Resident Evil may not be the jolliest of game series, but its tendrils and claws seem made to be brandished this time of year.
Here it is: The time of year you save up vacation days for just to soak in all the remaining ticks before the ball drops on another group of 365-or-so days. For those that have taken to this tradition, unexpected free time may not come often enough to fill yourself with a larger RPG or even find a grove in online shooters. Besides, those experiences will be around for you to find and fight again. Instead, maybe you should take a little trip to your neighbors’ house up in the Arklay Mountains.
After nearly 30 years, there is still nothing and nowhere quite like the original Resident Evil’s haunted estate planned, designed, and condemned by the maddest of madmen. You can make the argument that, besides a few off-the-radar games, no other survival-horror titles even tried to recreate that kind of evil. The original Silent Hill – another classic – shunned the idea of a complete experience held within tight corridors in favor of sprawling, fogged city streets with interior sections changing the pace intermittently. They are similar in their snow globing (taking place inside a larger construct, not just a sole location) but almost opposite in their execution.
To be fair, the original Evil didn’t hit survival-horror perfection until the Gamecube remake in 2002, which was one of my first experiences with the franchise. Until that point, the Nintendo 64 version of Resident Evil 2 had been the main source of zombified delight, but when the Spencer Mansion came calling, there was no going back. I’m pretty certain I wasn’t even aware of the PlayStation original when renting the Gamecube remake, and thankfully so. It felt fresh that way and cultivated a real tension over every encounter, especially when the first Crimson Head sprang to life again, sending my Jill bolting for the closest door.
That sent me down a rabbit hole to find another survival-horror game that matched that remake, and to some moderate success. Nemesis didn’t add too many new scares, Code Veronica took multiple hard restarts to finally finish, and Resident Evil 4, though a perfect game in its own way, intentionally moved away from that sole location. One of the issues that seemed to plague these other entries, especially RE 4 and Code Veronica, was their length. Those two games felt so long that an anchor was thrown on top of any desire for subsequent playthroughs, especially in the days of beating a game in five days or less to avoid the dreaded late fees. Even today, starting either game, while certainly worth the effort, doesn’t exactly feel like a quick-hit experience.
One of the best things about most Resident Evil games is that you can feel like you’re becoming “good” at them, and have a measurable way of judging that in your completion time. Silent Hill and other games have this as well, but the sense of dread endures at the Spencer Estate. In Silent Hill, you worry about health; Resident Evil has poison, one-hit kills from Hunters when below a certain health, one-hit kills from Crimson Heads, one-hit kills from Tyrant, one-hit kills from Neptunes, defensive items, and health. Even when you feel “good” at the game, you still lend it the majority of your attention, or save before specific spots, or take alternate routes to avoid enemies. Ironically, it’s the remade Resident Evil that’s more in your head than Silent Hill.
So, what the heck brings up RE for this time of year? Free time, of course. There is a certain tiered progression that feels subtly implemented behind somewhat clever puzzles and a simple, straight-forward system of keys. You only have, say, two hours to get some playing done, then make your goal to find and enter all of the Sword Key doors. A little more time? Then grab the four Masks of Death and take out the boss. There are these kinds of tiers built in to make you feel that you’ve progressed and that you can leave off without feeling too terribly lost upon returning, whether you’re a fan of walkthroughs or a purist. It’s a trip through terror that never quite wanes and doesn’t ask Alien: Isolation levels of time commitment.
With the release of the HD Remake earlier this year came another playthrough, and yet another one is probably pending this holiday season – as well as a go-through of the Zero HD game when it emerges – almost solely because of its digestible tension. The Spencer Estate isn’t all that time consuming (around 10-12 hours for a new masochist), the tensions are almost always high, and the entire place sticks with you in a distinct, memorable way. The merriest of places it is not, but with one-stop locations dying in video games, the Spencer Estate helps make Resident Evil a title worth picking up time and time again, especially when there’s free time on the menu just under brains with a side of Jill sandwich.