Survival horror has transformed significantly since the term was first popularized by Resident Evil in 1996. Unlike many gaming genres, it’s not defined by a particular camera perspective or even game mechanics, and has transcended plenty of other genres. We’ve seen it in the point-and-click adventure format (Clock Tower series), fixed-perspective adventures like Capcom’s Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, to disparate third-person offerings like Silent Hill 2, Alan Wake, and the original Dead Space.
In recent years, survival horror has been revived thanks to first-person games like Outlast, Alien: Isolation, and Amnesia. Looking at all these, it’s not gameplay that ties them together, but a focus on atmosphere, creeping dread, and evoking in the player feelings of vulnerability and loneliness.
My first survival horror experience came with Resident Evil 2 at some point in the late 90s. It was not only my first survival horror experience, but also a pivotal point in my understanding of games, and their ability to affect me in ways I thought impossible to that point. Being the owner of an N64, my gaming experiences were mostly made up of garish, vibrant, and distinctly ‘gamey’ games that the console was synonymous with. The worlds of Banjo-Kazooie, Zelda, Mario 64, and Space Station Silicon Valley (anyone?) were veritable playgrounds – challenging but ultimately safe places where recklessness would be punishable merely by having to repeat a small segment of the game.
My naive game-worldview was shattered about five minutes into playing Resident Evil 2, along with the glass of that gunshop window in the game which gives way for a horde of zombies to stumble in and tear the shopkeeper’s throat out. This sublime moment was particularly horrifying as it broke the series’ own ostensible rule that enemies can’t cross between areas separated by doors. From this point on, I’d skittishly run past every window in the game in anticipation of something horrifying breaking through. Most of the time nothing happened of course, which made it extra-shocking those few times that something did.
Resident Evil 2 taught me other valuable lessons too. With a finite amount of ammo, health pickups and save points around the world, Raccoon City wasn’t a playground, but an intimidating, nightmarish wasteland that didn’t care to help you; a place that was unforgiving to those who were reckless with their resources, creating the possibility of having to run through the game wounded, unarmed, and fearful of every window. For the first time in my gaming life I was forced me to make far-sighted decisions, such as whether I should spend five bullets taking down a zombie, or run around it to save my bullets for when I really need them.
Resi 2’s tenets of dread, vulnerability, and dwindling resource management remain the standards by which survival horror games are judged to this day.
Since Resident Evil 4, the series has turned its back on this formula and veered towards action and large-scale zombicide, much to the chagrin of survival horror fans. Nevertheless, said fans continue to hold out hope in the build-up to each successive Resident Evil game that it will be the one to bring survival horror back home.
Which leads us finally onto Resident Evil: Revelations 2, the latest outing in the series, which I had a chance to play at a recent event in London. When I spoke with the game’s production manager Matt Walker, he was unequivocal about what fans should expect from the game. “The campaign mode will be survival horror, but the raid mode will be action”. Rather than trying to throw a bit of everything into one messy pot, as we saw in the messy Resident Evil 6, Capcom are going to try and please everyone by splitting the game in two. For survival horror fans, it sounds like a bit of a compromise, but at least we’ll have our fix of goosebumps, tingly spines and soiled armour, right?
After an hour or so playing the game’s campaign (and another half-hour with its hyper-arcadey Raid mode, complete with high-octane dance music), I felt none of the emotions I’ve come to expect from the survival horror experience. Yes, there is a bit of resource management that nods to the older games by making you combine herbs and watch your ammo, and yes, there was a jump scare that made me twitch, but these features felt like contrived nods to a genre that’s long been forgotten about by the series, rather than core gameplay mechanics. Running out of ammo is a mechanical annoyance rather than an existential threat, because Rev 2 seems designed for you to shoot – or stealth takedown – every creature you encounter, rather than try and survive among them using whatever means necessary.
Instead, the core mechanic of Rev 2 is cooperative play. In one of the two main story arcs, Clare Redfield is accompanied by teenage girl Moira, and in the other Barry makes a fine ‘odd couple’ pairing with eight-ish-year-old psychic, Natalya. I only played the Barry section, and it offers up some interesting – if not exactly groundbreaking – gameplay. Natalya, for example, can use her zombie-sensing powers to point out the weak spot on a tough enemy (remember boss fights in House of The Dead?), or spot hidden items for Barry to pick up. Just as Jill was the Master of Unlocking in Resident Evil, so here Natalya is the Master of Pointing.
However, this dynamic causes problems if you’re looking to be afraid. Having a permanent buddy provides a sense of comfort that survival horror fans are specifically seeking to avoid. You could argue that pairing up series veterans Claire and Barry with youngsters injects some notion of vulnerability into the game, but one point of Moira’s flashlight will leave most monsters blinded, while little Natalya’s disturbingly lethal with a brick. Something I learned from games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead is that making a seemingly vulnerable child capable of killing flesh-eating monsters makes said monsters appear a bit pathetic.
Furthermore, Natalya is endowed with the gaming gimmick du jour, X-ray Vision, or Eagle Vision, or whatever you want to call it. Matt Walker was right in telling me that the game’s sound design should make you “fear what lurks around every corner”, but this falls apart when I can see through walls and pinpoint the location of every malign creature within a 50-foot radius of myself, let alone around the next corner. How can I be afraid when I have a God-like mastery of my surroundings?
What’s more, seeing the yellow outlines of zombies through the walls lays bare Rev 2‘s gaminess. Using x-ray vision, you can monitor zombies’ ‘patrol routes’ as they shamble around in squares or straight lines, or can see that there’s a zombie in the next room, precisely placed there by the developers to pounce on you when you go through that doorway. Of course, because you know it’s there, the roles are reversed and it’s you who’s pouncing on the zombie, presenting the hapless creature with the barrel of Barry’s assault rifle rather than his juicy clavicle.
It’s the complete opposite of the early Resident Evil games’ problem, where the fixed angles meant that you often couldn’t see a zombie just several feet in front of you, even if your character was looking straight at it. Frustrating and unrealistic though that was, it made every room you entered feel foreboding.
All of this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the preview of Revelations 2. Many of the criticisms I make could equally be made against the fantastic The Last of Us, which Rev 2 borrows plenty from, and which has also been oft-mislabelled as survival horror.
My issue is with Capcom’s insistence that Rev 2 marks some kind of return to survival horror, in an attempt to attract people like myself, who are always seeking survival horror’s visceral rollercoaster of bodily reactions and extreme stress. Such people would only be disappointed. Head into this game thinking it’s an action-horror, on the other hand, and you’re more likely to get an experience matching your expectations.
At least Capcom is acknowledging in its PR approach that survival horror is a genre worth bothering with; a u-turn on when Revelations producer Masachika Kawata said three years ago that the series needed to go in a more action-oriented direction. But from my short experience of the game, there is a dissonance between the gameplay and the hype.
This is something you should bear in mind – particularly if you’re a survival horror fan – before the first episode of Revelations 2 comes out later this month.
Resident Evil: Revelations 2‘s first episode is out on Feb. 25 for PS3, PS4, Vita, PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.