Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Your spine shakes with chills as your heart begins to race. Your mind wanders with the fear of the unknown, and just when you think you were safe from whatever hunts you, you feel it’s grip across your throat. It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means, a series of reviews on some of the scariest horror games out there today! Welcome to my 13 days of horror reviews, where we honor the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky side of video games, both past and present. Today, we look at Resident Evil.
Ok I admit, the first time I saw Resident Evil on the Playstation, I laughed. I laughed so hard at the horrendous cut-scenes and the terrible dialogue; I laughed at the funny animation and the really stifling controls. I laughed at the overall look of the game, impressive, yes, but kind of a bland mansion setting.
Then I encountered my first zombie.
And I fully admit, I got scared quick. Real quick. It’s funny to remember such a cornball opening basically eroded with full terror that occurs when fighting the throng of zombies, rabid dogs, a giant ass shark and a huge spider, all in one mansion with more twists than a M. Night Shymalan movie. Resident Evil won over a lot of gamers not only through its presentation, but its gameplay, practically reinventing a genre that for the masses only existed on the PC, and that was survival horror.
The great thing about the first Resident Evil is how uncompromising it was, it showed the blood and gore, it showed the decaying bodies as they constantly hunted you. It had a fair amount of boo scares that, while kind of cheesy today, actually added to the atmosphere. It let you know that you were not safe, even when you thought you were which is a very effective tool to make you frightened in a game like this.
Plus, being the first game in the fabled franchise, we get to see major players in action all over again. Chris Redfield, for all his HGH taking goodness, is an icon in the gaming world, along with his partner Jill Valentine, and of course, the antagonist Albert Wesker who, despite being as cartoony as Skeletor in every sense of the word in terms of his motivations, comes off as terrifying in this game because it was a major plot twist that actually helped the somewhat cheesy story as a whole.
The game also had a control scheme that fit the setting. Granted it is really outdated by today’s standards, but it put a sense of dread. You can’t run and shoot; you can just take aim and shoot, leaving you vulnerable for periods of time. That, plus the item management in the game added a degree of strategy. Going without some type of weapon was suicide each time, but going without ammo at times was just as costly. And any mantra that was more of a “save your firepower” instead of “shooting everything that moves” motto fits these games a lot more than you would think.
But despite the presentation and the controls fitting the atmosphere, Resident Evil has one bad spot that, over time, festers like a zombie bite on a fresh brain, and I am talking about the puzzle solving. The puzzles boiled down to fetch quests that followed a similar pattern each time, go to point A on the left side of the mansion, to find key B for point C on the right side of the mansion. It was so obtuse it was a chore to do this, and it honestly took away a lot of the “survival” elements. I mean, if you have one or two puzzles like that, it would be fine. But when these type of puzzles are pretty much dotted all over the damn place to access areas you couldn’t get into before, artificially lengthening the game to a point of pure tedium.
The game was graphically impressive on the Playstation, with each character having a degree of detail on them, however pixilated it was. The biggest problem I had though was the mansion, while detailed and looked like a goregous matte painting with implanted elements, was abandoned mid-way though the game for similar looking gray corridors of an underground base, which never made sense to me. Even to this day It looked good and set up a spooky atmosphere, but it wasn’t as effective as the mansion, and it had no real sense of, well, making sense.
The game was, however, a true testament to the use of sound and music cues. And no, I am not talking about shitty voice acting. I mean the actual ambiance, the groans offscreen giving you a hint of a possible zombie attack, the scratching behind a door that indicate something is trying to breakthrough, subtle creaks on staircases and hallways that make the hair on your head tingle with anticipation, all topped off by slick music cues when you do enter some type of combat mode. This was the real clincher in the end.
And rightfully so, because Resident Evil was by no means revolutionary in terms of its gameplay; if you want to go old school, play the original Alone in the Dark. What it did do, however, was bring the genre of survival horror to the mainstream, and has remained a very successful franchise, despite leaning away from its roots. It had great atmosphere, a control scheme that at that time worked, and some excellent sound effects, which all coupled to create a truly, scary experience.