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Resident Evil 5 is Bigger and Boulder

RE5 Sells Its Survival Horror Identity and Finally Gives in to Pure Action

At the time of this writing, Resident Evil 5 is the most finically successful entry in the series. Unbeaten, despite ten (soon to be eleven) more games that came after it. All of which comprised of sequential titles, remakes and reimaginings. Resident Evil is on the cusp of entering its 35th anniversary, which began in a mansion on the outskirts of a city; both of which would become consumed with zombies and biological horrors. Yet Capcom can attest that RE5 is their most successful product in the series. At least financially.

As a series, Resident Evil has always wanted to hodgepodge Hollywood action-packed excitement with methodical horror. This was well and truly established in the very first game, which introduced our characters via a cast role call—giving us something that looked like the trailer to a hot action movie, rather than the beginning cutscene of a video game. The inclusion of real, human actors further cemented this idea that RE has always looked up to the world of film for inspiration. I think that’s why this series is my favorite gaming franchise of all time. It truly tries to capture film and game simultaneously; two worlds I fully immerse myself in.

Resident Evil 4 threw out everything we came to learn about a Resi game, by taking the franchise further into the action-horror genre; completely transforming the very meaning of what a Resi game is. Four years later, Resident Evil 5 was born and aimed to push the game further into an unrecognizable territory, with a dominating emphasis on action and cinematic spectacle. And we lapped it up in droves (7.4 million units were sold). Trouble is, in the wake of its success, did it leave much of its own identity behind?

The short answer is a categorical yes. Resident Evil 5 was Capcom’s most daring attempt to marry video games with cinema. It went big. It went huge-biceps big. However, I think it leaned too far into its action lapels and, as such, lost a lot of what made RE a synergized masterpiece. It was also the catalyst, financially, that set the course for future installments and sub-installments that uprooted the horror to make way for bombastic action. So, retrospectively, what is left to be said about the experience delivered from Resi 5? Let’s take a deep dive.

Sheva and Chris on a boat in the marshlands
Chris and Sheva’s turn to enter the world of surviv—oh wait.

Resident Evil 5 has players assume the role of series staple, classic action-man Chris Redfield, who works as an agent for the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA). He is joined by his partner, Sheva Alomar, a slick and confident woman that’s nowhere near as fleshed out as she deserves to be. Together, they are investigating the usual trappings of a Resi game: the misuse of biological warfare involving a rogue virus—this time within the bright setting of Kijuju, Africa. Let the warmth of the game’s sun be the first tell-tale sign that things may be heading in a different direction.

Credit where credits due, the introductory gameplay does an extremely good job of making you feel like an absolute outsider. You feel every eye of the residents upon you. If you explore, you’re even treated to a brief cutscene involving a hapless citizen being aggressively carried away (although your character does nothing in the slightest to comment on this). Everything about this sequence is tense. Even if the weather emotes tranquility. Initially, you think Capcom has discovered a new way to introduce horror in daylight. It’s a quiet beginning. But this is well and truly short-lived the moment you gear up.

Majini getting ready to attack
Out with the Ganado, in with the more aggressive Majini.

Before you know it, you’re essentially thrown into a battle arena scenario that involves countless of this games version of the Ganados, this time called Majini. You’ll be running around guns-a-blazing, Chris shouting through the radio, before a helicopter appears and bazookas your way out. A little bit further on in the game, the helicopter returns and actually bazookas everything in your way as well. You’ll realize that Chris Redfield is a virtually unkillable protagonist, armed to the teeth with an almost endless supply of bullets, guns and health pickups; diluting the notion of dying. Furthermore, the introduction of a resuscitation mechanic will keep you even further from death’s doors. And even if you do die, the game showers you with generous checkpoints that’ll trigger automatically.

RE5 is overflowing with sequences and design choices that do everything to irk the subtleties the series was built on. There is nothing subtle about controlling a machine gun with infinite ammo as you gun down infected people on motorbikes. For a series that aimed to induce stress in small, puny doses, RE5 thinks it can achieve the same results but throwing everything at you. Therefore, it becomes clear that survival horror was not on the agenda for RE5. But up until now, a Resi game has always come up against this conundrum: the misbalance of action and survival horror. If we consider the original trilogy for a moment, Resident Evil 2 definitely upped the ante on the action, before Resident Evil 3: Nemesis kicked it up a further notch. Compare this to the newer trilogy (4,5,6) and you’ll notice a similar pattern. RE4 is slower, expertly paced, and creepy in its attempt to establish itself as a new thing (RE original). Then, RE5 ups the action (seen in RE2) before Resident Evil 6 hits you so hard with truckloads of action, you’ll barely realize what you’re playing (RE3; only waaaaay less severe). So, formulaically, RE5 makes a lot of sense.

Thing is, if compared to RE2, everything around the action is cohesively weaker, and that everything else can be narrowed down to two factors: the horror and the driving force of the narrative. RE2 may have increased the action, but very much upheld its loyal survival horror traits. Coupled with memorable characters, scenarios, and—to a lesser extent—stakes, RE2 took the series in a wonderful direction. Things couldn’t be more different for RE5.

Chris Redfield heads towards a pile of corpses
The subtle notes of horror.

I think one of the reasons the horror aspect of RE5 is harmed so badly is because the aggression and haste has been cranked up to the max. This is the first time Resi feels like it’s stepping into the fast-paced world of the action first-person shooter. The enemies literally run at you and behave more like angry, violent aggressors rather than infected, biological weapons. This is scary in reality, but doesn’t evoke the creepiness that can be had from a more slower approach.

The moments of horror it does try to coax out either end before they’ve even begun, or fail to do anything memorable. At one point, you must navigate yourself through a pitch-black tunnel using a lantern that you, or Sheva, can manipulate. It’s a moment that feels unnerving. Unless the light is shining, you won’t see a thing. But it’s over in a flash. Similarly, a later event has you sneaking past a large group of hungry Lickers; an enemy that serves as a nostalgic nudge more than a designed threat. The build-up to them and the sequence involving walking are really well done. And then it’s over in less than five minutes. RE5 continually compromises on its horror to put us back into the helm of an action game; a genre it thinks we want more than anything else. It opts for a stop-start approach; giving us tasters for horror sequences, before shooing them away in place for the explosions.

The failings of the driving force of the game make for a further marred experience. This is made all too clear from RE5’s shameless, hollow call-backs to other greater games in its franchise. The Jill Valentine mystery reveal is so blatantly obvious and handled extremely poorly, which is hilarious when you consider this storyline was the driving force for most of the game. And although Albert Wesker, as a superhuman character panto villain, is in keeping with his established air of cool cringe, he does very little to solidify the flimsy stakes of the narrative. In fact, all the characters suffer from one-note syndrome; something that was bolstered in the title that came before.

Albert Wesker in his sunglasses and slick back hair
Albert Wesker. As memorable as he is silly.

The worst-case of character mishandle is Sheva, who is used more as a vehicle of unnecessary pining over the big, strong Chris Redfield than a memorable representation as a playable character of color. Of course, RE is never going to be making many strides in representation, probably due, in part, to the fact that these games are very silly, which I’ll never deny. I mean, there is a scene where Chris literally punches a boulder bigger than a house out of his way; a final f-you to boulders which have been weirdly bothersome since the very beginning of the series. However, Sheva is who you spend the entire game with. If you don’t play co-op, you’ll barely remember she’s even there which is such a missed opportunity. Also, there are times where you have to split up, which Capcom never capitalizes on.

And then theirs everything else that has seemed to take a massive hit. Notes that you find throughout the game feel like such an afterthought and do nothing to conquer any narrative stakes. It is tiresome coming out of every cutscene that involves Chris making the same statement about his attachment to his partner, which happens the majority of the time.

What complicates things for me is that the gameplay, obnoxiously loud as it may be, is enormously satisfying. It’s thrilling to decimate waves of hyper-aggressive Majini. The controls are tight, the gun play is crunchy, and the sound design is on point. The most fun to be had is from the inclusion of co-op (something experimented in for the vastly underrated Resident Evil Outbreak sub-series). To be honest, Resi has always teased the co-op potential; most recognizable in Resident Evil 0 with its switchable characters mechanic. It also makes complete sense when you realize the series has always juggled with the possibility of playing as, or looking after, another character. But, RE5 finally made it a reality. And it’s still as fun as it was when released. It feels good to communicate with a friend as you fight through hordes of horrors, and still makes for a tense situation if your buddy is up against the wall. This, I believe, was one of the focal points of RE5. Making it a fun shooter with co-op first, before using the Resi franchise as a springboard to garner success.

RE5 certainly doesn’t skimp on extra content either. If you wanted to distance yourself further from the roots of the franchise, there is a versus mode that will have your usual multiplayer shooting action. Then there is the heralded Mercenaries mode which is a massive improvement from RE4‘s version. For main game content, you have Desperate Escape—a hard as nails sub-story that the series is well known for and (my favorite DLC) Lost in Nightmares, which plonks Chris and Jill in a mansion with horrifying enemies and puzzles. Sound familiar? You can even activate fixed camera angles and door animations! In this game, I can’t help but feel the kick in the teeth when playing this mode. It demonstrates Capcom is still well aware that it does survival horror very well, but is choosing to keep that on the down-low. If only we knew what was to come next.

The Mercenaries United title screen with all the playable characters
A much-improved version.

Resident Evil Village is the next installment in this fascinating video game series that flirts with horror and action simultaneously. Obsessions with villages aside, this entry, if the series formula has anything to do with it, will be the newest Resi’s version of RE5. So, I’m fully expecting an increase in action from Resident Evil 7 and more spacious environments. But will it knock the crown off RE5’s action-blazed scalp in the finance department? Only time will tell.

Christopher Blackmore

Written by Christopher Blackmore

Christopher is a peculiar creator of playable theatre, live game design, and surreal horror. Partial to a bad film any day of the week,

Follow him @cmblackmore14 for more of his world.

3 Comments

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  1. I love Resident Evil 5 it was my first entry of the series and since then having played them all I still love the game and personally consider it the best of the franchise.

  2. I think this game is pretty underrated. It’s not as perfect as RE4, but it’s still a lot of fun and offers some cool setpieces. Also, it’s a great co-op game. I couch co-op’d the whole game with a friend last year and it was a great time and plenty challenging. I never played RE6, but RE7 was FANTASTIC and possibly the scariest of the series, looking forward to hearing the thoughts on that one.

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