed a creepy mansion, blood-filled corridors, a spooky forest and dilapidated hut, battling the Haunted along the way. Fortunately, Mikami-san seems to have struck a palpable balance between action and horror, with blood-pumping combat punctuated by quieter, gut-wrenching exploration thanks to a suitably creepy, atmospheric soundtrack. Combat isn’t forced down your throat either; - the option to evade enemies saved my bacon on more than one occasion, and chance to for a stealth-kill affords you the chance to dispatch foes while conserving ammo. What riddles I came across were pleasingly refreshing, and a far cry from the perfunctory hunt-down-this-key-to-open-the-door rubbish you see in recent horror titles.

Each chapter was defined by some fear-inducing set pieces to break up the meat-and-potatoes of the regular action. For example, at one point I found myself on the run from a spider-like monstrosity while dodging traps and other foes, while another time, Seb is pursued for a short time by a mysterious, non-corporeal figure that drains your health if it manages to catch up to you. This proved especially tense as the color palette is drained during the sequence, while the soundtrack cranks up a notch as you search haphazardly for a place to hide until the ghostly figure disappears. All in all, early signs are promising in regards to The Evil Within’s ability to provide ample chills and thrills without having to resign to the cheap shock tactics employed by its contemporaries.

Thankfully, the controls weren't too shabby, and are typical of modern day third-person shooters; holding the left trigger down to aim and squeezing the right button to fire felt as natural as it did in Resi 4 or Dead Space 2. Quick access to your weapons is also available by mapping items to the D-pad, as you'd expect.

Does it ultimately accomplish one of its main goals, that is, to have you reaching for the underwear drawer? Well, from the demos I experienced, I’d say Mikami-san is definitely on to some sofa-soiling antics here. The aesthetics are particularly striking, and while perhaps not the most technically accomplished games out there, the art direction and lighting effects give it a distinctly unique feel, and one that breeds a sense of uneasiness throughout. While the bread-and-butter gameplay feels overly familiar, it’s not to the player’s detriment; - Mikami-san appears to successfully married action, horror and suspense to create a compelling experience that, at this early stage, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the creator’s earlier works.

The Evil Within is scheduled for release in October for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. Stay tuned for our full review of the game around the time of release.