It's a bright sunny day and the walk through London to the Bethesda offices has been glorious, albeit stuffed with wide-eyed, open-mouthed tourists in shorts and summer dresses. There's a smile on my face, I'm listening to a playlist of pop-punk and surf rock and Eels. I haven't a care in the world. Ten minutes later, I'll be sat in a darkened cubicle in a pitch black room, grimacing as a reanimated doctor claws the flesh from his own face, and wanting to reassess all of my life choices.
Two hours later and Mark, our Bethesda rep, will laugh at me for almost jumping out of my seat several times and swearing very loudly during my hands-on with The Evil Within. Shinji Mikami is back on point with this game, and it shows.
In terms of the plot, I couldn't tell you what the hell was going on, so all I had to go on was the blurb we've all read time and time again since last year: There's a detective named Sebastian Castellanos who comes across a powerful force upon investigating a recent mass murder. This otherworldly power kills a bunch of Seb's fellow officers, he gets knocked unconscious, and when he comes to his living in a world filled with hideous, hungry, zombie-esque monsters.
The first of the two demos we tiptoed through saw us arriving at in a village, seeking out the patient of a mysterious doctor companion who might know what the hell was going on. We found one of the doctor's colleagues first, tucked away downstairs in the basement of one of the larger houses, burbling away to himself. Presumed missing, he was in fact the aforementioned nutcase clawing away his own skin, hacking away at a body on the table in front of him. A little bit of snooping revealed that there was an object of interest buried inside the cadaver on the table. Only the cadaver hadn't really finished dying, it seemed, so when we cracked open its chest, it burst back into life for a brief second or two, and I promptly ruined my pants.
The Evil Within is not a game about jump scares, though. The very best of Shinji Mikami has always involved feeding into that feeling of helplessness -- an oppressive atmosphere of spine-tingling tension that can only be brought about by ruthlessly undermining the player, making them dread every corner, every new room, every nook and every cranny. Disgusting background noises, slurping, wet, gushing and gargling, the furtive whispers of maniacs and the sobbing cries of unseen, half-mutilated victims. The best survival horror, which is often the same as the best of Mikami, scares you in a way that films can't by marrying up aesthetic horrors with the desperation that dwindling resources, low ammunition, and a half-broken shiv bring to gameplay.
Sebastian can't carry much of anything, and ammunition and crafting materials are hard to come by. On any difficulty setting above the easiest, you'll have to really go looking for extra bullets and bandages, using your melee attack to smash open crates. There'll be nothing of any use to you out in plain sight. Noise attracts these shambling creatures, as does that lantern you have, and so movement and exploration is a constant case of risk vs reward. If you're spotted, turning off the light and legging it is generally the best idea. Your melee attack can't kill, it can only buy you a precious second or two to start running.
Of course, even if you manage to whip out a firearm, there's no way of being sure that these creatures won't come back should you put them down. If you want to make 100% sure that they're gone for good, you set to set them alight and burn them to ashes. And matches aren't exactly plentiful. Face them or run? Go for the head or hide under the bed in the next room? Can you sneak past or is it worth trying to take the creatures in your way out with a couple of stealth takedowns? Everything you do is a case of risk vs reward.
Eventually, the good doctor finds his patient, and that's when everything gets freaky. The hellish whispers grow louder, the lights start going nuts, and reality starts shifting. The walls flicker, an apparition of a hooded man appears, and somehow Sebastian is separated from the doctor and the patient. The hooded man, his name is Ruvik, heads beyond a door at the end of our now-empty corridor. It turns out that he can teleport short distances and kill Seb with a touch of his hand. We make our way to a stairwell after outrunning something that looks an awful lot like a necromorph, but Ruvik turns up, cacophonous strings start wailing, we run all the way back to the top of the stairs, but then they give way underneath and we plunge into a giant vat of blood and corpses.
This new area is a little more open, and devoid of anything that wants to kill us, but trying to escape leads to Ruvik reappearing, summoning ten or so zombies, and making us wish that we'd set some traps, gathered some ammo, and maybe deactivated the explosive, motion sensitive mines that are rather irresponsibly planted here and there. There are bombs and wire traps to deal with occasionally -- the latter just require sneaking up to and hitting single button when prompted, but bombs have you stopping a needle in the blue zone on a dial. You only get one go, the dial changes randomly from attempt to attempt, and if the bomb explodes in your face, you'll lose a good half of your life meter.
On our second attempt, we clear the room of traps, drop a bunch of oil drums onto the floor of a small control room, and then have Ruvik summon his minions. After leading them into the room, we climb up to a gantry. A zombie tries following us up the latter, but we kick him in the face and four other behind fall to the floor. All ten or so are in the room, and two shotgun blasts are all it takes to herd them together and set them all on fire. Job done.
If the first demo demonstrated the survival part of the experience, then the second demo brought the horror.
The scene is set is a vast mansion, how very Resident Evil. Things change from moment to moment. An empty room we visit at the start is occupied three minutes later when we go in again, drawn by the sudden sound of whispers. We're trying to access the doctor's lab, but there are three locks, each of them connected to an autopsy lab, each of them triggered by probing a different part of the brain. But the night is dark and full of terrors that keep moving and changing pattern. We clear a floor of zombies and burn every last one, only to hear renewed sickening sounds when we double back to double check one of the rooms.
Worse yet, it appears that Ruvik migth have lived her at some point, and he's everywhere, appearing at random intervals just to flip the script and change the pace of the game completely. One minute you're creeping up on an unsuspecting zombie, silently gloating that you'll be able to save ammunition on this one. The next, you're screaming like an idiot and running for the stairs. Except now he's on the stairs...OMFGSHIIIIIIIIT!!!! There's a moment when he appears just as we've climbed up to the second level of the mansion's library to go foraging for crafting bits and bobs. The wailing starts, everything gets a bit cloudy, and Ruvik starts bearing down on us, but he disappears just as we reach the ladder. The wailing remains, but I can't see him.
He's at the bottom of the ladder. I almost fall off my chair in terror.
The Evil Within (why don't we get to have it called "Psychobreak" like the Japanese do? That's a much cooler name) is a gruesome, gory little game. It's got Mikami's fingerprints all over it, a bloody paean to the heyday of Japanese survival horror, back when Resident Evil and Silent Hill were names that sent chills up the spine. I found my self captivated, sickened, terrified, and utterly elated when we made it through by the skin of our teeth. And when I emerged blinking into the sunlight afterwards, my heart was still racing. Survival horror has been making a cracking comeback on PC over the last few years, but Shinji's back now. And he's bringing the pain.