With ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’ now in theaters, we bring you a ‘Resident Evil’ REtrospective. Plus: What RE game titles to try and what to skip.
Since the first title’s release in 1996, the Resident Evil franchise has meant a lot of different things to gamers. Some who were around for the first titles prefer the original trilogy, having developed a soft spot for the games’ tank controls and unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Others who may have discovered the series around the time of its renaissance with Resident Evil 4 may prefer the high-octane action over the creeping dread of the earlier titles. And some may be approaching Resident Evil 7: Biohazard with guarded enthusiasm, with its perspective change and all familiar faces from previous titles seemingly (as of the time of this writing) dropped. Regardless, without Resident Evil, video games likely wouldn’t have seen the words “survival” and “horror” together, one of the most popular and long-lasting subgenres in gaming.
You might be surprised to learn the long-running franchise, though it’s gone through many reinventions and recalibrations over the years, started as a proposed remake of another game, Sweet Home, which was also developed by Capcom. After deciding instead to create a fresh IP inspired by George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, Capcom began work on Biohazard. Known as Resident Evil here — a switch this writer is still confused about, given how much cooler Biohazard sounds and how much better it would fit with every title following the first — the game was released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996 and was met with near universal praise.
The title begins with a team of SWAT-like officers — called STARS in the RE universe — investigating the disappearance of their fellow officers. They find themselves pursued by a pack of reanimated Dobermans and stumble upon a secluded mansion. Choosing between Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, players are tasked with searching the mansion for clues, solving puzzles and unearthing the conspiracy surrounding the shadowy Umbrella Corporation. As with point-and-click adventure games, players have to use their wits to solve puzzles, sometimes inspecting items to find the secrets hidden within otherwise mundane items. They have to balance their limited inventory space by storing health items in favor of ammunition, or vice versa. This adds a degree of realism to the game, since a person can have only so many pockets, right? And to double the tension: the number of times a player can save their game is limited to the finite supply of ink ribbons scattered throughout the mansion. Going hours without saving and knowing all that progress might be lost unless you find another ink ribbon, for me personally, is one of the biggest appeals to Resident Evil, only compounded by the need to think about what to bring out of storage for the next leg of the mission. On top of that is the need to plan and make every bullet count (instead of running and gunning), the core aspect of good survival-horror.
Resident Evil was later ported to Windows and Sega Saturn and saw a Director’s Cut version the following year. It was remade for the Nintendo GameCube and then later ported to the Wii with an HD remaster of the beloved remake — aka REmake — having hit PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in late 2016. I recently went through it again and can personally attest it holds up — in atmosphere, pacing, music, puzzles and action.
Work began immediately on a sequel to the surprise hit. With an increased budget and a much higher scope for both the game’s story and set pieces, Resident Evil 2 was released on January 21, 1998 — a year still considered one of the best in gaming history. Like its predecessor, the sequel received outstanding reviews. Players cited 2’s improved graphics, atmosphere and setting, securing its position close behind Resident Evil 4 as one of the most well-reviewed installments in the series. As before, players were given the choice between Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie police officer who’s having the worst first day ever, and Claire Redfield — little sister of Chris Redfield — but instead of staying in one locale as in the previous title, players explore the whole of mid-apocalypse Raccoon City.
The Trilogy Made Complete
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was released on September 22, 1999. While the third in the trilogy didn’t push the graphical fidelity forward too much, players were given some other new mechanics to use in battle, including a dodge mechanic. Players were also tasked with being constantly pursued by Nemesis, one of the Umbrella Corporation’s newest ill-advised creations. This added a fresh layer of tension to Resident Evil, which was, up until this point, often plodding, careful progression. A version of this concept was introduced in Resident Evil 2 with the side story featuring a relentless pursuer named Mr. X — but in my opinion, Nemesis was much scarier both in looks and what he was capable of, one-hit-kills included. There was a very warm reception to Nemesis, with both critics and fans enjoying the return to Raccoon City. The developers tried a few interesting things with Nemesis. Throughout Jill Valentine’s journey, the player is tasked with making split-second choices that serve to branch the story in small, interesting ways. Quick Time Events would become more prominent in later installments, almost to a degree of oversaturation in the case of Resident Evil 6.
A Perfect Swerve
Resident Evil 4 was scrapped multiple times before becoming the title we now know and love. It has been ported to many other platforms since its release on the GameCube. Interestingly, just recently one of the original drafts hit YouTube. It’s pretty interesting to see the title didn’t always have its perspective locked over the shoulder and the environments seemed to skew closer to the creepy mansions and tone of prior titles.
Check out YouTuber Harshly Critical playing the fan-made demo of what Resident Evil 4 could’ve ended up as:
Resident Evil 4 received not only Game of the Year in 2005 but also scored a 96/100 on Metacritic, making it the highest rated game of the entire series. It has great production values, fun action sequences and a plot that’s pure Resident Evil zaniness.
While it was a breath of fresh air and it’s still influencing the gaming industry 12 years later, it came with some changes that die-hard survival-horror purists didn’t care for. One was that the need for ink ribbons to save your progress was gone; you could save anytime you came across a typewriter. Next, some of the more Hollywood-esque action sequences removed players from direct involvement over what happened, instead having them go through a series of Quick Time Events to ensure Leon made it to the other side of the battle unharmed. Ammunition and health supplies were in abundance, with the focus of gameplay tactics shifting toward which weapons to upgrade. The only carry-over of the degree of planning required in previous Resident Evil games was hoarding the Magnum ammunition until you were positive there’d be no other quick way to bring down a serious enemy. But by and large, Resident Evil 4, while having moved away from its classic survival-horror roots, still had a ton of atmosphere, a plot that fit well with the previous installments’ bio-weapon shenanigans, and Leon’s laughable Hollywood tough guy one-liners. The Resident Evil fan base is still divisive on this one, because while 4 did a lot to keep the series fresh, some feel it also was the beginning of the end of true survival-horror.
The Action Continues…
Following the critical reception and outstanding sales of 4, Capcom continued the action-focused gameplay in Resident Evil 5. Failing to meet the same adoring reviews as the previous installment and coming under fire for what some considered racist depictions of Africans, 5 still managed to garner high sales. It also introduced co-op play and some interesting set pieces. In an attempt to return to horror roots, a DLC pack for 5, Lost in Nightmares, was released featuring Jill Valentine from Resident Evil and Resident Evil 3. She and old partner Chris try to escape from a mansion. Sound familiar?
Resident Evil 5 sees players taking control of Chris Redfield, who, in the interim, seems to have gotten an Amazon subscription to Muscle Milk. There has been a viral outbreak in Africa and with his partner, Sheva Alomar, Chris now works for the BSAA (Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance) in a race to find a cure.
Resident Evil 6, embarrassing logo in tow, was released to mixed reviews in October 2012. While critics were a little friendlier to 6, praising its graphics and the fruits of some obviously high-production costs, the series’ fan base mercilessly tore the game apart. With an overabundance of Quick Time Events, repetitious gameplay, and bearing little to no resemblance to the Resident Evil titles before, 6 felt like something from a different series altogether. Even the brilliant pacing and sense of atmosphere from the more action-inclined 4 were gone, bringing to our screens something more akin to a Michael Bay movie with zombies. (No one tell him I said that; we don’t want to give him ideas.)
Resident Evil 6 is three overlapping stories in one. Players — with a co-op partner, if you so choose — appear as returning characters Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield in their respective story lines, with Albert Wesker’s son, Jake, rounding out the third story. There are enjoyable moments to be found in 6: some clever puzzles, a couple of harrowing action sequences. But a lot of that’s buried under the avalanche of Quick Time Events, some clunky story elements and a huge dollop of melodrama.
For many fans, myself included, this is where we gave up on the series completely — and would consider the series dead. But in a few years, rumors started to circulate that Capcom was going to take Resident Evil back to its roots, not just in DLC form. There was even talk of a first-person perspective, something not seen in RE save for the non-canon light gun games. And before we knew it, there was the Beginning Hour teaser.
A Breath of Fresh-Blood-Scented Air
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (known as Biohazard 7: Resident Evil in Japan) launched January 24, 2017. Back were the unsettling, oppressive atmosphere, deliberately clunky fighting mechanics and plentiful scares. Before its release a small portion of the fan base complained how much of a departure 7 would be, with not a single character from previous installments featured in the marketing material. I think this was deliberate. While 6 had relied so heavily on nostalgia for the series’ heroes, 7 offered a fully clean break, introducing a new protagonist, none of the Rambo-style heroics of the former titles and a locale that had become synonymous with the Resident Evil name: a creepy, rundown house.
The Beginning Hour demo became something of a puzzle box for YouTube content creators and Twitch streamers. They ran hours — sometimes whole days — of themselves trying to unlock the secret of the dummy finger, an item that could be picked up within the Bakers’ house but didn’t seem to have any purpose. The Beginning Hour demo received a couple of updates over the months running up to 7’s release, showing players that their gameplay would be more focused on well-paced exploration and the occasional scare. They also got a taste of what shooting would be like in the final product. But they were cautioned that, as with earlier titles, ammunition was going to be in short supply. Beginning Hour was criticized for trying to capture some of the hype surrounding the cancelled Silent Hills’ playable teaser PT, but the team behind 7 said their product, with its throwback tone and perspective change, were well in the works before PT was released.
Here — in my opinion, keep in mind — are the titles worth playing, the titles worth trying and the ones best to avoid.
Resident Evil HD Remaster
Of course, if you have access to a PlayStation, going back to the original would be your best bet for the purest dose of RE. But REmake takes everything that made the original great and gives it a graphical update, shakes up a few mechanics by introducing the Crimson Heads and is now available on modern systems. A great survival-horror experience.
Resident Evil 2
Possibly the greatest installment in the original trilogy, this is definitely worth picking up. It’s a little dated now, and the dialogue stayed true to Resident Evil tradition with lots of clunky lines and awkward character animation. However, 2 more than makes up for those shortcomings with scares aplenty and possibly one of the greatest sound tracks for a video game ever. I mean, just listen:
Resident Evil 4
Naturally. This game, no matter what platform you play it on, remains amazing.
Resident Evil Revelations 2
This co-op title features Claire Redfield and Barry Burton exploring an island compound. Featuring some fun mechanics that make it a blast to play with a friend — and a challenging time, at that, with a much-appreciated bump in difficulty — Revelations 2 is a great title. I really hope they continue with the Revelations side stories. They’re a ton of fun.
Resident Evil Code Veronica
Though I covered only the numbered RE titles, this one, originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, was pretty revelatory when it was first released. Fully 3D backgrounds, some new mechanics and an interesting setting earned Code Veronica a praiseworthy spot in the original trilogy. It’s almost like a branching point. You can see where things in 4 were already on the developers’ minds. Just be prepared to grit your teeth every time Steve opens his mouth…
WORTH A TRY
Resident Evil 6
Put down the tweet. Though, yes, it was universally reviled upon release, this title may be forgiven some of its trespasses now because of Resident Evil 7’s course correction. At the time, it seemed all hope of getting creepy atmosphere was gone, but now, with its fun action and the knowledge that something truer to classic RE was imminent, 6 is a soft, retroactive recommendation. If you’re in the mood for this type of action game, think of it like Dead Space 2 — one of my favorite games of all time — except not as good. Scratches an itch.
Resident Evil Revelations
Kicking off the Revelations side series, this is a fun experience set on a monster-plagued ship. It features the return of Jill Valentine as the protagonist. This is a very short game, so you’d be best off waiting for it to go on sale if you choose to pick it up.
NOT WORTH PLAYING
Resident Evil 5
Bad pacing and burying players under an avalanche of QTEs make this installment, for me anyway, ripe for the trade-in bin.
Resident Evil 0
Though it’s fun at times and has the challenge of inventory management, uninteresting characters, and having to switch between them to get anything done, I do not recommend revisiting Resident Evil 0 unless it’s for purely completionist purposes.
Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City
No. Just no.
A Hollywood Horror Show
Finally, let’s take a moment to talk about the adaptation of Resident Evil to the big screen. Originally George A. Romero was approached to write and direct the film adaptation of Resident Evil. It would’ve been extraordinary to bring in the originator of modern zombie films to helm the Resident Evil movie, a franchise that’d taken so much inspiration from his work. However, the job went to Event Horizon and Mortal Kombat director Paul W.S. Anderson. The long-running film series, with six titles released from 2002 through 2016, stars Milla Jovovich as Alice. Apart from the Umbrella Corporation, the first film has little to do with the game series, but as the installments progressed, more familiar faces from the games began to appear, like Claire Redfield portrayed by Ali Larter, Carlos Olivera by Oded Fehr (The Mummy) and Chris Redfield by Wentworth Miller (Prison Break). But the best aspect of the film series is the score for the first title, which was done by none other than shock rocker Marilyn Manson.
Other than that, fans of the game aren’t missing much if they skip the movies. If you are keeping up with the film series, check out the reviews of The Final Chapter (January 27, 2017).
If you’re in the market for some Resident Evil that’s more of the “lean back” than “sit forward,” there are three Resident Evil animated features, which actually have series characters and expand on the plot lines from the games. These include Degeneration, Damnation and Vendetta. Each is well animated and the voice acting is solid. Not perfect but better than the Hollywood stuff.