THE WASPS GO IN THE WASP NEST

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I love everything about the original Resident Evil. The story, the frequently bizarre voice acting, the way the horror of those first nervous playthroughs melts away into silky speedruns as Umbrella’s finely-tuned puzzle box of monsters clicks into place – every last little detail is something to be noted and cherished. So this admission is perhaps also something of a warning: I am coming at this replay of Resident Evil: Deadly Silence‘s “Rebirth” mode as an unabashed fan of not only Resident Evil in general, but of the first Resident Evil (and its later REmake) in particular. Hopefully being a slavering nerd about the game means I can offer something of detail and interest to others, highlighting things a more sensible person may not have considered or noticed… or this may descend into the pedantic drivel of someone who really shouldn’t know where everyone sat in the STARS helicopter. Whatever happens below it’s too late for me to turn back now, and I can only ask for your forgiveness for the following wall of text.

Well over twenty years have passed since Resident Evil’s PlayStation debut and it feels like the game’s on the verge of becoming as ubiquitous as Doom or Ys – do printers run Capcom’s survival horror icon yet? We can’t be too far away from seeing the game break into that sort of territory, surely. Yet unlike a lot of other famous long-running portathons almost every single re-release of Resident Evil has had some notable extra or significant tweak that makes them all just that little bit different from each other – nothing drastic enough to break anything, but enough for someone familiar with the game to have a particular favourite. And this held true for a very long time: Whether you enjoyed the Saturn port’s battle mode, the PC’s time saving door animation skip, or the Director’s Cut’s new camera angles and item placements, all of them had a valid reason for being someone’s go-to copy of the game.

… Until 2006.

In 2006 Capcom released the first official portable version of the game, for the DS. And so the old rule had to be rewritten: “They’re all a little different from each other and you should play the one you like best… except the DS port, which is just bad”.

OK, “Bad” is unfair. It’s not bad. It certainly means well: Not even Capcom, Porter of Porters (where’s my EX Troopers HD, dammit?!), could really re-re-re-re-release an untouched version of the game as Resident Evil’s tenth anniversary offering. But what could be done on relatively limited hardware – and with an even more limited budget? The design brief for the project seems to have been: “Stick Resident Evil on DS, but make sure you fiddle with it a bit to avoid review scores tearing the game to shreds for not enough new content in there. Oh and by the way, your total budget is £10 and a packet of Jelly Babies. Good luck.”

Damned if it meddled with a classic and damned if it didn’t, Deadly Silence hadn’t got much of a chance of succeeding one way or the other even at the best of times but perhaps never more so than in the post-REmake, post-Resident Evil 4 world of horror gaming it found itself in. There’s no question that they really did try: The game’s got a multiplayer co-op/versus mode, new bonus costumes (even if I do think they’re awful), all of the 3D models have been sensitively retextured, they’ve added a Resident Evil 3 style quick turn, manual relo-

No wait, the manual reload’s not a good thing. And neither is having the knife permanently equipped on a shoulder button. Let’s not forget the map – the one in full view at all times on the top screen that constantly shows your exact location, the one that removes the “OK so I know roughly where I am but…” trepidation of the original and replaces it with a hyper-accurate little blip pinging around a room.

Neither are the wide variety of novelty touchscreen interactions that seem to exist only to turn what were once single button presses or minor puzzles into a road test of the DS’ full suite of extra functions. “Ha! Could the PlayStation do this?!” asks Capcom as they force you to blow out trick candles faster than they can reignite, play a game of “Five Finger Fillet” on a grave, or slog through yet another one of those truly unforgivable first-person knife-slashing segments it likes to spring on you at a moment’s notice, completely throwing the “Be smart! Fighting foes isn’t the only way to survive this horror.” advice given in the original in the bin. No, the PlayStation couldn’t do any of that – and Resident Evil was better for it.

Why? Tension. The atmosphere in a survival horror game – that fear of not wanting to move forward, but not daring to go back – hinges on being unsure of your surroundings and having to make the best of whatever awful situation you’ve been handed. So on the surface having the knife removed from the inventory and given a dedicated always-there buttons sounds like a reasonable quality of life improvement – and I’m all for those! But the ache that only comes from being two doors, five bullets, and three zombies away from a save room evaporates into thin air when you’ve always got a backup on hand and a quick glance shows you exactly where you are and where you need to go. Deadly Silence never has the guts to leave you completely defenceless, and because of that much of the game’s sense of dread is lost.

Even so on their own these missteps would amount to little more than some grumble-worthy tinkering with a classic title in the grand scheme of things – and it’s only fair to mention that Resident Evil’s received a mixed bag of significant alterations before, the Director’s Cut release bearing a wealth of changes and additions from altered item placements, new camera angles, and difficulty adjustments to [sigh] The trombone fart song“. These were OK because, with the exception of that awful soundtrack, they were different but still definitely in keeping with the spirit of the original. You can prefer one or the other but the original and arranged modes in Resident Evil’s Director’s Cut both feel like two sides of the same coin – a Coke vs Pepsi situation. If Coke and Pepsi were zombies.

(Coke and Pepsi are not zombies nor made using zombie-derived ingredients)

The DS version’s all new and mercifully still exclusive “Rebirth” mode – the default mode, the mode that’s plastered all over the back of the box – is the gaming equivalent of ordering a Coke and instead of getting a Pepsi or even one of those godawful nigh-fluorescent energy drinks they give you a rubber duck instead – Deadly Silence’s Rebirth arrangement just doesn’t understand what Resident Evil is.

Which isn’t my cue to rant on about “real” Resident Evil games being a laundry list of specific things I happen to like: The series has made many conscious shifts away from the original template over the years and handled these new styles very well: Resident Evil 2‘s recent remake is excellent even if it’s not the REmake 2.0 I secretly hoped for, both Revelations games are an absolute delight, and I am the sole person on the planet who will start a fight if I hear someone have a bad word to say about Operation Raccoon City. Change is good. The problem is Deadly Silence desperately wants to be the action-oriented update to a title that has always not-so-secretly been an adventure game that just happened to have guns in it.

It’s easy to see why this decision would have made sense in the boardroom – at the time this came out Leon’s Ganado-suplexing shenanigans had wooed the entire world and as such the urge to reshape the oldest Resident Evil into the style of its wildly popular series refresh must have been absolutely overwhelming… it’s just a shame the first game wasn’t built to handle that sort of play in any shape or form. And that’s not just down to the old “tank” controls and the stiff high/neutral/low aiming system either – the tight corners and narrow balconies of the Arklay mountains’ mansions and labs were never meant to handle these expanded quantities of shuffling hordes, and you can feel that slight off-ness every single time you enter a new room.

This is all down to how the original treated enemy encounters – as another piece of the survival puzzle for you to solve. How do you deal with this enemy type? Do you even have to deal with them at all? Slow, fast, instant kill attacks… every enemy has distinct characteristics that force you to use different tactics and ideally use different weapons – nobody wants to go up against a Tyrant with a puny Beretta, while the Magnum might be a touch overkill on a crawling zombie… It’s all very compartmentalised and methodical – and deliberately so. The battle system isn’t built to handle anything more than 1) Pointing and shooting 2) Running away. You can deal with a Hunter, or you can deal with a Cerberus, or you can deal with a zombie – but taking on any combination would mean dealing with a nightmarish assortment of disparate attacks and their appropriate counters.

So with this in mind, just how often does the original Resident Evil mix enemy types anyway?

It doesn’t.

Deadly Silence though…

Right from the off there are crows and zombies, crows with more zombies, dogs with zombies, and then later Hunters chasing you up the same corridor a zombie’s rottenly ambling down the other way. It all feels a bit like Ecco’s crab-lover decided to move on to bioweapons, enemies shoved in wherever because someone over at Capcom must’ve believed that seeing four zombies is twice as frightening as two. That’s just maths, isn’t it?

Needless to say, this approach doesn’t work.

How do you deal with a zombie reaching out for you in a tight corner when there’s already a crow pecking at your face? You don’t. Or more accurately – you can’t. Crows are naturally unhindered by environmental obstacles or other enemies, so there’s no breathing room, no escape. They’re also incredibly fast and can virtually turn on the spot, circling your unfortunate STARS member with ease. With post bite/peck/slash/vomit invincibility being almost nonexistent it’s very easy to end up bounced between two enemy types that were never meant to mix with no answer to offer beyond dropping dead.

These bioweapon stunlock death parties are bad enough by themselves but the real slap in the face is seeing these thoughtless mash-ups ruin that oh-so-important atmosphere. Zombies and Hunters mingling together in the mansion isn’t just a new and awkward annoyance, it’s muddying the message: The original uses the Hunters introduction to upend your expectations of your return to the mansion – you’re supposed to think “Oh thank goodness, the mansion! I’ve already cleared out the tricky bits and I know there are none of those giant plants, sharks, or massive spiders from the guardhouse in here” and then the game replies with “Ha! The place is now crawling with all-new monsters and you have no idea what or where they are, and by clearing out the zombies in those familiar places we’ve implied that what used to be your biggest threat has now been effortlessly wiped out by something far worse.”

A lot of other silent little rules are broken throughout the course of the game, all sorts of small mood-ruining decisions that on their own don’t sound like much, but together become a constant stream of irritations. A single wasp (accompanied by a random mini-spider swarm for good measure) trapped in the box puzzle corridor before the guardhouse’s “Neptune” lab area, turning what was once a dull object-shoving exercise into a health-draining annoyance. We’ve already gone over the crows but yeah, the bloody crows. The Chimeras getting an inglorious introduction in the library of all places, the environment forcing them to behave like knockoff purple Hunters instead of the deadly ceiling monsters of the power plant area they really are. The inexplicable trip back to the otherwise spent guardhouse area to take on Yawn again, who after slightly decomposing into a puddle of purple goo in the music room apparently decided to slither off, grab a book (one of two needed to unlock the final underground lab area), and then wait for you to challenge them to a knife fight. 

Slogging through Deadly Silence often makes you feel like you’re Sideshow Bob in a game full of rakes.

For all these slip-ups – and it really has been a personal struggle to prune this litany of errors down to just a few brief mentions of the very worst examples – one in particular is worth explaining in full: The time Deadly Silence decides that the most appropriate and frightening way to introduce players to sharks is to place one in the lower courtyard. It’s worth pointing out here that there is no water for a shark to swim in in the lower courtyard.

Nobody seemed to think this was a problem.

I’ll be the first to admit the shark portion of Resident Evil was never anything special until REmake came along and rebuilt the entire area from the ground up – the original location’s bland and bright, a rectangular box with a few equally unimpressive dead-end rooms off to the sides. Totally unique if only slightly dangerous, your first and only encounter with ZOMBIE SHARKS isn’t clever or especially challenging but it all made (horror movie) sense: The sharks and the water you were wading in had clearly come from the shattered tank in the middle of the room, then when you drain the water of course they wouldn’t sluice away down a conveniently fish-sized plughole. In the standard version of the game they serve as a little something to avoid on the way in, and something to laugh at as they flop around the freshly-drained room on the way out.

As I mentioned above, Rebirth’s first shark encounter is in the lower courtyard, just outside the entrance to the cave area. It’s floundering around on the floor – as completely helpless as the ones found in the lab, yes, but what makes the difference here is that this is your first impression of this new and unknown bioweapon. This is how the game chooses to introduce a new foe, showing you what it is and how much of a danger it can be – not by wading through a flooded room with a group of them in hot pursuit, but as a very literal and completely harmless fish out of water. In any other survival horror game this sort of mishandling would be considered utterly ridiculous, but when you see it as part of an in-house tenth anniversary re-release of the game that influenced an entire genre it’s almost offensive.

There’s a small grain of truth in saying Resident Evil is just keys and door and more keys and stiff shooting – what sets it apart, what makes it scary, what makes it the focal point of an entire genre that has survived on its own merits for over twenty years, is how it uses everything in its box of wonders to unnerve players with just a few static backgrounds and basic 3D shapes, with the most frequently undervalued trick up Resident Evil’s sleeve being its story. The story isn’t just contained within the bits where people are badly emoting at each other and waving their fingerless polygon mitten-hands around in an unconvincing manner – it’s not even contained within the scrawled notes or those small moments where you decide if you want to rush to Rebecca’s aid or lug around all of those MO discs to release your partner from the underground lab’s cell room.

It’s the stories you experience as you play.

It’s watching zombies start the game as fully-clothed dead people and ending it as barely human naked remains, bones audibly clicking as they approach. It’s getting the shotgun and feeling so very powerful for a few brief moments… and then the game introduces Hunters and you once again feel as naked as the day you were born. It’s being reluctantly funnelled out of the increasingly familiar mansion to the guardhouse, an unknown place filled with new and unique enemies. There is a very deliberate interplay between the base danger level of the enemies you encounter, the tools you have to deal with them, and the way the game keeps adding layer upon layer of new threats and unknown quantities to keep you feeling ill-equipped but with a faint hope that you’ll be able to see it through.

At every turn Deadly Silence shows that it does not understand this, it’s uneven mix-ups and additions amount to a contextless scrum merely for the sake of being different and often actively undermine both the spirit and the gameplay of the tightly-controlled original. Like Resident Evil 0‘s much-requested ability to drop anything anywhere at any time, sometimes what you want and what you need are two very different things. Sometimes “inconvenience” and “old-school mechanics” are in there for a reason, and that reason is not “Because we like irritating people”. Deadly Silence’s Rebirth mode isn’t unrecognisably different from the 1996 game that launched a thousand imitators – a quick glance over most of the standard shots on this page will no doubt look extremely familiar – but then again the only difference between a bowl and a sieve is just a lot of really tiny holes.

12 thoughts on “THE WASPS GO IN THE WASP NEST

  1. Great Review, was really curious after seeing your tweets on it.
    I never beat re and was going to play it on ds for portability, but if it’s this disrespectful, I’ll pass.
    I can’t get into the gc one with its too dark visuals and green gray colored everything, so I’ll probably play the original sometime.

    Btw isn’t the PS3 version of ex troopers basically the he version? They did a great job on it
    Now I want it on the switch 😫

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    1. If you’d like portable RE1 then the game’s available for use on PSP/Vita via PSN but I really would steer clear of the DS port, even in “Classic” mode – the background colours are ~crushed~ in dark places and it’s really quite grim :S

      (PS3 EX Troopers is a gem! But seeing it in 1080p on a modern format/PC would be heavenly!)

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  2. I’m the kind of guy that started Resident Evil on the REmake and only went back to the original form later, and in this very DS incarnation.

    I do very much remember starting up Rebirth mode, after playing Classic first of course, and dropping it quickly. I couldn’t get into it for the exact same reason you state: This game’s frame work is not made for all that action and combat. I still feel that Classic Mode is perfectly fine, but as said I never played another version of it to be able to compare.

    Nothing beats REmake, though :P

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      1. Yes! It has such a great look, giving the game a classy feel that none of the others really pocess. As much as I hear Resident Evl Re:2 supposedly being amazing and bless super realistic babyface Leon in the noir outfit, I almost whish we had gotten a REmake 2 in the Gamecube’s style also. I mean, I guess we’ll always have Zero, but that game really lost steam for me once you are out of the train.

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  3. It lost steam for everyone once you leave the train, I think! As much of a shame as that is, at least the train section is ~really~ good :D

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  4. I came in thinking, “What’s the harm? Surely this is just a bonus mode included as an optional novelty.” Imagine my horror to read that it’s the default.

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    1. If it’d been a little “Hey, want to try something a little different?” extra then you wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me (well… maybe a little grumbling)! But to try and frame it as the new and improved experience is another matter entirely :O

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