Evil Dead: The Game Preview – Somewhat Groovy
Before going into my Evil Dead: The Game preview, I didn't have much idea what the game was about. I have seen the Evil Dead movies, had watched all the trailers for the game, and while my knowledge of the TV show has some gaps, I should have been in a prime position to understand just what it was Saber Interactive was selling. Instead, I went in clueless. After playing two rounds (and winning both, apparently the first journalist in the preview circuit to do so, because I'm just that good), I understand perfectly what Evil Dead is: it's Dead by Daylight with Bruce Campbell. That's not entirely accurate, for reasons I'll dig into, but it's one helluva elevator pitch, and it's surprising the marketing has not leaned into this more.
First, the gameplay. During the hands-on playtest, I dabbled in the online mode with developers playing either with or against me, playing one match as the Survivor, and another as the Demon. There are also solo missions to explore the map and dig into the story, but my preview focused on head-to-head play, which will likely be what most players spend the majority of their time in anyway. As a Survivor, you play as a team of four, with various roles (Leader, Warrior, Hunter, and Support) filled out by Evil Dead characters. They're all voiced by the original cast members, and the graphics are good enough that you'll instantly go 'hey that's Bruce Campbell!' but ropey enough that you'll need to squint for everyone else. Still, it feels like good coverage for franchise fans, and yes, it's entirely possible to play with a whole team of Bruce Campbells from the various movies.
Playing as the Survivor, it's very traditional gameplay for the genre. You start off with nothing, but explore the map and find health kits, upgrade points (Shemp's Cola, a deep cut of a reference, even for a game like this), as well as a melee weapon and a ranged weapon. All of this is fairly standard, and not that exciting, but I don't have any complaints specifically and once you get kitted out initially, you never need to actively explore again, so I'd call that a win.
After this, you'll head to three different locations to gather pieces of a map, before taking them all to the fourth location for a showdown. The Demon can only see the fourth location, which I'll get to soon. You might think it's easier to split up, but this will raise your Fear level, which leads me to the role of the Demon. Unlike the killers in Dead by Daylight, you aren't really playing the game at all. You're observing. You float around the map like a ghost, and can set traps to injure or raise the Fear of your opponents, as well as possessing various lower level enemies or, if their Fear is at max level, even other players themselves. Once you level up your Demon enough (which is done in each match from scratch, rather than something accrued over time), you can even turn into one of the Big Bads – I went for the classic Evil Dead villain Henrietta, who was just as gross as I'd remembered.
When playing as the Demon, you cannot see where the other players need to go, nor can you see them on the map – unless they make a significant amount of noise or get in a car. Oh, you can also possess the cars. I 100 percent recommend it. Anyway, because you don't know where they are or where they're going, it behoves you to set traps everywhere, but to pay special regard to the ending area too. You’ll need to collect glowing orbs to keep setting traps, but they’re everywhere and the map encourages exploration, so you won’t have to worry about running out. In the final area, the Survivor will need to slay various smaller foes, all of whom Demons can possess (as well as summoning stronger ones), but Survivors will also need to cast a spell with the Necronomicon in order to achieve victory. As the Demon, you win by killing everyone, which… duh.
I don't often spend as long on the specific gameplay in previews, but it seemed necessary here because it feels like no one, even those excited for Evil Dead: The Game, quite knows what it is. With that out of the way though, we move onto 'is it good?' and my answer is a resounding 'yeah, kinda'.
Evil Dead doesn't feel like a rip-off of other games in the genre, but it takes just enough to be familiar. The bigger than average map also allows for more fun, with the trade-off being less immediate combat than these games often provide. I travelled the map with the devs, who clearly knew their way around, but it doesn't feel like you're going to be constantly dealing with wave after wave of weak foes.
The balance is particularly interesting here. While the Survivor players can find upgrades, both in terms of boosting their power and better weapons, it feels like they end the match as they began it, which makes sense for Evil Dead as an idea – the Survivors are just regular people trying to survive. The Demon, however, grows in strength significantly, initially just able to booby trap a tree, but eventually able to summon mighty demons, control cars, possess other players, open the gates of Hell, and transform into the series' most sinister slayers. Despite this though, they remain less of an opponent and more of a troll. Raising fear, slowing players down so you can level up, and generally being a nuisance are what you need to do, and it's a nice tweak of the asymmetrical formula to have the lone killer be weaker and faster than the rest, rather than stronger and slower, yet still able to unleash all sorts of havoc.
While the make-up of the game is creative, and the trolling element is a lot of fun, playing as the Survivor can feel generic. You get some power-ups and abilities, but they don't feel too connected to anything. My character, Kelly Maxwell, gave everyone near me a boost to their gun damage, which feels arbitrary, as most of the abilities do. The gunplay is pretty standard, the combat lacks a little imagination, and while there's nothing wrong with how it plays, there's nothing other games haven't done better. There is a permanent skill tree, and since I only played only one round I didn't get to try it, but I'm not convinced it would help. Playing as the Demon is definitely the way to go.
Ultimately, my big fear is that the clever concept at the core of Evil Dead: The Game hasn't been made enough of, and while there is clearly a lot of love and passion for the Evil Dead in here (the devs tell me one of the caves is named after one of the real-life shooting locations for Army of Darkness), there just aren't enough Evil Dead fans who will pick this up sight-unseen, and though there is a compelling idea for floating gamers, not enough has been made of it to hook people in. Evil Dead is a damn sight better than I'd expect a 2022 asymmetrical online PvP with battle royale mechanics licensed off an '80s horror movie to be, and worth checking out – but I'm still worried not enough people will.
Evil Dead: The Game launches May 13 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and PC
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