Shinji Mikami is considered the godfather of horror videogames. Indeed, it was he who coined the term survival horror for his seminal 1996 PlayStation title Biohazard – known outside Japan as Resident Evil. Although at heart an action adventure title, survival horror turned out to be the perfect descriptor. The survival aspect referring to management of resources, so you couldn’t just go in guns blazing. Your limited inventory forcing you to decide whether to carry the mansion key or the acid rounds. And the horror element referring to being trapped in a single location with the undead – and worse.
Resident Evil set the template for Mikami’s horror titles. An elite trained squad faces and is promptly humbled by creatures that are the result of experimentation gone wrong. It’s quite an unusual format, as most horror protagonists are generally ordinary folks forced to be either hero, heroine or victim. Mikami’s titles have fully armed soldiers or cops as the leads – Clare Redfield in Resident Evil 2 being the sole exception. Taking a leaf from James Cameron’s classic Aliens, all confidence disappears after the first encounter with the enemy. In the Resident Evil intro movie, the S.T.A.R.S (Special Tactics and Rescue Squad) Alpha team are hunted by undead dogs, losing one member before their mission has even begun.
In Mikami’s earlier Dino Crisis, another team is parachuted onto an island, and one member is quickly chewed up by a T-Rex. Even in the action-heavy Resident Evil 4, Leon’s two colleagues are swiftly dispatched, leaving him alone to face the horrors to come. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; you expect someone fully armed and trained to be able to cope with almost anything. But in Mikami’s games, even military training isn’t enough.
The creatures that infest Mikami’s works aren’t inherently evil, they’re quite often victims of circumstance. The zombies of RE1‘s mansion infected with the T-Virus, the inhabitants of Raccoon City falling prey to the superior G-Virus and the villagers infected by Plagas parasites in RE4. There’s a common theme of transformation, a change within the body that takes over, a plague brought about by scientific hubris. The greatest horrors, though, are the results of man playing God: creatures like the Hunter, Tyrant and Lickers that have been created with one purpose – to kill.
Mikami’s latest release, The Evil Within (Psycho Break in Japan), is at once both a look back to the roots of survival horror and an evolution of Mikami’s previous work. Having already re-written the rulebook with the action-oriented Resident Evil 4, The Evil Within brings back the tension and anxiety of earlier titles. The most obvious parallels are a team of agents being called to investigate a grisly crime scene and find out they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Protagonist Sebastian Castellanos is a seasoned detective who is literally dragged to hell after coming face to face with Ruvik, a man who can seemingly control the environment.
The Evil Within wastes no time in establishing how deeply in trouble Sebastian is, when your first action is to swing free to escape from being cleaved in twain. This sets up a confrontation with a chainsaw-wielding maniac while you’re barely able to hobble around. It recalls the feeling of disempowerment of Resident Evil and Dino Crisis right from the start. But rather than put you into a direct confrontation, your job here is to run, or hobble quickly. This serves to show you the importance of stealth in this title.
It’s all a far cry from RE4′s action hero Leon, who could roundhouse a group of Ganados in one swift move. Sebastian is truly powerless here; being discovered only ends with the business end of of a chainsaw sticking out of his chest. Once the first encounter is over, there’s a cheeky throwback to RE1‘s spine-chilling first zombie encounter, when one of your colleagues turns into one of the Haunted.
Soon, Evil Within is on familiar ground, recalling the village of RE4. The Haunted roam the area with torches and weapons while you make your way onwards. But unlike RE4, you’re unable to confront them. Your revolver only has a few bullets, and there’s no chance of finding much ammunition, here so, again, stealth is the key to getting through alive. There’s another throwback to the Resident Evil 1 remake, where you can burn bodies of the Haunted to prevent them from becoming a bigger pain.
Mikami has been paying attention to other games here too, the stealth mechanics being similar to those found in the excellent Last Of Us, which itself owes a lot to RE4. Another possible influence is the recent hit franchise, Dark Souls. There’s a similar atmosphere of utter despair and decay, and a similar lack of hand holding – it’s up to you to work out how you get further. Interestingly, Mikami seems to step into Silent Hill territory here, too. There’s ambiguous hints that perhaps Sebastian could well be lost in his own mind. Mikami has always made good use of his movie influences, including Sam Raimi, John Carpenter and, of course, George Romero. Seeing him pay respectful nods to other titles that perhaps wouldn’t exist without his work shows how he is aware of changing trends in horror games. While Resident Evil 5 and 6 were straight action games, The Evil Within harks back to that abandoned mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City.
As said earlier, The Evil Within is at once both a look back and a step forward for the horror genre in videogames. A title that is a step back from the action focus of games like Dead Space, which, ironically, he’s mostly responsible for thanks to his highly influential Resident Evil 4. And a step towards the old-school tactics of inciting feelings of dread, of being utterly alone and making sure every shot you fire is vital. Indie titles like Slender and Outlast have reignited interest in pure creeping horror. The Evil Within is Mikami’s statement that, when it comes to horror games, he’s still very much the daddy.
The Evil Within is available now for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows.
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