While playing horror games on your own is scary enough, there's something particularly spooky about playing them at an event. Making your way into a specifically darkened room, trying your best to avoid any stray chairs, before plonking yourself down all of a foot away from a massive TV, the scene is set for maximum spookiness. Especially as we can never figure out how to turn the headphones down (a million and one buttons on a remote, and not one seems to control the most important part).
This was the scene when we sat down to play The Evil Within at German games fest, gamescom. A new horror game by genre maestro Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series, The Evil Within looks to put the lessons of nearly two decades worth of experience in creating pant-wettingly terrifying games to good use.
And it's easy to see the similarities here. Picking up the controls, we found ourselves in a dark, pitch black forest, with a greyscale effect over the view. With our character staggering slowly forward, we paused to admire a single, lone sunflower, when suddenly, a figure appeared in the woods - and before we had chance to properly see what was going on, he'd vanished into the mist. So far, so spooky - but at least the screen had filled with colour now. Or at least, several shades of really dark grey.
Before too long, we'd made it out of the woods, and came across what's almost a Resident Evil tradition - a gigantic, mansion style building. With huge oak double doors, a garden that hadn't seen the business end of a pair of shears in several months, and a distinctly creepy atmosphere, there was only one thing to do - go inside.
Pushing our way through the huge double doors, we caught a glimpse of someone being led away by what seemed to be a doctor. With an iron gate slamming shut behind them, automatically locking with the world's most intricate mechanism, it's safe to say that this was no normal hospital. A loony bin? Possibly. But even so, something wasn't quite right here.
On the plus side, at least it all looked nice. With shadows of tree branches jumping across the spectacular staircase, and the odd flicker of lightning illuminating the room, there was a cosy, yet altogether imposing atmosphere in the mansion-cum-mental asylum. With intricately styled furniture placed neatly at the side of the room on the one hand, and a giant cloth thrown erratically over a giant dining table on the other, you got the impression this was a building that had been abandoned for a while - but as is always the question with these sort of games, why?
Moving out of the dining room (yes, double pressing to open doors still kicks them open), we ventured into a dark, dusty corridor where furniture had been left piled up in front of a open doorway. In the flickering of a candlelight, some shapes danced on the wall - shapes that looked like a human doing... something to.... something else. Either way, realising there may well be enemies ahead, we took out our pistol, and crept into the next room. A pile of boxes provided shelter on the left, and through the door ahead was our foe. Slowly, we crept forward, when
An explosion rocked the room, and took us down in a single blast. Fantastic. Turns out these are some clever zombies. Along with being terrifying as hell, they also know how to set proximity mines, and take great pleasure in placing them on the walls. If you crouch, you can avoid them - and if you get close enough, you can strip them down and salvage the parts - but they're just one of the things you need to watch out for on your time with The Evil Within.
Still, having respawned and now finding our place back in the game, it was onwards towards our destiny. Dismantling the bomb like a boss, we strolled into the next room, gun raised, to find a zombie with something through his head, chowing down on two corpses. Unfortunately, the zombie saw us first, and gave chase. Crap!
Legging it out of the room and heading into the corridor, we turned to fire off a few shots at our foe when all of a sudden, a mysterious, translucent hooded figure appeared, and marched towards us. Bullets had no effect - but his moves could hurt us. In a flash, we were picked up and hurled through the air, before coming to rest at the foot of the pile of boxes. Luckily, the zombie only took a few shots to finish off, but what in the heck was that figure?
Either way, with the zombie safely dispatched, we headed back into the room with the two corpses, and came across our first puzzle in the game. Sitting on a desk, in typically gruesome fashion, was a head. Not just any head, mind - this was a head that had had the top of the skull carefully removed, and some handy spikes poked into it for good measure. More stomach churningly still, the face, and some of the hair, were still attached. Pulling out a syringe, or a drill of sorts, with a little light coming out the end of it which shone on the grey matter, it was clear this was a puzzle. But what were we supposed to do?
Luckily, a voice log started playing, with a doctor recalling his past experiments which had failed. He assures himself he'd have greater results if he tried it in sector F-7, the consent region of the neocortex. To your left, on the table, is a diagram of the different regions of the brain, and all you have to do is match the two up. Bear in mind, there were no prompts here, and you aren't directed towards the diagram, which lies initially out of sight. Prod the wrong region of the brain, and you get zapped. Either way, before too long we figured it out. F-7 located, probe inserted, trickle of blood running down the back of a dead guy's brain. Lovely. But what was the point of that?
Turning around, we soon discovered what the point was. There in the doorway stood two ghostly figures, a doctor and a subject, or a doctor and his colleague, talking. The taller one reassures the shorter to stop worrying about appearances, that science requires you to do disgusting, or distasteful things, but so long as it's in the name of science, everything's OK. Messed up world view exposed, they soon fade out, and we're back to the normal game.
Puzzle solved, it's time to head back to the main hall and see what happened. Turns out that prodding the brain with a needle, and solving the puzzle has triggered an unusual amount of blood to flow through a pipe, and unlocked one of the bolts locking the big, metal door that the doctor and patient went through when we first came into the mansion. With two more to find, and two more puzzles to solve, it's off upstairs to explore the rest of the mansion.
What followed was pretty similar to what happened downstairs - but as we went, we started to get some glimpses into how the game all fits together. One of the first, and most interesting things is that unlike other zombie games, there are two ways to perma-kill a zombie here - you can get a head shot, or you can set it on fire. Being the pyromaniacs that we are, we like the latter version option a lot, and not only because of the security it gives us. Running through a room full of corpses, you can never be sure which ones are on the verge of springing to their feet with the intention of taking a chunk out of your shoulder, so what better way to deal with the threat than striking up a load of matches, and dropping them like they're hot. Handily, it seems most zombies have been taking regular baths in alcohol and petrol, as they ignite in a flaming fleshy inferno as soon as the fire flickers near. I love the smell of burning zombie in the morning.
Also, from what we've played so far, The Evil Within seems to fit very much in the jump-scares brand of horror, rather than the psychological horror of Silent Hill. It does have an atmosphere, but there's none of the mind-messing insanity of Silent Hill - instead, there are lots of doors that burst open, lots of traps waiting to be sprung, and plenty of creep out moments involving poking things into brains.
Set for a release in just a few weeks time, on the 16th October, The Evil Within looks set to kick-start the survival horror revival. Just in time for Halloween. Convenient, that.