How to revitalize a genre? When Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was released in 1987, Konami thought they were answering that question, although the industry and the audience weren’t mature enough to consider it. Some anger was to be expected, but no one imagined that its design would only be accepted ten years later with Symphony of the Night. In the space between both titles, Castlevania became a game aimed at a market; after Koji Igarashi took on the mantle of series producer, little or nothing changed. Eventually someone – maybe Igarashi himself – decided to look at the audience with newfound respect. Order of Ecclesia gave back friction to the combat, showed that “challenge” could once again be more than cublicles infested with repeating sprites, and that it had more to offer than bishōnen and spasmodic role-play. It only took eleven years since Symphony, and the result is closer to Rondo of Blood – the last “traditional” Castlevania with brains and brawn.
Part insurrection, part teenage whimsy, Resident Evil 5 was another victim of the same kind of public opinion although the erratic reception it got from critics and players had other reasons. Critics fired off the “racism” shots in the hopes of bringing maturity to videogame discussion; players pointed their fingers at Jun Takeuchi, the game’s producer, in the vain hope of electing him as sole responsible for a “terrible” change; Capcom, haunted by the same specter that ensnared Konami, stated that Resident Evil 6 would be a reboot of the series – even before RE5 was published. As if apologizing for the game.
Like other studios, Capcom has shown that even understanding the base design of their own games, they can apply the formula both spectacularly well and terribly wrong. But this wasn’t the case, and only critics desperately looking to remain relevant and a change fearing audience could have scared Capcom like that. In spite of the similarities that it shares with Resident Evil 4, the differences are where it goes beyond the sequel. It took a pretty slick format, only reconfiguring the necessary elements to create something recognizable (and still entirely worth of the Resident Evil name) but superior to what came before.
Yes, I am saying that Resident Evil 5 is better than Resident Evil 4.
After Shinji Mikami proved it was possible to subvert “tradition” (first with RE4′s combat sytem, later with the use of perspective in Resident Evil‘s remake), it fell upon Takeuchi to chronicle a second transformation. A terrible position to envy, given the praise laid upon Mikami’s game. But even though he is a spearhead in the larger design found in the japanese industry, RE4′s director couldn’t get rid of all the nostalgic garbage. A game’s strength is not only found on its technical feats – a lesson that the audience, like the case of Killzone fans, refuses to learn. As such, Leon Kennedy’s second adventure was an artless and rambling mess. RE4′s initial moments were powerful, that much is true: Silent Hill‘s imagery (the town lost among the mist), the latent violence in quiet communities (a sequence where Leon barricades himself in a house while creatures outside try to enter has as much of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” as it does Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” – and of course, countless Z movies), the ghostly qualities of Castlevania (both series share the fear of mutations and abnormal growth of people, insects and plants, a recurring trend that seeped into horror movies in the 1950s).
But as soon as you pump your fist into the air in celebration, numbness strikes with dwarves suffering from Napoleon complexes, spaniards looking to invade the United States, cannon fodder in S&M clothing and medieval cultists, a Coronel Kurtz wannabe who dreams of rebuilding a pharmaceutical company’s empire. A hodgepodge of ill developed ideas, made even worse with Capcom’s intention of shoving a skirt in it (who, in a “24” twist, is the north-american president’s daughter and on whom they want to implant the virus) and of delivering all that with pompous, boring theatrics (as seen in the painful conversations via radio between Leon and the antagonists). Ultimately, it’s worth its salt. Which isn’t much that much, but it’s certainly more than Code Veronica and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Fortunately the combat, and the controls used in the Wii version in particular, was a self-fulfilling prophecy: a triumph of Mikami’s rationality over the rabble who stamped their feet against “change”, and a triumph of motion controls in general and of their use in shooters in particular. When applied to its best moments – battling out against Ganados in adverse circumstances, for instance – it swept one over like only Gears of War could.
Until Resident Evil 5 came along, that is.
RE5 is more honest, but also more expansive, in what it does. The worth of the Las Plagas as a narrative driving force is to continue the T-Virus and its subsequent versions: it doesn’t matter the name, just the consequence of what it brings to the action. It just happened that said action went on to become “a white dude shoots some black dudes in Africa” for the critics, and suddenly, certain people don’t seem to feel right with Africa being depicted as a country populated with black people. If it’s true that Capcom was unfortunate in their comments, saying they only thought about “entertainment” and not in any “political issues” (the use of image itself can be a political act, even if an unintentional one), a large portion of racist accusations revelead an immense white guilt whose authors were trying to wash away at all expenses, and RE5 just happened to be the closest scapegotat. It’s not that the parallels about ethnic cleansing and the effects of AIDS weren’t obvious (which didn’t stop the herd from bleating in unison instead of looking at other angles), but where were these voices of contention when Resident Evil 4 showed a north-american killing Spanish people while a blonde teenager cheered up on the violence? Where were critics when Leon made his way into Spanish homes to confiscate their money? Spanish people who, by the way, were represented as dirty (from their clothing to the slaughter they perpetuated), obscurantist (look, a parallel: Saddler was a chatolic who influenced the God-fearing populace) and xenophobic (look, another parallel: the Ganados treated foreigners with insults and aggressions). Curiously, parallels common to hispanophobia and the Black Legend.
Yes, stereotyping exists in RE5. But it’s always been present in the entire series (simply look at Ada Wong’s exaggerated asian features, to name one example). That certain people have only noticed this, in a game that envolves black people in Africa, says more about the commentators than it does about the game. What’s the point of a videogame “globalization” when there’s still so much provincialism? I can hardly wait about thesis showing the post-colonial implications of Cammy stamping on Dhalsim’s face, or of Ken punching T. Hawk, in Street Fighter.
On the other side of the coin, gamers saw the title as “an action game dumbed down for the masses”, as something that isn’t “survival horror”. But RE5 is simply a departure from survival horror’s deification, not a farewell to the genre itself. Takeuchi and his crew don’t come across as more or less critical of what came before; what motivated them to abandon that gangrenous design in previous titles has more to do with a transformation of how one understands, and of how we understand, horror. Handing over this testimony is important because it demands attention to the context – of something we don’t need to see anymore (forced perspective, puzzle solving) but still need to feel (impending danger) – and to its expression. Hard job considering Resident Evil rarely did the term “horror” proud. You have cheap, Shyalaman tricks like cutting off the silence in an area with the equivalent of an orchestra’s reaction to the conductor being headshot, and then you have moments where the only thing you can do is stumble up to a door trying to run away. Where we’re out of ammunition without warning. Where we run to save our partner’s life, and by association, our own. The difference between inner inquietude and Pavlovian tricks is subtle, but important, and it was only during the last two games that Capcom gave up on cheap tricks to formulate a more physical language in which said inquietude could manifest. The result, as expected, was that when “fans” and “purists” of the series finally realized that without illogical puzzles and arbitrary object hunting Resident Evil was just about killing zombies and trying to survive the ordeal, they decided to blame the messenger rather than the message.
And the message is: the fear of – and the curiosty for – the unknown and the lurking horror is not the only way to instill some horror, some dread. Static camera angles are a means, sometimes a very good means, but not an end.
The combat and the linearity don’t spark imagination and doubt as they did but they highlight another concern, that of fighting for survival at all times. No, RE5 does not have moments such as a Licker passing by a police station window, not even lightnings revealing where Ganados are hiding in a rainy night, but even those were scant triumphs in the series’ history. What’s still truly gripping is the dynamic of the moment: when five infected try to kill our wounded and underpowered characters, when an infected tries to hit you with a shove even though his head has been blown off mere seconds ago, when we’re grabbed and the only option is to intimidate the controller to let us get away from that deadly embrace. At least one eyebrow is raised when internet warriors clamored to have RE5 separated from the previous games, because it was “completely different”, because it didn’t had the series’ “staples”. Yet, nearly everything assumed to be a “staple” of Resident Evil is a delusion. RE5 “isn’t scary” because it’s set in broad daylight… When most of the areas in the previous games inspired no dread – many were were garishly colored; impossibly bright in some cases, even. RE5 “needed puzzles” so we had “something to think about”… As if finding keys and solving sliding block puzzles were highly cerebral activities and not just a way of making up for a lack of content. RE5 “is just an action game because of its weaponry”… As if Magnums, shotguns, missile launchers and similar weren’t there from day one.
God bless the hardcore gamers and the rethorical prisons they built for themselves.
Just like RE4, RE5 amplifies what the series has been built on. Whatever the MacGuffin in our sights, the objective is always the same: a territorial battle conquered step by step, searching for pockets of safety amidst the chaos. They’re rough and sudden moments, which push us towards confrontation but always armed not only of the answers (fight or run) but also of the questions (where, how, when). It’s a psychology inherent to boxing – understanding space, analyzing your adversary, execute precise and cirurgical moves, maximizing and minimizing the distance between bodies. Precision is a key factor, actually, as one can observe in the ammunition economy (the preference given to pistols, ideal to stun or hit critical points in enemies), the mutual help between the characters (the combos are physical, weighty, but also help to save ammo), and in the fatal blows which allow to dispatch an infected once and for all.
Those blows in particular bring an intelligent level of risk and reward to the combat. When dropped, an infected is prone to an instant kill. Reacting to this context sees Chris’ leg rise and fall like a hatchet, as if Death swapped its sickle with some Timberland; meanwhile, Sheva’s impaling is more solene but no less effective. Yet, these are a ruse: victory over an infected bring only small comfort, a small safety blanket, which suddenly dilute in the larger scale of those little big conflicts. Finishing off a zombie requires proximity and in many cases, giving up a safe or strategic spot, and taking chances to end the threat. During the first encounters, it’s away to effectively kill a zombie, a way to save ammo, a sigh of relief; later on, it becomes a bigger risk when certain Las Plagas variants don’t die as easy. The hard lesson to learn: the tension that was only found ocasionally in older titles is now embebbed across the entire experience. The fear of falling prey to the horde’s hunger, of not being able to fight back: that’s always been the staple of RE. It still is.
The story is… Over the top, as usual, in the fight against the whims of chaos-spreading corporations. Chris Redfield is a cartoon version of himself but it’s a completely understandable evolution: from carboard personality in Resident Evil, to boy scout in Code Veronica, and finally as a last “action hero” in RE5. The biceps may be a laughing matter, but both the muscles and his quick and agressive humor make him a strong character in the RE lineup, far, far away from Jill’s sugar coated drama in Nemesis and the bedtime confessions of Leon and Claire. Sheva Alomar is right up his alley, never becoming the same damsel in distress as Ashely did, and that their relationship never goes into romance novel territory is a decision to applaud. The antagonists, though, are ridiculous: power hungry, betrayed, finding last ditch efforts in accelerated mutations, killed off. But this was never Silent Hill – holes in the narrative cheese, painful dialogues and vain personalities have made the series what it is. The exception is Wesker. He may be a “comic book” villain, has Chris himself suggests in the final fight, but he’s so much more than that. He’s become an inexhaustible character: a goon, a manipulator, a puppet master, an action man, a self-proclaimed God. The final moments come full circle: it’s the fight that was stolen from us at the end of Code Veronica, it’s the clash between two of the main characters in the story, it’s a Tyrant by which all future Tyrants should guide themselves by.
As a sequel, and maybe because it is a sequel in a 14 year old series, it offers a more low-key portrayal of its myths and monsters. No great explanations or fictions. As she tries to explore the common past between Chris and Wesker, Sheva’s promised an explanation at the end of the mission, outside the players’ view. Chris and Jill’s relationship is also clear and straight no chaser – they were partners, a mission went bad, he got on with his life. There’s nothing else to be said. As for the creatures, what is there to say? Kijuju is another Raccoon City. It doesn’t matter from and to where, it doesn’t matter from what: they’re running for their lives. Is it necessary to humanize inhuman creatures? The presentation, throughout, is honest, very “matter of fact”, very much “what it is”. I’d rather have that than Bayonetta‘s monochrome hyperbole.
What doesn’t work as well in RE5, in terms of keeping up a constant tension, is also what undermined RE4: our arsenal escalates in power while our enemies remain the same, and the consequence is that further reruns chip away at the challenge. Because this happens the best experience will be, inevitably, the first, when the tools of war at our disposal are still week and survival is much more of a pressing concern. It’s also why, whether by virtue or by default, the true spirit of the game is a lot more noticeable in The Mercenaries mode. The Mercenaries is where the formula started in Resident Evil 2‘s Extreme Battle mode peaks out – a series of challenges that constantly test our reflexes, planning, resource management; little big moments that reveal themselves as an ode to Robotron 2084 with every tick of the clock. Something like Dead Rising almost managed to be – which, coincidentally (or maybe not) was also developed by Capcom. In a certain way, it harkens back to a Metal Gear Solid, a Bionic Commando Rearmed: the true depth of their ideas were only found in both titles’ virtual missions.
Instead of complaining about “tank controls”, I’d say that the controls are exactly as they should be. Why not move and shoot at the same time? For the same reason that crucifying RE5 as a “mere” action game is ridiculous: because RE is not Contra. Moreover: those who wanted “something to think about” has it right there. The inventory no longer forces a Tetris minigame on us, nor is it any longer analogous to a Final Fantasy random battle: it’s always within reach but also making us mindful of how we play. That one has to stop to use their inventory is not a problem, in the same way waiting for the orderly construction of units in an RTS isn’t a problem: it’s about weighing the pros and cons, of making every action something deliberate, something to ponder. It’s never about being a run’n'gun, never a “mere” action title. Another lesson, another non-negotiable truth: mechanics and perspectives do not make a genre. What’s more horrific: access an inventory that moves us away from the action and which offers the luxury of time and tranquility, or an inventory where you need to make a choice while the hordes don’t stop running in your direction?
And… Well, RE5 is not entirely conviced of its own ambition and sometimes seems like a “greatest hits” compilation. Familiarity is always a benefit and a hindrance. When it works, we get attention to detail. A perfect example is the Ndesu, the counterpart to RE4′s El Gigante. In RE4 we watch a cutscene that wastes too much time making sure we think of the giant as ugly, dirty and mean. With the Ndesu, although he also carries such a scene, it goes straight to the point. It’s infered the team was killed by him, the creature’s brutality is further cemented when it kills the last team member, and his visual design is shaped in a way that few seem to appreciate: the skin color, the beard, the eyes, the skin texture – everything points to an ancient creature. One look at the corpses he carries around the waist gives the idea of a predator that has moved in that area for years, unlike the El Gigante who is literally dragged into the action at the last minute. When it fails, we have terribly generic bio-organic weapons, sections which riff off Indiana Jones, the same type of milicias from RE4. It’s the same shade of banal that haunted Lost Planet.
The bosses are more endearing as they carry on the torch of the gameplay system rather than by their visual inspiration. The underwater creature that dragged Leon around – which may have been the best Moby Dick minigame ever made – was laughable, but the serpent in which Irving shapeshifts into seems much more at home in something like Monster Hunter. There are polarizing moments just about everywhere. After defeating two Lickers in an underground complex, Chris and Sheva reason they wouldn’t last against a whole hoard. Moments later, cue the horde, in a typical Aliens scenario. At some point, in the container-ladden entrails of a ship, an obese soldier whips out a Gatling gun while landmines glow in the scenery; I felt dirty, as if Solid Snake was flashing me his private parts.
In the end, Resident Evil 5 is glorious and stupid and brilliant. That it has the nerve to be all that unrepentantly, that it has the heart to take out the trash that’s polluted the series while giving new breath to what really works, makes its execution part fascinating, part broken, but terribly underrated. It’s certainly not the best in the series – that would be Resident Evil’s remake – but considering it was seen by Capcom as the coda of the series, it’s no wonder it goes balls out, and it would be more than a fitting ending to the series. In the endgame battle there’s a moment where Chris, incredibly composed, pushes, kicks and punches a huge boulder. “Ridiculous”, many said.
Really? I can’t think of a better retort to the balls Mikami threw at us in RE4.