The survival horror genre has traveled a long road since its infancy. What began with a frantic retreat from a pursuing dinosaur eventually gave way to ghosts, mutants, beasts, and countless hordes of zombies. Alas, the genre’s fiercest foes may have been those it relied on most: the developers overly reliant on sequels and spinoffs, and the gamers who would soon lose interest.
For those who’ve been following this series from the beginning, we’ve previously reached back to the birth of survival horror, charted its rise in popularity and a sudden onslaught of sequels, as well as its golden age. So now, join us for a look at survival horror’s last gasp in the spotlight… before it’s currently-ongoing resurrection, of course.
The year was 2002, and Resident Evil 0 came hot on the heels of the Resident Evil remake, which launched in the Spring for the GameCube. Its gameplay greatly resembled that of its predecessor, albeit with two major alterations… the abandonment of the item storage chests, and the inclusion of an AI-controlled partner. Featuring S.T.A.R.S. medic Rebecca Chambers and escaped convict Billy Coen, Resident Evil 0 served as a prequel to the entire franchise. Unfortunately, its sales fell short of Capcom’s lofty expectations — something that would contribute to a radical change of direction for the series.
Proving that a licensed game can be good with enough effort behind the scenes, The Thing invaded the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox in late 2002. Serving as a sequel to the feature film of the same name, so much love and attention was given to its development that even the movie’s director, John Carpenter, lent his voice to one of its characters.
The Thing perfectly captured the fear and paranoia of its source material, featuring Captain Blake of the United States Special Forces on a mission to investigate the seemingly-abandoned Antarctic Outpost 31 from the film. Playable in third-person or first-person perspectives, gamers were charged with recruiting non-player characters (NPCs) while exploring the outpost and battling shape-shifting creatures.
While on the surface it resembles an ordinary shooter from the time, its recruitment mechanic was a hugely unique feature. Each character had two meters to keep track of: Fear, determining their usefulness, and Trust, which dictated how they behaved around the player. If the player did not continuously prove themselves to be human, NPCs could turn on you. Likewise, characters with too much Fear may flee in panic from enemy encounters, drop dead of a heart attack, or even commit suicide. Since these characters could infinitely provide you items like health packs that were otherwise scarce, managing your team was crucial. Unfortunately, they could also become infected and morph into bloodthirsty aliens themselves, leaving players to question their allies at every odd action.
Developer Computer Artworks planned a sequel, however they sadly closed down before one could become reality. A gaming tragedy if ever I heard of one!
Co-developed by Sunsoft and Capcom, Clock Tower 3 launched in December 2002 in Japan, and March the following year elsewhere on the PlayStation 2. As would later become commonplace with survival horror sequels, Clock Tower 3 took everything the series was known for and threw it all into oncoming traffic.
Overseen by Japanese film director Kinji Fukusaku, best known for Battle Royale and segments of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Clock Tower 3 had an… unusual plot… to say the least. Starring a teenage girl named Alyssa Hamilton, a warrior from a long line of time-travelling demon hunters, this entry was a third-person, fully 3D adventure rather than a point-and-click horror game.
Having seemingly skipped Fighting Evil 101, Alyssa was helpless for much of the game and could do little more than run from pursuing bosses. If the player failed to escape an enemy’s line of sight quickly enough, Alyssa would enter Panic Mode and immediately become a stumbling, bumbling Looney Tunes character while the screen flashed incessantly. This made up the vast majority of the gameplay, and while there were puzzles to solve and more nuanced methods of evasion, Clock Tower 3 never found an audience. It was a commercial failure by a wide margin, and was the final nail in the coffin for the series. However, a spiritual successor titled Haunting Ground was later released in 2005.
Silent Hill 3 at least adhered to the tone and gameplay established by its predecessors, dropping in May 2003 as a PlayStation 2 exclusive. Finally continuing the story of the original game, the third Silent Hill game takes place 17 years after the original’s conclusion, and stars Harry Mason’s adopted daughter, Heather. The teenager embarked on a return trip to the hellish town of Silent Hill, though there were no major innovations this time. However, its selectable puzzle difficulty would lead to wildly different experiences for many players.
While Capcom experimented with Resident Evil spinoffs with titles like 2000’s Resident Evil: Survivor (known as Biohazard: Gun Survivor in Japan, where it featured light gun support removed from other regions), a follow-up light gun title called Resident Evil: Dead Aim (2003), and the Game Boy Color’s Resident Evil: Gaiden (2002), they weren’t particularly well received. Resident Evil Outbreak changed this in late 2003/early 2004 when it came to the PlayStation 2.
Outbreak was designed primarily around online cooperative play, allowing players to team up with friends through the use of Sony’s Network Adapter. Choosing from one of eight playable characters with different abilities and starting items, players would work together to complete chapters that functioned as bite-sized portions of a typical RE game. While its story took place during the same timeframe as Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Outbreak didn’t have a large focus on plot.
It met with considerable success in Japan and received a sequel in 2005, Resident Evil: Outbreak File #2, though it wasn’t quite as successful. A planned third game in this sub-series was cancelled despite rumors that it was nearly completed.
The X-Files: Resist or Serve graced the PlayStation 2 with a release in March 2004, further establishing Sony’s console as the primary home for survival horror. Being yet another Resident Evil clone, Resist or Serve featured semi-static camera angles that would occasionally pan across its fully 3D environments.
Gamers took on the role of either Fox Mulder or Dana Scully, the two leads from the television series. Much like The Thing’s video game, this title carried tremendous authenticity to its source material, from hiring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to voice Mulder and Scully, to writing its multiple campaigns to fit between specific episodes of the show. The game was broken into several distinct episodes (complete with the iconic television intro theme), each featuring a different story with separate scenarios for Mulder and Scully. This provided tons of replay value, as Mulder’s more action-heavy segments contrasted nicely with Scully’s investigative gameplay. Unfortunately, it did feature respawning enemies like Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare… and that is never a good idea for this type of game.
Siren (Released as Forbidden Siren in Europe) also hit the PlayStation 2 early in 2004. What it provided the survival horror genre was a refreshing emphasis on stealth over combat, as well as a breadth of playable characters across multiple chapters. More than that, it featured two especially noteworthy gameplay mechanics.
Each of the playable characters had an innate psychic ability called the Sight Jack, allowing players to see through the eyes of nearby enemies to spot pathways or items otherwise hidden out of the way. Siren also had an ambitious Butterfly Effect gimmick, wherein optional actions in one character’s scenario would directly impact another’s storyline — very much like Until Dawn’s own take on that same idea.
Though Siren is often overlooked, it did receive a sequel in the form of 2006’s Forbidden Siren 2 (which was only released in Japan and Europe), and later a remake/reimagining for the PlayStation 3 called Siren: Blood Curse. Both titles polished and expanded upon the original’s core ideas, though they were never quite as innovative.
2004’s Silent Hill 4: The Room is an interesting title primarily because it began life as another game entirely before being reimagined as a Silent Hill spinoff, and then finally became a main entry in the series. What truly points to this unique origin is the fact that the game is not set within the town of Silent Hill, but rather the neighboring village of South Ashfield.
Primary character Henry Townshend’s journey varies in many other ways as well. As far as combat goes, Silent Hill 4 introduced weapons and items that will break upon repeated use. It also leans more heavily toward the spiritual side of things, as the ghosts of individuals murdered by the overall villain, Walter Sullivan, appear as formidable foes. These ghosts cannot be truly defeated, capable only of being knocked down or pinned in one place by usable swords. Puzzles were also greatly watered down, mostly serving as simple fetch quests, much to the dismay of longtime fans. This may have been a direct reaction to Silent Hill 3’s sometimes frustratingly difficult (but rewarding) puzzles.
This game also featured a central hub in the form of Henry’s apartment, navigated in first person. While there, players could replenish health (at least initially), store unneeded items in a chest, and enter the next level through a continuing series of holes. All of these changes combined to form a game with a feel quite different to the other Silent Hill games and, whether fans liked it or not, it would continue to influence those that came later. Much like another game with the number four in its title, in fact. Hmm…
Obscure came to PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox in late 2004/early 2005 and brought cooperative survival horror to the table. Featuring a large cast of playable high schoolers caught in the midst of a mysterious infection, each character had unique abilities to help progress. While few people found it to be a fun experience outside of its two player local co-op, Obscure did have a few good ideas. Its enemies were weak to light, and so characters armed with a flashlight could both stun and weaken them before delivering a fatal shot from various firearms — very much like Alan Wake. There was also a light weapon combo system, later used to much better effect in the Dead Rising series, and any of the playable characters could die permanently as in Until Dawn.
Obscure sold well enough to warrant a sequel, Obscure II (otherwise known as Obscure: The Aftermath) across many consoles and handhelds. However, the original’s ideas have vastly outlived this abandoned series.
Before Resident Evil 4 launched in November 2005, it had quite the turbulent development cycle. Initially directed by Hideki Kamiya at the request of Shinji Mikami, Resident Evil’s creator, the original vision starred a new protagonist named Tony. As this character’s story evolved beyond zombies and mutants, and the role of director was passed to Noboru Sugimura, the project took a pretty drastic turn. Again at the request of Shinji Mikami, this “stylish” and “cool” concept would eventually be made into a standalone title — 2001’s Devil May Cry.
Development was then handed off to Hiroshi Shibata, who promptly decided to bring Resident Evil 2’s Leon S. Kennedy back into the role of main character. Dubbed “The Fog Version” by fans following the reveal of a single trailer, this iteration would see Leon infected by the Progenitor virus while infiltrating Umbrella’s castle headquarters. This would lead to him gaining unspecified powers, possibly usable in first-person segments.
This project then veered into yet another direction for unspecified reasons, this time outlined by Yasuhisa Kawamura, writer of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Known as “The Hook Man Version” due to a specific recurring foe, this iteration was to be geared toward psychological horror. Leon was still infected by a virus (now as a possible tie-in to Resident Evil: Gaiden), this time causing him terrible hallucinations while also opening his eyes to deranged spirits. This version was scrapped due to its over-ambitious design, becoming much more expensive to produce than the budget would allow. Another version began development shortly thereafter, bringing back the zombies and usual Resident Evil tone, though it was scrapped before it could be revealed to the public.
Following this long series of unfortunate failures, Shinji Mikami took back the reins and began designing a new, more action-oriented direction for the series. When Resident Evil 4 finally released exclusively on Gamecube, it took the gaming world by surprise with its intense action, intuitive laser-guided shooting mechanics, large enemy count, and incredibly varied locations.
It also abandoned everything the Resident Evil series, and survival horror in general, had established previously. Defeated enemies dropped an abundance of ammo, a teleporting merchant sold weapons and upgrades, high-flying kicks and skull-crushing suplexes were added to Leon’s skillset, and bad puns were spewed by heroes and villains alike. Upon landing on a remote island later in the game, enemies (the parasite-controlled Ganados) even utilized chainguns and rocket launchers.
Scant traces of horror remained (mainly in the opening village, the cabin assault, and again in the regenerator labs), but much of the game was an over-the-top action festival. Giant cave trolls, large robotic statues, Spanish royalty with a Napoleon complex, and that ridiculous merchant all served to undermine most of the tension… making Resident Evil 4 the most successful game in the series.
Resident Evil 4 is a good game — that cannot be denied — but its success gained attention not only from gamers, but other developers as well. Silent Hill soon dipped its feet into the action genre as a result, and RE4 clones like Cold Fear began to spring up. The survival horror genre as we knew it shriveled up, and even died out entirely… for a time. But like any good zombie, it would eventually spring up from the ground to take a chunk out of that which failed to kill it.
But that, dear readers, is a tale best left for another time. Until then, thank you for following us down this video game rabbit hole!
And don’t forget to have a safe and happy Halloween tonight, folks!