Midway through last generation, the survival horror genre was in dire straits. Resident Evil 5 decided to become an excellent co-op action game that forgot the survival and diminished the horror in 2009, which was a catalyst for change. A similar change of direction bestowed Dead Space – one of the greatest survival horror games of all time – to action horror for its 2011 sequel. After a scaredy pants opening to last-generation, publishers seemed compelled to bankroll action-packed horror games, including a slight change of direction for many sequels, which generated aesthetically engaging trailers. Now jump forward three years into the lifecycle of the PS4 and Xbox One, and we could be about to embark upon a golden era of extraordinary survival horror.
I don’t mean to imply survival games disappeared entirely; but there’s a clear disparity in output from the first three years of the Xbox 360 and PS3 from 2006 and the following three from 2009. A few games trickled through, but it wasn’t until The Last of Us in 2013 that survival remerged as a best-selling blockbuster.
Naughty Dog’s chronic desire to avoid being type cast led it to create the ultimate swansong (along with GTA V) to last-generation – and its successful second coming on PS4 is arguably the reason we’re still inundated with remasters. In many ways, it’s not what we associate with traditional survival horror. The emotional partnership between Joel and Ellie is a direct contrast to the Jill Valentines and Isaac Clarkes of horror. But that change of direction, coupled with the pedigree of Naughty Dog and prestige of being a PlayStation exclusive, elevated it above the notion that horror games must choose either action or survival.
The Last of Us was critical in re-establishing survival horror as a mainstream hit, but it was still heavy on action-adventure. For a more authentic return to survival, Bethesda’s gamble on The Evil Within reminded us of the importance of a game director’s vision. The vanilla protagonist and overarching story were weak, but Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami rekindled how he intended the genre’s most iconic franchise to be played.
The Evil Within is a creepy game, brimming with anxiety, insanity and the unrelenting sense of impending doom. There are scares, but I wouldn’t blanket it as a scary game; rather, a horror game built upon an intense atmosphere that has you just as nervous during the subtleties of silence as the screeching strings of nightmarish terror. Mikami knows how to craft survival horror combat in tight, oppressive environments that make every encounter a comprehensive test that could be your last. It’s stingy survival in its purest form. You want to kill as many enemies as possible to unlock upgrades, but need to weigh up whether it’s worth spending the ammo, potentially for limited reward, not to mention the distinct possibility of failing and being relegated to a prior save for confronting a dangerous situation that could have been avoided.
Following the return to something old emerged a tantalising prospect of something new with the viral P.T. demo for Silent Hills on PlayStation 4. Initially something of a mystery, the playable teaser from Hideo Kojima and film director Guillermo del Toro captivated the gaming community; but eventually amounted to nothing more than a big tease, with the highly publicised breakup between Kojima and Konami. However, its legacy may become more critical than anyone involved in the doomed project could have ever known.
Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour is candid about its influence. The demo is unlike anything anything encountered in two decades of Resident Evil, and closely resembles the atmosphere of the now lost to history P.T. If it weren’t for its success, who knows that direction Capcom would have taken with its first proper current-gen Resident Evil (Revelations 2 is reminiscent of classic RE, but it’s cross-gen). If the teaser – which is intended to show the direction of the game, not act as a prologue – is a genuine indication, Resident Evil 7 is returning to genuine survival horror; but unlike The Evil Within, is a modern incarnation, not trying to recapture the past.
Resident Evil 7 will also serve as a bridge between traditional gameplay and virtual reality (and the shift to 4K with the PS4 Pro); it’s why I’m hopeful we’re about to embark upon a golden era of unprecedented survival horror. It will be playable on PlayStation VR in January, and if the final game is reminiscent of the teaser, it’ll be terrifying. Early adopters can play the Until Dawn VR action spin-off, Rush of Blood, but it’s the original that set the path in motion. Until Dawn was originally a PS3 Move waggle-fest that migrated to the DualShock 4. It’s a compelling interactive survival horror experience that would have been spectacular through virtual reality; so it’s a shame the cash-in VR launch title riding on its coattails isn’t indicative of the original direction. Nevertheless, the success of Until Dawn will enable similar narrative-driven survival horror, almost totally devoid of direct combat, to thrive on virtual reality. Like P.T., it may have been a little ahead of its time, but has laid the foundations.
It’s an exciting time to be a survival horror fan. The genre is evolving — and crucially Capcom looks to be back at the forefront. 4K displays will increase tension, and beyond that virtual reality will take the immersion to another level; there’s no escape by looking away or turning on the lights wearing a VR headset. Now, if only I could muster the courage to play Resident Evil 7‘s Kitchen demo…