The immaculate and horrific atmosphere of Resident Evil is clearly the product of a game whose every single piece was designed to serve its ability to create tension
In the suburbs of Raccoon City, rumblings of sinister occurrences begin to emerge. Cannibalized corpses start being spotted with an ominous frequency, and many residents that live close to the outskirts of the town simply go missing without a trace of explanation. Looking for answers, the local police department summons its elite squad, called Special Tactics and Rescue Service (or S.T.A.R.S.), which proceeds to investigate the thick forest that surrounds the area where most of the happenings have been reported.
As further indication that something is indeed amiss, it does not take long for the group’s headquarters to completely lose contact with the deployed team, forcing yet another unit of the service to be sent to the site. In the middle of the night, carried aboard a helicopter, five of the city’s best officers step into the very same woodland that has been seemingly eating unsuspecting roamers alive. Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker, Joseph Frost and Barry Burton sweep the vicinity for clues, and quickly locate the wrecked remains of the aircraft that had taken their disappeared colleagues to the region; sadly, though, what they see is not encouraging, for inside it they catch a glimpse of the half-eaten body of the machine’s pilot.
Not too long afterwards, a wild pack of dogs is heard barking in the distance. As the progressively loud sounds they emit get visibly closer, the tension of the group rises and they prepare for the worst. No amount of readiness, however, could have equipped them for what was to come, for the clearly mutated and greatly violent animals soon fall upon the team. While attempting to get away, Joseph Frost is killed, the pilot of the helicopter flees in cowardice, and the quartet that is still standing is left with no option but to run aimlessly through the forest.
Much to their luck, not only do they eventually stumble upon a large mansion which seems abandoned yet quite well-kept, but they are also apparently welcomed into it, as they discover the double doors of the entrance are pleasantly unlocked, allowing them to find a safe haven inside and keep the hellish hounds at bay. Little do they know, though, that their relief is, besides temporary, extremely misguided, because – inside the manor – their operation is about to take a turn for the eerie and the gruesome, as the hours they spend in it are what constitute one of the greatest survival horror games of all time: the original Resident Evil.
Although the now immensely popular franchise certainly did not invent the survival horror genre, it unquestionably played a big role in making the gameplay style a mainstream commercial force. And despite many of the action-focused installments the property has gained in recent years, its identity remains so closely tied to the concept of horror games that they are almost synonyms. Much of the credit for those achievements must be laid by the feet of the first Resident Evil, which was originally released for the PlayStation, received a thorough remake on the GameCube, and subsequently got a brand new coat of high-definition paint to land – among many other consoles – on the Switch.
That last take on the debut operation of S.T.A.R.S. carries all the improvements in gameplay and story executed by the remade version, being – essentially – an HD port of that title. Thanks to the natural visual enhancements acquired in the transition, though, the game obviously rises as the definitive portrait of that historical moment, as its superior graphical quality notably augments the central trick that turns horror-based experiences into superbly enthralling rides: the ability to fully immerse audiences in their environment.
And Resident Evil is quick to get to that point. As soon as the four officers that make it to the mansion realize that their only choice is to explore it, they split up. And that is when players – in control of either Jill or Cris – head out on their own in search for information. The choice between the two characters is more important than the mere selection of a male or female avatar. For starters, Chris is stronger, faster, and better at handling weapons, and the game balances those advantages by filling up his adventure with more enemies and giving them more resistance. Moreover, while Jill’s inventory has eight slots available for guns, healing items, and other assets; Cris’ only holds six empty spaces, pushing those that go through the game as him to be slightly more careful with the management of their pockets.
Distinctions between both, however, run much deeper than that, as the quests tackled by the two protagonists, though taking place over the exact same map, are effectively different in nature, nicely boosting the title’s replay value. Other than altering the story itself, as the cast of sidecharacters they encounter and the events they go through are not completely identical, choosing one over the other also changes gameplay, because where Jill is able to use her lock pick to open a few doors, Chris has no such luxury, having to rely on finding small keys to access those rooms and – consequently – being forced to clear an additional group of challenges to get to the end of a journey that ends up being somewhat harder than that of his partner.
Regardless of the path they pick, Resident Evil will lure players into its putrid claws with the same overall style of gameplay. The mansion and its immediate surroundings, which are also traversed, form one large self-contained world that is very much like a maze. Surely, as they enter a new room, Jill and Chris can promptly open the map and see its outline as well as all doors it contains, with their color indicating whether they are locked or not, which goes a long way towards making navigation easy. Nevertheless, through most of the mission, there is a very alluring balance between what can be explored and what is blocked, meaning that rarely will the game be very obvious about where players need to go by leaving just one path available.
Resident Evil offers no blatant clues, no bright markers, and even no indirect guidance, because it knows that its qualities only tend to grow when its experience is stripped to its bare basics; by removing the usual assistances and design vices present in a game, it moves many steps away from being one, actually emerging as what it essentially aims to be: a nightly stroll through the grounds of a mansion that contains dark secrets somehow tied to the mysterious occurrences that kick the quest off.
Finding scattered notes and other documents – which provide looks into the plot – around the house becomes all the more engaging when one does not know either what is happening or if they are going down the right path. Opening a door that leads to uncharted territory has its heart-pounding effects enhanced when one wonders if they are even supposed to go there in the first place. And the feeling of solving a puzzle to acquire a key or a new item that will potentially open the way forward is glorious but not totally sweet when one is often not entirely sure of what to do with the asset they just pocketed.
It is as so that Resident Evil advances, with tension overwhelming players for every lock they open, for every hallway they turn into, and for every slightly out of place noise they hear. It is relentless discomfort seeping in from all corners: oozing from a myriad of distinct scenarios that, although varied, are always threatening and dark; emanating from a soundtrack that, taking advantage of the minimalism of silence, punctually ruptures the quietness via disturbing sound effects and haunting tunes; and flowing out of gameplay that is always pushing the protagonists against all sorts of walls.
Resident Evil, as such, shines not just because of its atmosphere, but also due to how its lack of linearity forces players to walk into the dangerous and the sinister with a high degree of frequency. And in that context, its puzzles, which have Jill and Chris going all around the place looking for items that will have an effect somewhere else, work as the meat of the quest, which can extend for over twelve hours. The main characteristic of the game, though, lies in its survival component. The mansion and its surroundings are brimming with zombies and other sorts of genetically altered beasts that will go after gamers as soon as they sense their presence.
Sometimes, the rotting creatures are just hanging out inside rooms and corridors; occasionally, they are hidden in positions that have been devilishly picked to allow them to catch the heroes off guard and cause players to have genuine jump scares; and, every once in a while, they will be used in the construction of orchestrated segments that pair up horror and action. It may be true that the most basic and common foe, the now traditional flesh-eating living dead, is slow; likewise, it is absolutely certain that – in any of the three available levels of difficulty – none of the bad guys are too hard to dispose of. Still, Resident Evil challenges gamers quite a bit. Firstly, because its scenarios are so tight that they leave almost no room for escape; and, secondly, because resources are terribly scarce.
It is in that second twist that the Resident Evil finds much of its fair brutality. The ink that is used on typewriters to save one’s progress; the herbs and sprays that allow the agents to recover their health; the ammo for the good range of weapons characters have at their disposal; and the daggers and stun guns that can be used to push away zombies if they happen to grab the heroes; all of those come in restricted amounts found hidden around the game’s area. As such, investigating rooms and drawers to maximize acquired resources is a must.
Furthermore, one has to choose their battles, as both bullets and healing assets are not abundant, and standard zombies – which require a handful of shots to go down for good – come back to life as a stronger, faster, and angrier version if they are not decapitated with a lucky bullet to the head or incinerated, something that can only be achieved by using a lighter and a combustible fluid, which is, like everything else, limited. With those restraints, Resident Evil does not just amplify the tension that already exists in exploring its terrifying setting; it also forces players to be as good in running away as they are in shooting, requiring them to plan the steps they take carefully lest they exhaust their resources. The impressive and fruitful effort Resident Evil devotes towards extracting as much apprehension as possible out of its adventure is certainly praiseworthy; however, it is impossible to ignore that it is also directly responsible for the few – but considerable – issues that hold it back.
The first one exists in the relation between camera and controls. Like a movie director, the game shows the action on the screen from the angle it deems best for each situation, meaning that every room, every hallway, and every other piece of the mansion and its surroundings is seen from a fixed perspective. The problem is that, almost invariably, the same slice of scenario – that is, a bedroom or a corridor – will have different cameras that will be activated according to where the character is, meaning that the game has plenty of abrupt cuts that come out of nowhere.
Although beautiful and suspenseful, this strategy has the negative side-effect of completely altering how the analog stick guides the protagonist; in other words, when the camera shifts and the perspective changes, the direction that was leading Jill and Chris one way may suddenly cause them to go to a completely distinct point. It is a setup that creates a good deal of problems, as players have to adjust to the new controls on the fly, which is sometimes borderline impossible to do, generating plenty of instances when one can: move towards a zombie they were actually running away from; get confused regarding where they were heading to; lose sight of an enemy they were trying to shoot; or simply fumble with the directional for a while. In that same regard, Resident Evil at times displays the cheap habit of hiding foes in corners that are not visible until players are actually there, making the quest feature quite a few moments where being attacked is almost inevitable.
The adventure’s final flaw, meanwhile, is related to a very important part of its survival aspect: the limited number of items Jill and Chris can carry with them. Given the weapon they use and the extra ammo for it – which are optional to hold but somewhat necessary – are already enough to occupy two spots, the characters are left, respectively, with six and four slots for everything else. The problem is that Resident Evil has a lot of assets lying around the mansion, whether they are new weapons, bullets, healing potions, and more than two dozen items that are tied to the puzzles that need to be solved. If, on one hand, it is true that the tight space means players need to always think about what they will take with them, hence feeding the claustrophobic and helpless aura of the journey, the restriction creates some frustration.
If one’s pockets are full and they wish to pick up something else they found, such task is simply impossible, because items cannot be discarded or dropped; they have, instead, to be deposited into item boxes located around the map, which will pave the way to a lot of empty backtracking. Similarly, it is not rare to arrive, after much exploring and zombie-avoiding, at a place where an important item is needed only to find out the characters do not have it with them, which – once more – forces extra trips, sometimes through dangerous territory, to the nearest item box. It is an annoying cycle that is as much part of Resident Evil as the horror and the survival, but despite its prominent presence, it is not able to detract a lot from the overall quality of the game.
The immaculate and horrific atmosphere of Resident Evil is, then, clearly the product of a game whose every single piece was designed to serve its ability to create tension. Sometimes, that subordination works for the best, as it is the case of its frightening scenarios, its calculated soundtrack, its obscure and fragmented storytelling approach, its controlled yet open-ended exploration, its ominous puzzles, and its dedication towards putting players in situations where life is only maintained through grueling survival. Sadly, that focus also causes a couple of considerable slips, which come to the surface in its constantly shifting and fixed camera angles as well as in the extreme implementation of its inventory system.
As big as these problems may be, though, Resident Evil is just too successful in mixing genuine horror with engaging gameplay to be contained by any of that. Once it starts, its infectious suspense breaks through whatever physical barriers stand on its way, quickly surrounding gamers and immersing them inside a thriller that tests one’s capacity to both be resilient and not look away.