According to industry insider Serkan Toto, Capcom will officially announce the release of Resident Evil 7 at this summer’s E3. Described as a “clean slate”, Resident Evil 7 is expected to be a return to form for the series, embracing the “horror roots” of the once great franchise.
Resident Evil is one of the cornerstone franchises in Capcom’s library, so the announcement of a new numbered entry for the series isn’t surprising. And you’ll be forgiven if you don’t share my enthusiasm for another sequel – Resident Evil 6 was…divisive to say the least.
Because it sucked.
But let’s forget about RE6 for a moment and look at the series as a whole. Few survival horror franchises have been as influential to the medium as Resident Evil, with the biggest entries in the series ushering in new eras in video games.
While it wasn’t technically the first survival horror game (even though it coined the term), 1996’s Resident Evil popularized the genre. If you are too young to remember, the early part of the decade was a time of colorful 16bit sprites and cartoon mascots overflowing with 90s ‘attitude’. The jump from those early games to a three dimensional haunted house, complete with horror movie cliches and hilariously bad acting, was substantial – so much so that I’ve never personally experienced another jump that I felt was as dramatic.
It worked because it successfully flipped your expectation on its head. Most often, video games are meant to be an empowering experience – you power up, level up, or upgrade your arsenal until nothing can withstand your might. Survival horror on the other hand, took your ammunition away, limited your abilities to carry your weapons, and paired you up against foes many times stronger than you. In a time of magic mushrooms and 1-ups, Resident Evil made you feel human.
As games often do, Resident Evil’s mechanics aged poorly, and very quickly at that. By the time of Resident Evil 3, they’d become downright stale.
But 2005’s Resident Evil 4 successfully revived the series like a massive injection of the T-virus into a freshly killed doberman. A new over the shoulder aiming mechanic was introduced and ammo was more plentiful, allowing the player the freedom to choose their targets and pump them full of shotgun shells. To compensate, enemy movement speed and agility was greatly increased, and rather than a few shambling zombies, players faced hordes of mutated freaks. If that weren’t enough, Resident Evil’s convoluted plot was mostly thrown out the window.
Despite the greater attention to action and gunplay, Resident Evil 4 still managed to be an intense experience with a claustrophobic and terrifying atmosphere. It was was such a hit that it’s still regularly regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, and it’s gameplay influenced survival horror games throughout an entire console generation.
Not everything changed for the better, though. If ever there was a better example of a series being a victim of it’s own success, I haven’t found it. Since Resident Evil 4, the series has had a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of whether it’s supposed to be a survival horror or action game. While Resident Evil 6 is the most egregious example of the problem, with it’s motorcycle chase scenes and flip kicking, nothing was sillier than Resident Evil 5’s boulder punching finale. I’ve always thought the problem was one of escalation, where Capcom wanted to bring bigger and more exciting things to gamers, but got confused and thought that meant bigger set pieces, bigger biceps and more bullets. They were wrong.
But a return to form is good news for Capcom, and better news for us. Monsters aren’t scary in and of themselves, they’re scary because they make you feel powerless – and that goes right out the window when you’re firing machine guns on the back of a motorcycle. Real horror is a visceral reaction, a reflex that’s programmed into our brains to trigger our survival instinct (hence survival horror). A good horror game instills that reaction in you even when you’re walking down a silent hallway, or when you catch a glimpse of something just off screen and you don’t know what it was, or when you see that a creature guarding something you need but you’re unsure if you’ve got the ammo to take it down. It’s an ever present threat, and continuous feeling of dread. That’s what made the other Resident Evil’s great. That’s what made survival horror games worth playing.
Capcom has proven in the past that they are capable of reinventing Resident Evil for a new age. Can they do it again? I think it’s possible, but I can understand skepticism. We’ll just have to wait and see, but only a little while longer- E3 2016 is only three weeks away!