With the announcement of yet another remake in the nearly two-decade-old horror franchise “Resident Evil”, I decided to have a look at the journey it has taken from being one of the founders of survival horror to what it has become today.
Turn the clocks back to 1996, when Capcom released Resident Evil on the Playstation. Receiving overall excellent reviews, this game had arguably the perfect mix of gore, fear, tension, puzzle-solving and horrible voice acting. From start to finish, you would spend your time exploring the quiet, eerie mansion, piecing together it’s story, and the events that had taken place there. Oh yeah, and checking every corner for zombies! These were your typical shuffling, moaning zombies, but they had simply the best placement throughout the game and were designed in such a way so as to be just as deadly as the other enemies within the game.
There were of course plenty of bosses, but they were regular enough to mix things up but not so regular that you got sick of them. In order to progress, you had to spend your time exploring the mansion for all manner of keys, cranks and other items which would gradually grant access to new areas and more story clues. The puzzles were varied, challenging and very satisfying to complete, all the while feeling very natural and not at all out-of-place.
Health-restoring herbs, ammo, weapons and other gear was scarce, forcing you to be conservative and resourceful in order to survive. This was the perfect example of a survival horror game.
This general layout ran on throughout the next two games, making Resident Evil’s 2 & 3 similarly successful.
Cue Resident Evil 4.
This was a very different game; the camera shifted from “fly on the wall” to “over the shoulder”. There are no zombies, you’re now fighting intelligent enemies capable of using weapons and running. The focus clearly shifted to a more engaging, action-oriented perspective. Did this damage the game? Not at all. In fact, it is the best-selling Resident Evil game of all time, and currently holds the Guinness World Record for best-selling survival-horror game (as of 2012).
Why did it succeed? They stayed true to the formula, but managed to add more levels to the game, increasing the pace of it, the selection of weapons and upgrades and much more. Start to finish, the game is eerie, scary, challenging, puzzling and gory. There is a constant air of tension, of mystery, fear of what is around the next corner.
The puzzles weren’t skimmed over either, with riddles to solve and keys to find. The only thing that was reduced from earlier games was the need to conserve ammo as much. You no longer needed to save up those Ink Ribbons to save your game, and ammo was a little more plentiful; where they had added to the game, though, more than made up for it. This was definitely still a survival horror game.
This is where things start to go downhill.
Resident Evil 5 launched in 2009 to mixed response. On the whole, it was a solid game. The increased enemy count meant that large encounters with enemies presented a new layer of fear, a sense of being overwhelmed that hadn’t been as prevalent in earlier entries. However, the game took a step too far in the “action game” direction, and lacked in overall amount of fear that earlier entries had not.
In the past we’ve seen: dark, eerie mansions; forests; night time zombie-infested cities; castles filled with cultists. Resident Evil 5? Bright, sunlit Africa. The environment would have been better for a Call of Duty game, in my personal opinion.
Another level of fear that was clear in earlier RE’s was that of being alone, of being isolated. Even Resident Evil 4 managed to keep you mostly alone by giving you a companion who was kidnapped most of the time, or highly vulnerable when with you. Resident Evil 5 gives you a fully combat-ready partner who very rarely leaves your side and can be equipped with all manner of things including items to heal you and herself with.
Resident Evil 6 was a very similar story to the above, it made some moves back to classic RE fear, but for every step it took in the right direction, it took two in the wrong. There were genuinely scary parts to the game, but it was watered down by the atmosphere. You were never alone, rarely out of contact with those working to help you, had plenty of resources available to you, and were able to travel across the world.
What happened to Resident Evil? Capcom are repeatedly criticized for removing the fear from Resident Evil, but I think it’s a different story from what many seem to think. Plain and simple, Resident Evil 4 took the franchise in a completely different direction; the changes made geared it towards your typical third-person action shooter, but it managed to do that whilst remaining scary and atmospheric. Capcom made a game they can’t beat. If they take a step back to pre-RE4, they get criticized for not innovating and it would probably end just as sourly, seeing as RE3 started to show signs of moving away from fear. If they stick with the current setup, they end up with another RE6.
Solution? Resident Evil isn’t about the fear anymore. It used to be, and there are still elements of it that we see, but not anymore. RE crafted an enormous story universe, spanning 6 main games, a whole host of “extended universe” games, animated films and more, and it was clear that RE6 was trying to be as story heavy as possible. We saw the return of long forgotten characters, new viruses, new corporations getting involved and everything coming together in one big story. Most RE’s have been very self-contained, with few extra elements pulled in from other RE stories beyond what is introduced and contained in the here-and-now of those previous games.
Whilst many are sad to hear it, myself included, RE is now more of a third-person shooter with a VERY strong story universe than a fear-filled thrill ride. I suspect that main numbered sequels will continue this trend, leaving the scary stuff to self-contained games like the highly successful and terrifying Resident Evil: Revelations – a sequel to which was recently announced. I’d imagine it’s not a move that Capcom are all too happy about, but it’s the only feasible option right now.
Survival horror is not dead, however. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is on the horizon, said to be a similar game to RE: Revelations (1), bringing back the fear we know all too well. Shinji Mikami’s (the man behind the birth of Resident Evil) The Evil Within, coming out in two week, is also set to be a thrill ride of true survival horror, especially if the demo I tried at EGX is anything to go by, It’s Resident Evil 1’s overall feel and makeup, plus the modernisations added in the likes of Resident Evil 4.
With the likelihood of a Resident Evil 7 announcement increasing every day, now exactly 2 years since the release of Resident Evil 6, it’s going to be interesting to see how Capcom try to satisfy the fans of a franchise with such a huge history…
What have your experiences with the RE franchise been like? Anything you’d like to see from future releases?
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