Once upon a time, Resident Evil was the reigning undisputed king of the survival horror genre. It revolutionised how third-person games were received and paved the way for game developers, inspiring countless horror and zombie games. But that all changed – Resident Evil fell from the mantle of survivor horror royalty and dipped into a state of disingenuity. The franchise would become lost in a sea of third-person action games that fixated on explosions and fast-paced combat, with its later games receiving mixed success and horrendous off-shoots focusing on forgettable side characters and unnamed Umbrella corps goons. The games began to more heavily emphasise muscular protagonists carving their way through hordes of zombies in exploding city streets rather than a lone character struggling to survive every encounter in dark and mysterious locations. So what happened to Resident Evil? To answer this, let’s take a look at how the series evolved and subsequently devolved into what it is today – and what the recently announced Resident Evil 7 should be.
This year marks 20 years of Resident Evil, which originally launched on the original PlayStation in 1996. The game followed Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, two S.T.A.R.S task force soldiers sent into the forests on the outskirts of Raccoon City to investigate the disappearance of their team mates. They’re soon trapped in a mysterious and horrifying mansion filled with zombies and other strange creatures – and, of course, it’s here one of the greatest franchises in video game history begins. The first Resident Evil possessed an eerie atmosphere, the likes of which no gamer before had experienced. It was an instant classic with genuinely frightening moments, especially with the prospect of danger lurking around every corner. Players weren’t bombarded with waves of zombies but instead had to carefully decide to either juke around singular zombies hoping not to run into a dead end or stand their ground and attempt to land a headshot on the slow but impending doom that was every enemy. The resource management system meant that every bullet counted, leaving players with the constant mini game of making sure they had what they needed to survive the next encounter.
The game simultaneously radiated a fear-inducing atmosphere whilst stimulating tense exploration through the dark, labyrinth-like corridors of Spencer Mansion. Capcom and series producer Shinji Mikami also made the brilliant design choice of limiting players’ field of vision with fixed camera shots in every room, only enhancing the jumps scares that are still burned into my brain today. I’ll never forget those undead dogs bursting the through the glass windows as I slowly paced down the quiet hallway of that god forsaken mansion. The game, of course, had an engrossing storyline with a twist at the end that would introduce one of gaming’s most iconic villains. But the players goal was ultimately simple: survive this gauntlet of horror. It was the way Capcom framed this task of survival that was so clever, and so satisfying not only throughout gameplay but in the context of the series. It was entirely immersive. Resident Evil had truly changed the landscape for survival horror, but the series would not stop innovating there.
Like ravenous zombies, Resident Evil fans were left chomping at the bit for more – and in January of 1998, Capcom released Resident Evil 2. Resident Evil 2 was actually the first Resident Evil title I played and the first game I (poorly) learnt how to speed run through. The game introduces yet again another two characters, Claire Redfield and my video game man crush Leon Kennedy, as they try to escape the now zombie-filled Racoon City. The game perfectly takes the vibe of the original and modifies it to the city setting, upping the zombie count whilst not unfairly overwhelming the player. The game also manages to convey the much larger open areas of Raccoon City streets without sacrificing the claustrophobic feel of the original. Capcom didn’t forget to expand on the games roster of weapons either, introducing weapons like the grenade launcher, bow gun and the iconic magnum. In every aspect of the game, the perfect balance was struck.
Escalating on the first two games, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis released in 1999 and maintained the horror essence of the franchise whilst also embodying huge but simple changes that would later alter the franchise forever. This time instead of following two protagonists, the game would focus on a single character — the returning badass Jill Valentine as she fled from the Umbrella corporation-controlled monster known as Nemesis. The game still featured 3D models over pre-rendered backgrounds with fixed camera angles, but introduced new and increasingly creepier enemy types as well as the colossal addition of the quick dodge and 180-degree turn. These mechanics at first seemed simple but completely changed the pacing and approach to combat in Resident Evil, allowing Jill to quickly avoid incoming attacks from enemies that snuck up behind her. Despite these changes, the game managed to never lose its tense atmosphere –players still had carefully delegate bullets, as ammunition was still scarce as ever. One of the cooler and more over looked aspects of Resident Evil 3, though, was how it transpired. The game’s main goal is to escape Raccoon City whilst Nemesis hunted you through the dilapidated streets and buildings of the once-alive city. The ever-growing threat of Nemesis continuously ran through the player’s mind, and the game essentially played out like one giant chase sequence. Yet again, Resident Evil had delivered a classic dread-driven game that transformed ever so slightly to surprise players’ expectations.
They say good things come in three, and the Resident Evil franchise was no exception. I mentioned the word “iconic” before when describing the magnum, but the initial trio of installments are entirely, undeniably iconic from start to finish – from the characters to locations, to the sound of health pickups and shell cases bouncing. Who could forget the first encounter with a zombie in Resident Evil 1, as he turned his head towards the camera revealing his horrific visage? Or the first time you saw a Licker crawling on the ceiling towards Leon in Resident Evil 2, or when Nemesis’s theme music kicked in when he was close on Jill’s heels in the third game. To the surprise of many, the best of Resident Evil had yet to come – and in January 2005 not only did hungering fans receive a new Resident Evil, but one of the greatest games of all time.
After continuing with the similar formula of Resident Evil with Resident Evil 0 in 2002, Capcom looked to shake up the franchise by utilising the power of a new generation of console, specifically the Nintendo GameCube. Resident Evil 4 saw the return of Leon Kennedy and followed his journey to a small European nation where he was tasked in saving the President of the United States’ daughter. The game was totally different to any Resident Evil before, supporting a free moving and precision aiming system that allowed Leon to aim at enemy’s body parts with his firearm to either eliminate them with precise headshots or incapacitate them for over the top melee animations like the suplex, which would explode an enemies head on impact. After seeing Capcom’s alternate take on combat in earlier side titles like Resident Evil Dead Aim released in 2003, fans were sceptical of such radical change in the main franchise. Fans had nothing to worry about, however, as they received a blend of tight suspenseful combat, puzzle solving, classic Resident Evil-styled boss fights, all accompanied by a survivor horror atmosphere. I distinctly remember playing on in shock as the blade-wielding cult members swarmed the house in which Leon chose refuge. Players could move items to block doors to slow the advance of the villagers in a totally real-time environment. Despite technically having no zombies in it, the game would go on to be known widely by many as the greatest zombie game of all time.
Sure, Resident Evil 4 was much more action-oriented than the previous titles, and was undeniably the furthest the franchise had traveled from its roots, but it still managed to maintain its identity in the Resident Evil franchise, all whilst innovating its base mechanics. The argument could also be made that Resident Evil 1 through to 4 still had ridiculous, over-the-top enemies and ludicrous storylines that bordered on convoluted, and in some aspects I’d agree with that. The fact remains the franchise stayed true to its self and continually evolved and executed on the survival horror experience it set up a decade earlier.
But this high, unfortunately, had quite a short half-life as Resident Evil moved into its next instalment with 2009’s Resident Evil 5. This was the title where Resident Evil seemingly lost its way. Resident Evil 5 is a co-op action game that sees the once likeable Chris Redfield, now a walking tower of muscle, venture to sunny Africa to link up with a new partner, Sheva Alomar, to stop a biological weapons deal from going down. Now, the premise and setting for Resident Evil 5 are not its downfall – it’s everything else. Resident Evil 5 isn’t a bad game, but it’s also not a Resident Evil game. The fifth instalment never delivered the well-known creepy atmosphere of former Resident Evils – instead, it felt more like a big budget action film. Ammunition is aplenty in 5, meaning you can mow down crowds of infected enemies negating that edge-of-you-seat feeling and the classic Resident Evil dread. The odds are always stacked in your favour, and by the end of the game Chris Redfield had completely morphed from horror survivor to an action film hero. The final boss fight quite literally has Chris and Shiva spouting cheesy one liners like, “Suck on this!” as they shoot rocket launches from a chopper at a burning Wesker who is trapped in a pit of lava atop a volcano. Yep, a little different from simply you, a pistol and a creepy old mansion.
Unfortunately for Resident Evil fans and the franchise alike, Capcom would not learn from the previous games ill reception and would release Resident Evil 6 in 2012. The franchise’s biggest identity crisis to date, and a game that would almost be the death sentence for one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. The game was composed more like a Hollywood action film with four individual campaigns following seven protagonists. Resident Evil 6 was meant to tie together the franchise, bringing all the fan favourites together in a globe spanning mega story. The game, like 5 in fact, had its iconic moments. Moments as a Resident Evil fan I was ecstatic to see. Like Chris and Leon’s epic show down and a boss fight against an invisible snake that felt like an original boss fight from an earlier title. Regrettably though, these brief flickers of brilliance were lost amongst the games supremely average gameplay and mechanics. Resident Evil 6 is roughly a 26-hour game that tries to inefficiently cram in 126 hours’ worth of mechanics. The game tries to deliver everything from puzzles, awkward cover shooting, stealth sections, boss fights, sniping and piloting segments that even have you take control of a fighter jet. And if that’s not bad enough, the entire game is riddled with frustrating quick-time events that appear at nearly every action, which, needless to say, resulted in an overwhelming, cumbersome experience. It’s clear that Resident Evil 6 suffers from a serious case of over ambition, which is to its extreme detriment. It’s ambivalent, slapped together without any serious intent, and is noticeably, almost painfully bipolar. It simply cannot decide what it is, and is certainly not a Resident Evil game.
Perhaps 4’s innovations and changes doomed the franchise? Maybe like the second and third in the series, Resident Evil 5 and 6 are extremities of their predecessors. Franchises can indeed shift internally in style and evolve as they go on, But Resident Evil betrayed itself. Now we can only turn to Resident Evil 7 and hope it embraces its horror survivor roots. From the demo, and what little information we have on 7 it seems Capcom may have learned their lesson, stirring the franchise ship back to its survival horror origins with a shift in perspective inspired by Silent Hill’s P.T. But yet again, Resident Evil shouldn’t be Silent Hill. Resident Evil shouldn’t be any other game for that matter, except its own. For a franchise whose past has been filled with a tremendous and triumphant beginning, a game-changing (literally) sweet spot in the middle and some incredibly disappointing recent releases, it seems the hope audiences now have is that Resident Evil will find its way back to the magic that made history.