Marketing a horror title is tricky business. If you give away too much, that will spoil the scares and dissipate the tension. But you also don’t want to play things too close to the vest, as then your audience won’t have any clue what to expect. This has been the problem for Bethesda’s The Evil Within almost from the start.
The Evil Within is in development at Shinji Mikami’s new studio, Tango Gameworks. Mikami is most famous for creating Resident Evil and the franchise’s signature sequel, Resident Evil 4. So far, The Evil Within’s marketing has lead audiences to believe that it would be a tense and claustrophobic affair that would force players to run and hide from the imposing and seemingly unstoppable residents of the game’s sanitarium setting. But during a live demo presentation during the 2014 PAX East convention, we got to see a new side of The Evil Within that belies the game’s previous marketing approach and goes in a different (and not altogether wanted) direction.
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Genre: Zombie Game Where the Zombies Have Guns
Release Date: August 26, 2014
ESRB Rating: Rating Pending
Aside from a few hallucinatory interludes, all of the trailers and videos used to promote The Evil Within have taken place within the walls of Beacon Memorial Hospital, the seemingly abandoned and very off-the-beaten-path insane asylum at the game’s center. However, the first part of the PAX East demo placed protagonist Sebastian Castellanos in a very different locale: A modern metropolis. The unnamed city that Sebastian was passing through crumbled in a way that seemed almost like magic. It could just be a regular old earthquake, but streets shifted to block his path and buildings collapsed to open up new alleyways. Everything was eerily calm, but the emphasis was on the calm, not the eerie. Our host controlled Sebastian with purpose, and it looked like none of these environmental hazards could hurt him in any way. This early section of the presentation made The Evil Within feel much larger than the marketing ever did, but it also made the game feel less claustrophobic and lonelier.
But after entering an impound lot, Sebastian was greeted with the second big surprise of the demo: Zombies! Did everybody else know that The Evil Within had zombies in it? Because honestly, I had no idea. I rewatched the PAX East trailer after the presentation and, sure enough, a few zombies made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. So it apparently wasn’t a complete surprise. Sebastian doesn’t blink, however, as he’s armed to the teeth. During the impound lot section, the presenter moved Sebastian through a maze of fencing and dispatched zombies left and right with a massive arsenal of weapons. As he moved forward, he pulled out a pistol, a sniper rifle, a shotgun, and a crossbow that fires both freeze bolts and exploding bolts. Just for good measure, zombies on the ground could be set on fire. Though it should be noted the presenter didn’t do this for every zombie, so I’m not sure how the mechanic will be used in the final game. Is it a health concern to prevent the spread of disease? Does it keep the zombies from re-rising to attack again? Or was it included just because it looked cool?
At the end of this section, Sebastian met a zombie with a machine gun (ho ho ho). After putting him down for good, the Detective roamed into a flooded street where he was eaten by a mutant shark. End of part one…
The second half of the PAX East demo presentation took place in more familiar territory as Sebastian was now in the asylum dealing with the giant demon known as “Boxman.” As an incorporeal being, the Boxman, a hulking figure whose head was encased in a safe ringed with barbed wire, could not be killed in the traditional sense. Instead, every time Sebastian hit him with enough bullets, he would dissolve. But this victory was only temporary, as the Boxman would reconstitute himself by inhabiting another safe nearby and regrowing his arms and legs. During a very repetitious ten minutes, the presenter “killed” the Boxman, ran to the nearest valve, watched the Boxman reform, and then repeated the whole process from the top. I lost count, but I believe he opened more than half a dozen valves and dissolved the Boxman at least eight times. Sebastian was forced into this repeating cycle with the Boxman as the wing had filled with poison and the valves needed to vent the area were spread out throughout the locked room.
When the lights came up I didn’t know what to make of what I’d just seen. As presented, The Evil Within is clearly more action-oriented than we’ve been lead to believe (where do you even get freezing crossbow bolts in the middle of a zombie uprising?). Those looking for a spooky and tense experience a la last year’s Outlast might be disappointed. But those who were big fans of Resident Evil 4 should feel comfort in the knowledge that Mikami isn’t straying far from his last big hit.
As it stands right now, The Evil Within is a game without a home. I realize that the PAX East demo presentation was just 20 minutes out of a much longer game, but it swept aside all of my previous expectations and replaced them with “it’s sorta like Resident Evil 4, but without Leon Kennedy.”
Perhaps it was wrong of me to slot The Evil Within into a niche it may never have belonged in. But a few trailers, and the rest of Bethesda’s previously released marketing material, were all I had to go on. The Evil Within is definitely not what I was expecting, but with Mikami at the helm, there’s a good chance it could become a great game. That doesn’t mean Bethesda should be “blamed” for The Evil Within’s poor PAX East, but I’m now much more lukewarm towards the game than I was before the convention.