Charting the course of the Resident Evil franchise is surprisingly simple.
Big budget franchises experiencing popularity turbulence isn’t exclusive to Capcom’s horror baby, but typically there is some nuance to these fluctuations. Look at Call of Duty, for example. Those games have a tumultuous relationship with fans due to gameplay changes between iterations that fans feel often fundamentally alter what they enjoyed out of the previous entry. Even Mario games, though financially evergreen, will occasionally feel a reactionary sting for shifts in style and difficulty, but as with COD, there is a conversation to be had about these changes
With Resident Evil though, there is stark clarity when looking to map when and how fans were driven away and finally drawn back to the games. So, let’s load up our RPGs and take aim at the monstrous back and forth between Capcom and the people.
Placing the legacy titles (RE 1-3) aside, the real cornerstone for Resident Evil’s current popularity can be found all the way back in the 2005 instant classic Resident Evil 4. Even with the gaming industry’s penchant for over-hyping things, it’s not too much of a stretch to call the fourth entry into the series a masterpiece; as successful critically as it was financially, the game was lauded for its drastic reinvention of the RE formula and unification of horror and action elements. Speaking to IGN, RE4 game producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi noted that earlier versions of the game were not meeting the high standards Capcom had in mind for RE4, an adherence to quality that led to the team wanting to “… throw away everything and instead come up with something totally new that we would be completely satisfied with”.
Moving the franchise beyond the static camera and tank controls of previous entries, RE4 also proved to be a turning point for the action genre as the ‘over the shoulder’ camera style created for the game would go on to massively influence an entire industry.
Critical reception and innovations aside, RE4 also managed to redefine what a Resident Evil game could be while keeping fans of the series satisfied. Its popularity cannot be overstated; in the interim thirteen years the survival horror classic has been ported more times than Skyrim, gone on to sell close to eight million units and traces of its design DNA can still be found in upcoming Resident Evil titles. In terms of charting Resident Evil popularity, the release of RE4 remains a shining beacon of light for Capcom and a place to which they are still attempting to find their way back to. Unfortunately, the brightest of lights cast the longest shadows and it would be a long time before Capcom stopped stumbling around in the dark.
Having redefined two genres and captured the hearts of players everywhere with RE4, Capcom moved forward with the wind at their backs and boldly announced Resident Evil 5 in 2005, finally releasing it years later in 2009. Exactly what happened in the four years between the monumental success of RE4 and the release of RE5 isn’t clear, but no matter the internal conversations at Capcom, the end product of RE5 was…divisive. The dark, gothic horror of the previous installment was abandoned entirely, as was the isolating survival vibe, as RE5 dragged the series into the African sunlight and was rebuilt from the ground up with two-player, action-driven co-op firmly in mind.
A major tonal shift for a sequel isn’t always unwelcome, but following up one of the most revered horror titles of all time with a balls-to-the-wall action experience was inelegant, to say the least. Worse still, RE5 isn’t even a bad game; taken as is, it’s actually quite a fun, albeit extremely silly, romp through interesting environments, thrilling setpieces and a plot so insane it makes the Resident Evil movies look like high art (which they are anyway, but that’s a whole other think piece). It’s also gorgeous to look at even in 2018, and the co-op is an absolute blast — the game received reasonable reviews and sold quite well too, but coming up in the shadow of RE4 proved to be too much for the game. Taken in the wider context of the franchise, it was clear that Capcom had learned the wrong lessons from the success of RE4, and paired with the less than subtle accusations of racially problematic content in the game, public perception of Resident Evil had taken a hit.
The lingering disappointment of RE5 would prove to be just a preview of the lows to come as Capcom geared up to release the now infamous Resident Evil 6. On the surface, RE6 should have been the Resident Evil game to define all Resident Evil games; Capcom had found a means of melding together the beloved horror and enjoyable action of previous entries into the biggest game the series had seen to date. Seriously, the numbers on this game are off the charts for what was ostensibly a horror game — Capcom boosted staff numbers to over six hundred and while the game went on to achieve sales success, breaking records even, development took a considerable amount of time to achieve.
Featuring three separate but interlocking story campaigns all starring legacy characters and each promising to deliver on what fans wanted from Resident Evil (a horror, action and hybrid focus for each campaign respectively), the lead up to release was promising to say the least. Post-release however, things took a drastic turn for the worse as RE6 became, and forgive the editorialising, a hot mess. Whatever grand vision Capcom had in mind for the game was quickly obscured by a harsh reality of mixed reviews and a litany of gameplay issues. Mechanics that had already been close to perfected in previous entries were inexplicably worse now, the plot was cartoonish (even by Resident Evil standards) and the promised breadth of content only ensured each campaign was underbaked.
Sales of RE6 proved to be strong, however, and in time the game went on to become Capcom’s second best selling title of all time, but the division between the hardcore Resident Evil fans and the vision Capcom had for the series’ future was widening drastically. When asked about meeting fan expectations, RE6 producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi told PlayStation Blog that he saw the Resident Evil franchise as a child shared between two equally passionate parents (Capcom and its fans), noting that parents aren’t always going to agree on how to best raise their children. It’s a sentiment that resounds perhaps louder now in a time when fan reactions can be as destructive as they are deafening, but vague philosophical pondering about how to best steer a beloved franchise didn’t change the fact that the fans who made Resident Evil what it was had all but given up hope for their baby.
To call these the dark times would be overly dramatic, of course, but given the franchise’s penchant for camp, I think some flare is entirely appropriate. The fallout from RE6 was felt for years, causing a crater-sized gap in Resident Evil titles between the game’s release in 2012 and the eventual re-emergence in 2015. The rollout of new Resident Evil titles was done gingerly now. No longer monumental feats of development, instead, an episodic nature was adopted for what we can now look back on as the beginning of Resident Evil’s revival, the flawed but enjoyable Resident Evil: Revelations 2.
Revelations 2, while a member of the spin-off family of Resident Evil games, was the first shot across the bow for the horror/action market — Capcom was coming back into the fray. The game received mixed reactions from critics and sold reasonably well but is a much more interesting entry into the franchise for the heavy lifting it had to do; the glossy action veneer of RE6 was stripped away, the roided-out muscleman hero replaced with a capable, but vulnerable woman and while the plot remained as bonkers as ever, the scale was shifted to focus on personal stakes. While Revelations 2 began turning the wheel, it still lacked the impactful grit of the main series titles, and despite positive reception, the episodic nature and action/horror blend was entirely dropped for the next iteration.
A twitch ran through the corpse of survival horror when Capcom first revealed the now famous Kitchen Demo at E3 2015, a ballsy VR experience packed full of intense gore and unnerving scares. At the time, a small number of keen-eyed viewers noticed extremely subtle hints at the RE brand, but Capcom’s denial that this demo was related to the then unannounced RE sequel, as well as the claims of reactionary development after the collective moment gamers had over P.T. (the first-person demo for the now-canceled Silent Hill title) meant that Kitchen was liked but dismissed as a vertical slice of a game that was a long way off.
So imagine the collective shock when during E3 the next year, another gameplay demo for Kitchen darkened the Sony Press Conference, complete with the first-person perspective and grotesque horror sequences concluded with a flash of VII filling in to reveal the game’s full title, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Audience reactions said it all; I remember feeling a chill run down my spine while watching the reveal from home — this demo couldn’t possibly be what Capcom had been cooking up for the past four years. It was distinctly not your daddy’s Resident Evil; the shift in gameplay perspective from third to first person was colossal for the franchise, reminiscent of the change RE4 made, but the kind of change RE7 was selling wasn’t just mechanical. An entirely new game engine, the appropriately named RE Engine, had been created to flesh out RE7‘s presentation, while for the first time in the franchise, narrative design was handled by a Westerner, Richard Pearsey.
Producer Masachika Kawata spoke with Mashable about the shift in focus for RE7, stating that for the latest entry into the franchise they were “…aiming to be not a blockbuster, AAA movie but the best B-rank horror movie you could be. Rather than trying to go big and bombastic, he wanted everyone to dive deeper into horror. Keep focused on the horror aspect and make it as compelling as can be”. It’s a design philosophy the team clearly took to heart; RE7 plays out like a fantastically camp yet profoundly unnerving horror film that would fit right at home with genre contemporaries like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the originals, obviously).
Like with any major changes to a formula, it was a gamble, but refocusing on the lost horror of the franchise was a crucial part of the development, and it has undoubtedly helped rekindle the prestige of the brand. Critical reception to the game has been positive and sales, while not quite at the level of the previous entry, have proven strong with three million units shipped worldwide.
Most importantly, RE7 has enabled Capcom to continue stoking the flames of fans who have flocked back to the franchise with the upcoming Resident Evil 2 remake. The second RE game is still held up as one of the finest in the series, and spurred on by the massive success of the re-released Resident Evil Remake, Capcom has taken the RE Engine, reworked it to allow a third-person perspective (yes, RE2 will play like RE4) and are now teasing what looks to be deliciously gory, new-ish RE title. And boy, does it ever look horrific.
So will Capcom be able to keep the good ship Resident Evil on the correct course this time?
It’s early days, as the last time RE saw this level of goodwill and success the following titles were clouded by developer overconfidence and brand mismanagement. Things are looking good, though. With RE2 Remake on the horizon, it appears as though fans will be getting two classic horror titles in a row, and if sales back up the goodwill of the die-hard RE folks, then it’s entirely possible that Capcom will continue this trend and deliver more RE goodness for years to come.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get started on that ‘Resident Evil films are actually brilliant’ hot take piece that has been simmering away in my brain since 2002.
I can already feel the heat from this take.