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March 12, 2015

Do We Need Resident Evil Anymore?

So my brother bought all the episodes of Resident Evil: Revelations 2 at once without knowing if even the first one was any good, because of course he did.  And then he tried to force me to play it with him, because of course he did.  And I had a crisis of faith in the franchise based on Capcom’s latest offering, because of course I did.

Well, let me back up a bit.  I should start by saying that the Resident Evil franchise has never, ever been my jam.  My first experience with it was the GameCube remake, and even then I only played it once in exchange for my brother’s multiple runs.  The first one I ever finished was -- grab your barf bags, superfans -- RE5.  And to date, it’s the only one I’ve finished; RE6 came next, and I don’t think I need to tell you that the “great game, great experience” touted by my dear old bro was less than ideal.

So lately, I’ve been wondering if RE is still even remotely relevant -- if it’s needed in this modern age of gaming.  As it so happens, there’s never been more evidence for my concerns.

“Because ‘terr’ doesn’t have to end with ‘rist’.”  Christ.  I haven’t heard a line that painful since “If you change the future, you change the past” -- or pretty much everything else from FF13-2.  Okay, I know part of the appeal of RE is the hokey dialogue, but I never knew a line could hurt me so badly.  Why have some awful slogan pop up at the end of a promo talking about corrupt politicians and businessmen and also focused on the subject of bioterrorism?  Why would you create a slogan that has such a close allusion to wrist-slitting?  Why does that slogan sound like it’s from a rejected McDonald’s commercial, at best?  Why would the game, within minutes of starting a new playthrough, create such tonal inconsistency?

If it seems like I’m being hard on RE: Revelations 2…well, it’s because I am.  I don’t mean to, but after the complete debacle that was RE6, I was under the impression that Capcom would turn things around with its next installment.  Once upon a time, the company had the intention of making RE, Street Fighter, Dead Rising, and Monster Hunter into its main pillars; these days, the only thing we can reliably count on is a new version of Street Fighter.  Yeah, there’s a new MH making the rounds, but RE strikes me as the pillar on the brink of collapse.

While RE6 might not have single-handedly put Capcom in dire straits -- let’s not forget the underperformance of a number of outsourced titles -- its massive budget and failure to meet sales targets probably didn’t help matters.  But that’s all on the business side of things; gameplay-wise, it’s a disaster that would still be the bigger concern if the game had only sold ten copies overall.  I was under the impression that they had a winning formula with RE4, which to my knowledge blended the silly and serious elements pretty well on top of some airtight gameplay.  How could a company that defined and redefined survival horror have slipped up so much that they’re scrambling to figure out what to do?

As a RE non-fan, I don’t know exactly how to “fix” the franchise.  I don’t know any magic words that’ll automatically make things better, and help Capcom bounce back.  Even so, I can still say that there are things I’d like to see, and things that -- speaking personally -- would make me interested instead of a passive observer.  Plus, I want the franchise to be indisputably awesome, so that those who are fans can enjoy the franchise without a shred of doubt. 

So let’s focus on Revelations 2 for a bit.  I’m sure I won’t dump on it too hard.

Again, I don’t know the franchise too intimately.  But I do know about some of the characters, and how much they mean to people; that said, based solely on Reve2, I look at Claire Redfield and think to myself, “Wait, so THIS is the character everyone wanted to see again?”  For the life of me, I can’t see the appeal; I can’t get a grasp of her personality because she has virtually no emotional response to anything, and a good 85% of her dialogue is just spouting off mission objectives.  I know she’s been through zombie stuff before, but even then I’d expect her to react somehow to the screaming piles of guts shambling around.

Weirdly, I find myself liking newcomer Moira more than Claire, because she does show off some semblance of an emotional range -- fear, anger, frustration, cheer, kindness, and the like.  Despite that, I can’t say I actually like Moira, because it seems like every time she does something I like, she does three more things that make me groan.  I don’t have any problems agreeing with anyone who thinks she’s annoying, because she pretty much is; somehow, she manages to feel more like the tagalong kid than the tagalong kid in Barry’s half of the story.  Also, why does she not only look but feel so much like Fetch from Infamous: Second Son?

I’m wary of talking about the story (such as it is) before the game is 100% released, but I’ll say this: if it turns out that the main villain is a part of/wronged by good guy organization TerraSave, or if TerraSave turns out to be the bad guys all along, I’m gonna be pissed.  It’s just so obvious and hackneyed, and yet it’s so very possible for Reve2 to have something like that as the big twist…even though there’s barely any anchor to either the villain or the organization so far. 

Here’s the thing that really gets to me, though: the crux of the game’s story (reminiscent of 999’s story, which others have pointed out) is that people have been abducted by men in masks and carted off to participate in a sadistic game.  The twist this time is that the forced participants wear bracelets that measure their fear.  When a bracelet starts flashing -- as a result of maxed-out fear/stress -- then a toxin goes full blast and turns the participant into a monster.

And that, for me, just buries both the game and the franchise.

Maybe I’m being ignorant here, but I thought that by definition, “survival horror” meant that there would be some element of horror -- and with it, fear.  But according to Reve2, the entire crux of the game is to not feel fear, because it’s a plotline failure state.  (I’m also not 100% clear on why the baddie’s game is taking place; she does understand that fear is a good thing for humans to experience, right?  So contextually, the object of the game is to NOT experience the object of the game.  Given that, I have a question that not a single RE game I’ve seen yet has managed to answer satisfactorily: if the characters aren’t afraid, or even allowed to be afraid, then why should the player be afraid? 

That’s why, even if she has faults, I’d still say Moira’s the best character of the game yet.  Claire and Barry treat the monsters like business as usual -- like they’re just obstacles that need to be blasted apart.  That’s an incredible disservice to the creatures of the night (and day); sure, making them into enemies is part and parcel with any video game, but shouldn’t even the common enemy mean something more in a franchise like RE

I don’t have any problems admitting that the gameplay aspect of Reve2 is the best it’s ever been; I can’t confirm it since I haven’t played for myself, but I’ve seen it played extensively in front of me by two guys who have a strong attachment to the franchise.  You collect items and shoot monsters, just like you always have.  There’s a dodge mechanic so you don’t have to fumble around with tank controls or whatever the hell RE6 went for.  And yeah, working together with a partner to cover for each other’s weaknesses makes for a stronger co-op experience than RE5 ever did -- even if that means someone might get saddled with a defenseless girl against their will.

Despite that, I can’t help but feel like Reve2 could have been more -- and maybe should have been more.  In all fairness, the game is arguably a stopgap, a way for Capcom to restock the war chest as well as figure out just what they’re supposed to do next with the franchise (though the fact that they even have to ask the question isn’t the best sign).  It’s a game that’s on an eighth-gen console, but feels like it could have shown up just a year or two after RE4, graphical downgrade aside.

It makes me wonder: do people like RE because of what it is?  Because of what it could be?  Or because of what it once was?

Based on Reve2, it’s as if Capcom thinks it’s because of the latter.  The nostalgia-baiting is palpable, to say the least; you play as two long-MIA standbys in the canon who may or may not meet once all’s said and done.  There are references galore, no matter how forcibly they have to be shoved in (which isn’t too far-removed from the RoboCop remake reminding you of a significantly-better movie the “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar” line).  I haven’t shot a single monster in that game, but just looking at it gives me a sense of familiarity.  Like I’m being welcomed home.

But should I, or anyone else, feel welcomed home?  Should it all feel so familiar?  Should it let you do things “just like you always have”?

That’s a hard question to answer.  I’d bet that any given gamer would come up with a different answer, especially with their love/hate of the franchise factoring in.  But do you want to know what I think?  Honestly, I’d say that if any franchise needed a reboot, it’s this one.  RE6 -- and plenty of others, arguably -- showed that there’s an identity crisis plaguing the house that Mega Man built.  Figuring out what “survival horror” means in 2015 and beyond is a top priority; of course, casting away the baggage saddled on by an increasingly-complex, distressingly-aimless canon couldn’t hurt either.

Characters create opportunities.  Right now I’m hard-pressed to think of a single canon veteran who stands out from the rest in any appreciable way, and even the newcomers are relatively weak.  I know that’s not a problem for some people, but here’s the thing: if these characters -- or even one of them -- actually was amazing, would that detract anything from the game?  I don’t think it would.  But we can’t get that amazing character with the current crop because zombies are boring to them…meaning that by proxy, they’re boring to us.

I think -- or at least hope -- that Capcom understands its prized pig doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Plenty of games have shown alternate approaches to survival horror, and in some cases don’t even belong to the genre.  Their gameplay is such that you’re not just going through the motions; they’re doing their best to deliver on stressful-yet-cathartic experiences.  Chilling atmospheres, resource management, imposing enemies, whatever -- the possibilities are always there, just waiting to be tapped.  Why?  Because once upon a time, games like RE1, or 2, or 3, or whatever showed people just what can be done with the medium.

With all that in mind, the question remains: do we need the franchise anymore?  I say yes, but with a big caveat.  If RE7 can breathe new life into the proceedings through some unholy means -- a good new character, a tighter plot, impactful gameplay, a well-crafted world, whatever -- then it absolutely deserves to keep going.  Easier said than done, I know, but it’s not impossible.  I hope that Capcom understands that the stunning sales of the HD remaster are the result of the game being well-made, not just because people went “Hey, I remember playing this game!  NOW I WANT TO PLAY IT AGAIN!”

If, however, both the company and the franchise are content with spinning their wheels, then the franchise can burn for all I care.  RE had its time, but things have changed since then; what worked nearly twenty years ago isn’t guaranteed to work now.  RE might be relevant (enough) for now, but my guess is that it won’t take much for a new challenger to turn one of Capcom’s so-called pillars into dust.

Which brings me -- however briefly and begrudgingly -- to The Last of Us.

I have a lot of issues with that game.  A whole lot.  But I respect what it tried to do, even if it wasn’t necessarily successful (for me, at least).  It’s a game that tried its hardest to make the video game narrative relevant; give the combat weight; create people that mattered; drop the player smack dab in a harrowing world.  Moments of tranquility aside, it threatened to out-RE RE -- and given its reputation, it’s safe to say that it succeeded.

I’ve heard that Reve2 deliberately took elements from TLoU (and it shows), but that sounds like Capcom’s giving up before it even tries.  I don’t want the franchise to copy others; I want it to be something that others try to copy.  In its current form, that’s almost all RE has to offer, meaning that it might as well be on its death bed as far as I’m concerned.  But RE7 -- whenever it appears, and whatever form it takes -- is going to prove once and for all whether we need the franchise in our lives any longer.

I don’t know what Capcom’s going to do, or how they’ll do it.  But they’ve got a shot at it, at least.  Maybe that in itself is something to be thankful for.

And if they blow it?  Well, hell.  They can always bring back Rival Schools.

What?  I always wanted to play that.

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