Should Resident Evil abandon zombies?
Resident Evil has already had one rebirth after the lackluster Resident Evil 0, when Capcom took decisive action to mix up the standard formula and breathe new life into the weary series with Resident Evil 4. Two sequels and an unnumbered spinoff later, it feels like the series is on its last legs again in the wake of the abysmal Resident Evil 6. This time, though, with much of their visionary talent having defected from the company, I’m far less certain that Capcom can develop a cohesive plan for reinvigorating their old standby megaseller.
Personally, I wouldn’t be too upset if Resident Evil just faded away. Some great games have come out of this series, many of which are still worthwhile today. I’m also much more confident now of the preservation of the horror genre going forward without it. Particularly amongst smaller developers, there seems to be renewed interest in delivering games in this arena, and the quality of these new efforts is definitely there. And if Resident Evil is to survive as a popular brand that people remain enthusiastic for, I think radical changes are once again needed, and these changes will need to be informed by the new trends in the genre that are occurring outside of Capcom’s doors. Unfortunately, my lack of faith originates precisely from Capcom’s ability to perceive the new environment in which it needs adapt.
Although horror games are getting a bit of a new wind, “survival horror” in the vein of the classic Resident Evil or Silent Hill games is rather scarce. Those games were action games with a heavy emphasis on having to choose between offense or evasion. During a monster encounter, there was a calculation between fight or flight: can I successfully evade the enemies in this area and maneuver around them without getting hurt, or do I need to expend limited ammo to eliminate them as a threat? Modern horror games don’t really have this balance and instead gravitate toward one of the two extremes, being either heavily offense focused (e.g., Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Evil Within) or heavily evasion focused (e.g., Amnesia, Outlast). In the action-focused offensive games, protagonists are well-armed and empowered, but the enemies they face are mercilessly aggressive monstrosities capable of applying extreme violence (or sometimes extreme numbers) to overpower their otherwise formidable prey. On the other hand, the evasion-focused titles are more like Clocktower than Resident Evil: there are only a few powerful monsters who the protagonist must stealthily outmaneuver or conceal themselves from, as they are incapable of responding to the threat in kind.
Part of the reason the balance has disappeared is the result of advancing technology. The PSX Resident Evils had notorious “tank controls” that were a product of the PSX and Saturn controllers lacking analog sticks for smooth 360° movement. Consequently, sidestepping zombies and other monsters unscathed was not a simple trick, otherwise you would never need to consider attacking them. Similarly, aiming wasn’t particularly fluid as a result of the camera angles imposed by the pre-rendered backgrounds. Both control methods and graphics have improved since then, so these limitations would only appear in a game if they were self-imposed, and since gamers seem to be more frustrated by controls that deviate from accepted norms, developers rarely choose to implement old-school control schemes.
So where does that leave Resident Evil? Resident Evil 4 already took it down the path of being amongst the action-focused games, and probably for good reason. Resident Evil always gave the impression of being influenced by B-tier action movies, and combined with the fact that most of the protagonists are law enforcement agents, it’s logical that it would eventually move farther down that route. I don’t see the alternative, of Leon Kennedy running away from the monsters to hide under the bed, as being fitting for RE.
But still even with the action-focus, I feel that RE is lagging behind its counterparts in this area. My main problem with modern RE is that the enemies simply aren’t all that threatening. I felt Dead Space really exceled at making aggressive, dangerous monsters. When you hear a necromorph growling and snarling from down the hall, you know that it is coming straight for your throat, and when the creature is bearing down on Isaac, wildly firing at it won’t help. The player has to keep focus in the face of panic to strategically target limbs and appendages to neutralize the threat. For these reasons, the necromorphs maintain an ability to create tension and dread, even though Isaac is outfitted like a futuristic supersoldier. In contrast, the enemies from the last few REs have been relatively limp. Resident Evil 5 drove me crazy in this way. The monsters are definitely holding back in that game. For instance, majini would often charge at Chris and Sheva, only to stop short upon reaching them and sway back and forth for a few moments before making an attack. In reflection, even Resident Evil 4 had a similar problem with the Ganados. When you realize that these unnatural foes are playing with kid’s gloves, much of the tension disappears.
So what is my proposal? This might be sacrilege to some, but I say get rid of the zombies. And not just the shambling classic zombies, but the more intelligent Ganado-type enemies as well. As I discussed above, these sluggish enemies just aren’t that hazardous when the player is using a modern control scheme which allows them to outmaneuver such slow opponents easily. I know some might groan at this suggestion, as zombies tend to be central to the identity of Resident Evil, but should they be? There are so many more monsters in Resident Evil that are much more interesting, such as regenerators, lickers, hunters, scarmigliones, verdugos, etc. These are what the next RE should be looking at when developing new creatures. And these new creatures should be brutal, like necromorphs, unrelenting in their belligerence, which is necessary to outmatch the well-armed and combat-seasoned protagonists we have in these games. They’ve already sort of made the move in this direction as RE:Revelations mostly nixed the zombie-style enemies in favor of more grotesque mutants.
Some might complain that my plan might permanently take Resident Evil out of the “survival horror” milieu into what might be better categorized as “action horror.” My counterpoint would be that Resident Evil was never really a game about “survival” in the first place, and in modern gaming, that label is better reserved for games such as DayZ and State of Decay which are actually about survival in a zombie-ravaged world, not just ammo management.