Hands-on with The Evil Within

I recently attended a Pre-E3 event hosted by Bethesda. Of course, among the titles shown was The Evil Within. The most recent showing of the game didn’t garner the most positive of receptions and the developers are very cognizant of this fact. Chief among the complaints aimed at the game were that the press that watched the hands-off demo back at PAX had no context to go off of, resulting in general confusion with what they were seeing with how it related to the rest of the game. With this in mind, Bethesda gave attendees of the event an establishing video to watch in addition to the two hands-on demos. Here’s what I came away with.

To start, each journalist had their own little ‘Fear Pod’, which included curtains to ensure darkness, a PC with an Xbox 360 controller, headphones to further draw us into the experience, and a small panic button for assistance in case of system failure (or FEARRRRR). As soon as we were all settled in and cozy, we had the option of watching the intro video. This wasn’t an opening cutscene but instead seemed to be an amalgamation of all the media tidbits we’ve seen thus far. A bit of new information was peppered in, introducing a doctor named Jimenez who is searching for his patient Leslie, who seems be deeply disturbed.

The first of the two demos featured our protagonist Sebastian Castellanos and Doctor Jimenez in a small village searching for Leslie. I was able to run around the village and get a feel for the controls and play around with the engine. Immediately noticeable was the gritty aesthetic, complete with grain filter so thick you could cut it with a machete. Trailers for The Evil Within thus far have visually been a mixed bag, but seeing it in front of me and in motion was gave me confidence that the final product will, at the very least, look fantastic. Unfortunately, there were more than a few framerate dips as I explored, but upon questioning the Bethesda staff present, they assured me that the next few months of optimization would do wonders for the game. Onto the gameplay itself!

There were a couple of features I didn’t expect. There’s a weapon wheel where you can set shortcuts to the directional pad for quick access. However, using this weapon wheel doesn’t freeze the action around you; instead, the world slows to a crawl, but you can (and probably will!) still be attacked while choosing your equipment. I love this compromise, as it removes a typical gaming safety net and encourages the player to be vigilant even whilst perusing their shooty bang-bang tool. In this weapon wheel I also had a chance to examine some of the equipment Sebastian would be utilizing in his trials, including a revolver, shotgun, a healing syringe, a knife, and the Agony Crossbow, which looks like it was pulled straight from the world of Shadows of the Damned. The bow could use a variety of different bolts, one of them being projectiles that froze enemies. Bolts were rare, so this looks like the weapon you want to use when circumstances become hairier than you’d like.

After scrutinizing the tiny details of my arsenal – perhaps too closely, I finally began to run towards my objective, when I noticed the rapidly depleting stamina bar. Sebastian can sprint for all of four seconds before he doubles over to catch his breath. While some suspension of disbelief is required to imagine this fit detective can’t run very far, I like that players will have to treat movement as a resource.

As I entered a small cabin I fought a couple of humanoid creatures who had been subjected to unspeakable acts at some point, as they were pierced, impaled, and covered in blood, but no less able to try to kill me at first sight. I took this as an opportunity to get a feel for how weapons handled and to see what kind of impact they would have on these walking atrocities. The revolver felt nice and chunky, and a few bullets were enough to put down the creatures, though they were not felled with ease. Their blows were powerful, and only a couple of hits would be necessary to take me down. It was here that I realized how limited my ammo supply was; I had one round left for my revolver, four shells for my shotgun, and a few bolts for the crossbow that I was reluctant to part with. The limit to how much the player can carry is unforgiving, though I imagine it is upgradable along with the stamina bar.

Strewn about the level were jars of green goo that we were told would be used for upgrades, but this function was not available in the demo. I am selfishly hoping that the ammo limits are permanent, as it would encourage the use of the stealth systems even further. By holding one of the bumper buttons, you can switch to a crouching walk that allows you to sneak up on enemies and use a quiet attack that prevents enemies from calling for backup. When I tried to do this, I forgot that I had my lantern on, and it drew the attention and ire of my surrounding foes and another skirmish ensued.

Afterwards, with Doc Jimenez by my side, I found Leslie. We went downstairs and found an industrial-looking hallway, only to see that the stairs had disappeared. Sebastian utters out that “the stairs are gone. We must be collectively losing our minds” and I groaned, as what had been solid voice acting thus far took a turn towards the campy. The hooded figure from the recent trailers confronts the characters and we find out his name is Ruvik. In his wake he leaves a trail of digital effects, as if he is a glitch in reality. Doc and Leslie disappear and now Sebastian is alone in a room with bins full of compressed corpses, wading around in a pool of blood. I explore the room, and encounter traps for the first time. If you sneak up on one of these, you can use a simple mini-game to try to disarm them and take the parts for yourself. All you have to do is press A at the right time while a line travels along a radial gauge (think trying to time a button press when the second hand reaches the VI on a clock, but it’s going ten times the speed), but I didn’t realize it only makes this trip once. The trap instantly killed me.

I started back up in the same room, and succeeded in disarming the trap on my second attempt. As I climbed out of the blood pool, I realized blood was dripping from Sebastian’s now-sanguine slacks, which was a cool detail. I saw a door that seemed to be a clear exit, and decided to make my way there.

Then Ruvik’s scarred visage appeared again to impede my progress. He somehow sheathed the door in an organic, fleshy material, and more of the grotesques rose from the crimson depths to try to end my quest. I died a few times here as I tried different strategies. The room was built like a toy box, with levers all over that would set off traps such as a rain of arrows. One of the death animations I encountered was a female variant of the abominations that stabbed me in the jugular, and then fell knees-first onto my chest, grabbing the blade in her other hand as she pushed the sharp of the blade all the way through my throat, down to the spine. Gnarly stuff!

After I finally relented and whipped out the shotgun and crossbow, I destroyed all of the creatures. I remembered that I had picked up some matches, which you can flick at corpses to set them ablaze and prevent them from rising again. From what I encountered, if left alone, sometimes they’ll get up and sometimes they’ll remain lifeless. It’s possible that they could have some sort of Crimson Head-ish transformation, but it’s too soon to tell. Killing all the enemies caused the flesh door to disintegrate so I headed through.

Soon after, I encountered the Spider Lady Thing (whose name is Laura, I now know!) that we’ve seen in numerous trailers, and ran for my life. Bullets don’t have any effect, so you don’t have any other option. A tense chase ensued, with doors that wouldn’t open until the last fraction of a second, and even though some obstacles blocked my pursuer, she could teleport to wherever a corpse or pool of blood was. Just another incentive to burn any corpse you see. After narrowly avoiding Laura by diving under a closing door, I found myself on a spiral staircase of sorts, where I encountered Ruvik one last time. He slowly approached me, and every shot I took phased right through him as he digitally dissipated and warped even closer to me. With a wave of his hand, I exploded, and the demo came to an end.

All in all, this first demo effectively demonstrated the controls and mechanics, but I still came away a little weary. While it was entertaining, it was still a bunch of bits and pieces we had previously seen all sewn together. This slice of gameplay was exceedingly linear, and  focused solely on action with little-to-no breathing room. Horror usually works best when there are quiet moments in between, and The Evil Within seemed to be a constant scream. If I had only been able to play this first chunk, I would have come away expecting a decent game, but wouldn’t be hopeful for anything extraordinary.

Which is why I’m so excited to report that the second demo allayed every concern I had.

It started with an eerie passage toward an extravagant gate that guarded a mansion. Sebastian remarked that he had never seen the house before, but he recognized it somehow. Passing through the gate brought me toward an overgrown courtyard that would drive any Homeowner’s Association out of their collective minds. Upon entering the mansion, text appeared in the corner of the screen announcing I was in ‘Chapter 8: Cruelest Intentions.’ This smooth transition reminded me of Dead Space 2, in that there was no loading screen separating the chapters (at least in the demo). In this entrance there were parallel staircases leading to the same landing. Beneath this were three possible directions for me to explore. Straight ahead, there was a door that had shut right after Doc Jimenez went through as I caught a fleeting glimpse of him. This door was peculiar it that its lock was an embossed metal relief that appeared to be a profile of a human head. Three glass containers stuck out from the top of the ‘skull’, and from each one was a tube that led to different rooms.

I first followed the tube to the left, and after a few rooms I encountered my first puzzle, and it was a disgusting delight. A severed head was on a workbench, suspended in a bizarre device. The back of the skull was removed so as to expose the brain, which had a few probes jammed into it. An audio tape was playing, with whoever was responsible for these horrors explaining the reactions he was getting when probing certain sections of the brain. Now, utilizing a first-person perspective, I had to probe the brain, using a nearby reference sheet to figure out which regions needed to be manipulated, and in what order. If the pattern was deviated from, stabbing the brain would actually cause Sebastian’s health to drain. Creeeeeepy.

After successfully playing along with this experiment, blood drained from a tank in the room and went through the tube, filling one of the three glass containers on the strange door. A remnant of the past (read: a ghost) materialized, echoing some former event from his life. I imagine we will see quite a few of these to fill in the backstory.

Heading back to the foyer, I noticed that I could hide under beds and in some closets. Right as I was wondering why I’d want to do that when I could simply fight, a blue tint overwhelmed the color palette around me and Ruvik appeared to pursue me. Knowing that he could kill me instantly, I booked it across the mansion into a music room, and he gave up the chase. Getting my bearings in the room around me, I noticed a wall with a note on it. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it contained a riddle of sorts. There were two holes on the wall, and each stanza of the riddle corresponded to a number that I needed to find. Without anything else to do down on the first floor, I decided to brave the second.

As I headed upstairs, I really began to appreciate how much more open this segment was. It felt very similar to the Dead Space games in that I was in somewhat of a hub with branching paths, and little items to collect in every little corner. I also started playing with the lantern (which you can equip at any time) and admiring the lighting effects. One impressive room in particular had moonlight shining through a window, causing shadows of tree limbs to cascade onto a bed the color of sun-bleached bones. After ooh’ing and ahh’ing at the pretty pretty shadows, I explored the second floor, following the other tubes. Numerous times did I look behind my shoulder as I heard what sounded like giggling children scurrying around. There was never anything there, of course.

Since it had been a while since I had been attacked, I crouched into the sneaking stance as I turned corners so as to get the drop on any creature that happened to be waiting for me. Only once was I successful in this endeavor, leading to an instant kill on an unsuspecting monstrosity. As I drove my knife into him, I noted that I hadn’t seen any repeated enemies yet. Though most of them moved similarly, there seems to be quite the Rogues Gallery here.

Gaining equal parts courage and carelessness, I carved my way through the mansion. As I recklessly ran down a moonlit hallway, a rope somehow grabbed my leg from behind and began rapidly pulling me towards a gargantuan meat grinder. With only a few seconds until I would become a Spanish sausage, I quickly shot the little-glowing-light-thingy thats clear purpose would be to disable the trap. Though we’ve seen this type of thing often recently, it was still a fun little sequence showing how unpredictable the game can be from moment to moment.

Soon I found the bottom half of a large portrait, with two people waiting for their execution by way of guillotine. Hmm. While examining this I was attacked and took a severe amount of damage. Knowing that a syringe would only partially heal me, I tried using a medical kit that I had recently discovered. I expected health recovery, but had no idea my vision would become blurry and distorted. Again, this was risk/reward type of mechanic, something The Evil Within seems to be having fun with. These punishing repercussions will go a long way towards making the player feel unwelcome, which is perhaps one of the greatest compliments a horror game can receive. Of course, there’s an almost indistinguishable line between unwelcome and overly frustrating, so we shall hope for the former.

At the end of this tube was second severed head, but this one was facing to the side instead of away from me. I was getting ready to start probin’ away when I realized the head was still blinking. Das nasty! I shook away the willies and initiated mission: probepossible. Again, the completion of the puzzle sent blood to another glass container. On my way back towards the foyer, I saw the top half of that portrait from before, which featured several hooded figures staring down at the soon-to-be-executed. Mmm hmm!

The last tube led back to the two holes in the music room. Inserting two dial knobs I had found into the recesses; I put two and two together to figure out that the numbers corresponded to the portrait halves that I had discovered earlier. Could it be? Did the developers actually expect me to pay attention and observe my surroundings? It would seem so. Another Zack point for Tango Gameworks!

A secret passage was revealed and I found the final head. Eagerly I forced metal spikes into the pink squish, and the strange door in the foyer was finally open. A young boy’s ghost was cutting open a pig’s head at the end, and revealing his depraved thought processes. This is right about where the demo ended. I know it seems slightly anti-climactic, but there are details that I figure would be best to leave out since the mystery is one of the main draws to the game. On that note, when I paused to read the various documents I found, I saw that there were nine different types of collectibles: Key Items, Documents, Map Fragments, Newspapers, Bulletin Boards, Missing Persons, Heart Lines, Notes, and Audio Tapes. Most are fairly self-explanatory, but I’m curious as to what the Map Fragments will be for.

In the end, my time with The Evil Within left me with high hopes. The negative buzz from past previews had somewhat tempered my expectations, but now they’re burning like a hot, scary flame. Though the first demo was more of what we’ve already seen, the second offering showed me that we’ll be using our brains and not just our trigger fingers. Let’s be honest, we’re all hoping for Shinji Mikami to bring back that Resident Evil 4 feel. What I played hearkened back to that, and warmed the deep, dark cockles of my heart.

I mentioned previously that staff said they would be polishing the game in the next few months. Well, make that five months. Unfortunately, the release date has been pushed back to October 21, 2014. The wait will be painful, but if we get a better experience out of it, I’m all for it.

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