Surviving Horror is a periodical series about my favourite video game genre, survival horror. With it, I hope to explore how the genre got its start, how it effectively manages to scare us as players, and how it has evolved in term of mechanics, themes, and storytelling over the years.
This year was my fifth EGX (formerly Eurogamer Expo), and while there were many games at the show I was itching to try (Bloodborne, The Order: 1886, Far Cry 4, Dying Light) there were two games above all others I just had to get my hands on. Alien Isolation and The Evil Within.
In many ways, these games both represent the perfect dichotomy of the survival horror genre. Alien Isolation is first person, with a heavy emphasis on running and hiding rather than engaging in combat. The main antagonist, the alien itself, cannot be killed. It is an encapsulation of what the genre has morphed into in recent years, only playing out as a triple-A title, rather than a low budget indie game.
On the other hand we have The Evil Within, the return to the genre of the creator of Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, Shinji Mikami, helming his first survival horror game since 2005’s Resident Evil 4. It’s the game advertised to bring survival horror back to its roots, with a third person perspective, and focus on resource conservation in combat, rather than the avoidance of combat altogether.
Two games under the same genre umbrella, yet both distinctly different in their execution. Ultimately, they did have one major aspect in common; neither demoed particularly well in a noisy convention hall.
The first game I tried was Alien Isolation by virtue of it being the first booth I saw once I arrived in the 18+ area at the top of the escalator. After being shown a brief introductory video, I was presented with the choice between playing a PS4 or Xbox One version of the game. I chose PS4, since I have more experience with the Dualshock 4 controller. Beyond that, I imagine both versions were actually PC builds, not running on the final consoles.
The piece of game they elected to show was the survival mode challenge map, the Basement. The level opened in a room where I armed myself with a flamethrower (loaded with enough fuel for two bursts), and then opened up the door to confront the alien.
My first time in the actual level was pretty tense. I walked in a perpetual crouch, barely lowering my motion tracker to take in the visuals around me. All told, I think I survived around thirty seconds before the xenomorph popped out of an overhead ventilation shaft to grab me. And even with the low audio volume on the headset, it was a fairly decent jump scare.
My second time in the level, I took a different path, ducking around to the right, hoping that an explosion that occurs after a few seconds would distract the alien and buy me some much needed time. Unfortunately, it saw me, and despite temporarily dispatching it with my flamethrower, it killed me again.
And so the demo went on, me making it a short ways into the level before getting murdered. The problem with this was that after the first time, the tension was just gone. The alien went from something to be feared to something to be figured out and avoided. My primal brain switched off and allowed the analytical side to take over, and it killed the immersion.
I sincerely hope this is just a consequence of the mode I was playing, and not indicative of the overall product. They get so much right. It looks like an Alien game, with much of the visual atmosphere inspired wholesale by the first film. Chains dangle from ceilings, alarm lights cast an orange glow over everything. And it was genuinely tense my first time through the level. With better pacing, this could be an effective horror game. But that pacing just isn’t provided in a survival challenge mode.
After leaving the booth, I was given a pretty cool freebie, a 24 page Alien Isolation prequel comic, with a story by the game writers, Dan Abnett and Dion Lay, with art by Henry Flint. But I didn’t have time to read it there and then. Not when I still had a demo of The Evil Within waiting.
The demo for The Evil Within opened up at the start of chapter nine, titled Cruelest Intentions. The bulk of the chapter took place in a mansion, complete with all the standard mansion features; double staircase in the entrance, massive library, hulking monstrosities attempting to murder me (and succeeding more often than not).
I was given no context (having opted to skip the optional story catch up video for fear of spoilers), a handgun with four bullets, and a shotgun with three shells. The objective seemed to be to solve three puzzles to open a large metal door in the house entrance. Beyond this I was given no real objective, merely an impetus to explore like in the survival horror games of old.
The puzzles themselves were interesting. In the two I found, I was tasked with placing a probe in the right section of a brain based on audio recordings of doctor’s notes. Placing the probe improperly caused my character to take damage, lending a sense of urgency to figuring it out. I will also note I found a note for something called the music room puzzle in the form of a poem, suggesting the game will feature more traditional riddles.
The rest of my time was spent exploring the mansion, and this is where it diverged the most from older horror games. The character walked in the direction I pointed the left stick, the camera moving manually with the right. Speaking as a purist, I’d have liked to see the return of Resident Evil tank controls, but I can understand they want to sell their game to more people than just me. In combat, the game controls like a more traditional third person shooter, with left stick for moving and strafing, and right stick for aiming. While it’s not exactly what I hoped for from a “return to the genre’s roots” it does play well.
And finally, speaking of combat, this was personally my favourite aspect of the demo. Put simply, it’s brutal. Enemies can only be permanently dispatched by a headshot or by being set on fire. But headshots have to be extremely precise. Hitting the wrong part will dislodge a piece of skull, but they will keep coming, and they are very good at dodging shots. With only a few bullets at any given time, it became a frantic race to get enough distance to line up a shot, while also praying they didn’t dodge. Which they did. Often.
In close quarters, the shotgun was a game changer. It scores headshots with miraculous ease. Unfortunately, I only had three shells, as previously stated. And while there was a slight smattering of handgun bullets around, I found no shotgun ammo in the environment. It’s this kind of resource management I love. The shotgun got me out of a tight scrape, but at the cost of having no ammo left for the next encounter.
Even without being able to properly hear the audio and soak in the atmosphere, The Evil Within managed to leave my heart racing and adrenaline pumping. And that was before the random encounters with a seemingly invincible hooded ghost started!
I’m genuinely excited to play both these games, as both demos left me wanting more, for different reasons. As we inch into October and head towards Halloween, I am hoping to at least get two more Surviving Horror posts up, with more in depth details on the full games of Alien Isolation and The Evil Within.
Earl’s Court image taken from The Evil Within Twitter account.
Alien Isolation pictures taken from the game’s official site.
The Evil Within pictures taken from the game’s official site.
Surviving Horror banner by Rachel Mansell.