*Review based on the PS4 release*
Some games are timeless. Though the technology and the hardware keep moving forward, and the nature of gaming changes drastically in relatively short periods of time, some games just deny age and hold up as perennial classics no matter how much things change. Other games, however, age greatly over time. Whether through the refinements of game mechanics or simply a pioneering title slowly revealing its lack of anything other than its novelties, some games just age like milk.
Unfortunately for Resident Evil, it strongly evokes the latter category.
Resident Evil was a pioneer in the industry, setting a standard for survival-horror games, and launching one of gaming’s most popular franchises. But the sad reality is that the original Resident Evil is quite the product of its time. Though it was influential, Resident Evil now feels archaic and dated, with even the alterations made for the PS4 release doing little to cover its glaring blemishes.
To be fair, the game actually succeeds pretty darn well with its horror elements. It’s mutated zombies, undead dogs, and other monsters all evoking a good dose of terror. And the old mansion that serves as the game’s setting gives off an appropriately creepy atmosphere.
Resident Evil’s story sees the player take control of either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, two members of S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics And Rescue Service), who have been sent to an old mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City to investigate a series of murders, after losing contact with the previous team of S.T.A.R.S. who set out for the mansion.
As you might expect, members of the previous team are soon found dead within the mansion, being devoured by zombies. It is then up to the player to uncover the mysteries behind the recent horrors of Raccoon City, and ultimately, escape the mansion with their life.
It’s an appropriate plot for the game, and would feel right at home in any horror/suspense flick (the game’s original voice cast was so infamously bad it gave the game a terrific B-movie appeal. The re-releases re-recorded the dialogue. It’s still bad, but no longer so bad it’s funny).
Another highlight of the game is how it thought of ways to make traditional gameplay mechanics work within the game’s narrative. Players have to find first-aid sprays to regain lost health, and saving is used via typewriter, for example. There’s never a sense that any element of the game’s world was compromised in translating it into the game itself.
Both playable characters have slight variations as well, with Jill having a larger inventory, more firepower and a lock-pick for easier access to certain areas and items (“the master of unlocking”), while Chris may not be able to carry as much, but is more durable and able to take more damage. There are even some narrative differences between the two characters, with certain members of the supporting cast being more prevalent in one character’s story arc than the other, and other small, appreciated changes.
Where Resident Evil ultimately stumbles, however, is in its controls. If you play the game with its original control scheme, pushing up always moves the character forward, while pressing left or right changes which direction they’re facing. It’s an example of the “tank controls” that started appearing during the PSOne era that just feel so awkward and cumbersome when playing today.
The re-release provides an updated control method, with the character moving more intuitively with the directional presses themselves, but they only help so much when the game’s camerawork leaves so much to be desired.
Resident Evil has a constantly fixed camera, with each room and chamber having its own camera angles. Oftentimes, moving from one side of a larger room to the other will result in a drastic change in camera angles. The bad part is, most of these angles are far from ideal, and even if manage to get a hang of the controls for the character, the constantly switching camera angles are just so jarring.
The game has a few other quirks, with the constant pausing to switch weapons and inventory slowing the pace of the game considerably, and simply trying to aim your weapon at targets is a convoluted ordeal. Resident Evil also purposefully reserves its extra ammunition, as to make the player feel more vulnerable to play into the game’s horror atmosphere. On its own, the shortage of ammo is a smart move, but combine it with the aforementioned abysmal aiming, and you’ll probably find that most of whatever ammo you can find is quickly wasted shooting at the air.
I can certainly respect a lot of what Resident Evil accomplished in its day. The way it builds its atmosphere is effective, the more puzzle-based elements bring out the better aspects of the game’s design, and for a remaster of a 1996 video game, the PS4 release looks pretty good. But actually controlling the game feels like an absolute mess when played today. Not only do the characters’ controls feel archaic, but the camerawork is downright dizzying, and other gameplay elements that might otherwise be novel are made frustrating due to the controls.
Resident Evil may be a revolutionary title, but it’s certainly not a timeless one. At least it paved the way for some more polished sequels. We can all be grateful for that.