This review originally appeared in E33, June 1996.
The fervid anticipation that has swelled around Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan) has mixed implications for the PlayStation. Anything that generates this sort of word is surely welcome and yet at the same time there is a neediness to the enthusiasm that should give Sony pause. The PlayStation had a weak Christmas line-up and since then, despite a handful of worthy efforts, there’s been a steady dribble of mediocrity. With Sega biting back and the N64 now almost close enough to be worth holding onto your cash for, Sony needs to deliver some pretty hot stuff pretty damn soon if it’s to maintain momentum. Fortunately for it, and for gamers across the globe, Resident Evil delivers in spades.
Doubtless the reader will already be glancing agape at the screenshots that accompany this review and, let it be known, what you see is what you get. Resident Evil is Alone in the Dark directed by George A Romero with the design sensibilities of Myst. An enormous, implausibly beautiful arcade adventure, designed with the express purpose of frightening the player to the point of nappy-changing while inviting them to commit acts of unbridled violence against the enemy. You wouldn’t ask for more if you rubbed your PlayStation and produced the game genie himself.
To enter Capcom’s ‘world of survival horror’, the player takes control of one of two soldiers, Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, both members of STARS (Special Tactics and Rescue Services) an SAS-type unit who become stranded in a vast mansion while investigating reports of genetic mutations roaming the countryside. Two things become immediately apparent on arrival: the source of these abominations of nature is the house itself and the only way out is to solve the many traps and conundrums that obstruct your progress and blow away anything that moves. The scenario is familiar enough. The implementation is far from it.
Capcom has truly performed a miracle with this game. Chris and Jill, like all the ‘characters’ in Resident Evil, are fully texture-mapped, light-sourced polygons operating in realtime within lavish prerendered backgrounds. The effect is startling. Such is the sophistication of the light-sourcing that wherever your character is and however flamboyant the light and shadow effects of the scenery are, you never look incongruous. Which contrasts sharply with, say, Infogrames’ recent Time Gate, where the polygon figures look hopelessly inadequate even against backgrounds that boast a fraction of the detail of Resident Evil’s (words alone fail to do justice to the fanatical richness of Resident Evil’s art design, where even the wallpaper and carpets warrant admiring scrutiny). Moreover, the polygon animation is splendidly fluid and realistic, allowing for precise, confident control of the player character and alarmingly believable movement on the part of your foes, be they zombies, werewolves or Fiat Cinquecento-sized spiders.
Progressing through the mansion and its environs is a tense and exhausting business. Capcom hasn’t coined this new genre ‘survival horror’ for nothing. Half the puzzles, which range from the moronic to worthy of MENSA members, yield the simplest of all possible rewards: ammunition. There’s been nothing in other games to compare to the panic and despair that you feel as you hammer shot after shot into an advancing zombie, taking off his arm and half his leg as he lumbers forward, only to hear the dull click of an empty service revolver magazine. Fortunately, as well as increasingly appalling creatures (wait till you get a load of the shark), exploration brings some hefty guns including a shotgun and a bazooka. ‘So what are you gonna do now, huh?’, you cry triumphantly as chunks of smoking zombie spatter the room.
Everything in Resident Evil is geared towards suspense: the skewed camera angles, the haunting strains of the soundtrack, the fact that you can run forwards but only retreat in painfully slow steps. In fact, the only blemish on an otherwise stainless product (apart from some acting in the cut-away sequences to make the cast of Hollyoaks blush) is the difficulty level. Suspenseful though it may be, it can be all too easy to loose off a couple of rash shots in an awkward position only to find yourself with your trousers round your ankles, your neck in the mouth of a flesh-eating ghoul, and your last save point about six rabid wolves and a snake away. Still, Resident Evil was never destined for the faint of heart. Where it is destined for, however, is the PlayStation pantheon. With the notable exception of T2, Resident Evil is the best yet.