Environmental Horror in The Evil Within

The evil without.

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The survival horror genre has evolved in multiple directions since Resident Evil popularized it on the PlayStation nearly 20 years ago, but the man responsible for that series, Shinji Mikami, is ready to bring it back to its roots with his latest game, The Evil Within. Earlier this year, he said: “I want to explore fear again, and that sense of overcoming fear, one that's unique to games." Based on a pair of demos being shown at PAX East, it seems that he’s once again using the environment to inspire fear and discomfort on the hearts of players.

Like Resident Evil’s mansion and Resident Evil 2’s Racoon City, The Evil Within makes use of space, or a lack thereof, to induce stress. As the player walked around a large city--one of two environments demoed at Bethesda’s booth--everything seemed peaceful thanks to open spaces, but the city began to constantly shift in all directions and was anything but comforting. City blocks rose and fell without warning, and alleyways shrunk with each step. In the span of one block, he went from a sprint to a stressful shuffle through a gap less than a foot wide, and I wondered if his next step was to be his last before the buildings on either side turned Sebastian, the distraught protagonist, into a human sandwich. Then, just when he made it out into open space, the street began to slide underground, and when it finally settled, a school bus plummeted into the pavement mere feet from where he stood.

Eventually, the city settled into its own and enemies began to appear. Blood-thirsty, zombie-like urbanites and firefighters lurched and moaned at Sebastian, and occasionally fired weapons, too. With enough firepower, which didn’t appear to be in short supply during the demo, they were easily brought to their knees, but lest they reanimated, he immolated them with a lit match before treading onward.

Once the second half of the demo began, taking place in a dank and foggy medical facility, he tangoed with massive, mutilated juggernauts. These beasts, whose bodies are wrapped in barbed-wire and heads enclosed in heavy safes, only fell after five direct hits from a shotgun. Of course, they handily absorbed the first four shots, walking ever closer with their massive, spiked clubs. Given the hospital’s tight spaces, it seemed all too easy to get backed into a corner. These situations recalled the cat and mouse dynamic that’s bound to be familiar to Resident Evil veterans.

Open and tight spaces alike choreographed moments of calm and intensity during the demo, but even when tranquility set in, there’s always something, or someone, waiting around the bend. It’s clear to see that this is Mikami returning to his roots, but while The Evil Within recalls Resident Evil, it doesn’t feel derivative or too familiar either. For all the flack Resident Evil fans gave the latest game in the series, there’s a fair chance they’ll find what they’re looking for in The Evil Within when it ships later this year.

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