Resident Evil 6: A Precarious Balance Between Action and Survival Horror

My history with the Resident Evil franchise is powerfully sentimental, since Resident Evil 4 was the title that introduced me to video games in the first place. Sure, the plot left something to be desired, and the limitations of the GameCube made certain bosses a total frustration to conquer, but despite its unimaginative title, Resident Evil 4 was incredibly innovative. The traditional zombie story was revamped with new mutations, there was lava in a castle, and my personal favorite: mouth-breathing Regenerators, which gave a younger me the kind of nightmares that wake you up convinced you’re about to be chewed to death. I didn’t get that kind of terror out of Resident Evil 5, so I was beside myself when advertising for Resident Evil 6 clearly heralded a return to the zombies of old–on a much, much grander scale.

Previous Resident Evil stories have featured isolated incidents, but Resident Evil 6 turns that defining feature inside out. The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, so this incident–or incidents, really–is unlikely to get buried in classified reports. Yet another virus has been created and dispersed in a few locations around the world, and each one of the three main campaigns–following old heroes Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield, and introducing Jake Muller–disperse to handle the threat in their unique way. Leon, as usual, is outgunned and outnumbered, which makes his campaign by far the most terrifying; Chris lucks out with B.S.A.A. backup, and thus leads a crusade through China that’s more Gears of War than survival horror; and Jake, the conflicted wayward son of Albert Wesker, Resident Evil’s most persistent baddie, spends his short campaign running for his life.

It’s unfortunately obvious in this installment that Capcom is backtracking: trying to preserve the new fans that hopped on with action-packed Resident Evil 5 while also trying to placate old diehards who complained about the forgotten survival horror aspect. For the latter, Leon’s campaign does not disappoint. It’s not likely that you’ll be scrounging for bullets, but all the same, if you adjust the brightness of your television as suggested–and play in a dark room–there’s a nerve-fraying bit in the subway tunnels of Tall Oaks that will keep you on edge. For the former, Chris is your guy: his enemies are less zombie-like, featuring instead the anatomical mutations popularized by his last campaign in Resident Evil 5.

Watch out for the dark corners and heavy breathing.

The multiple, intersecting campaigns are a fresh addition to a fairly stagnant franchise. Resident Evil has a history of leaving you alone and vulnerable in overwhelming situations, but in Resident Evil 6, you always have your partner, and at various points, you interact with the other pairs from other campaigns, too. I am not particularly fond of co-op, but while the A.I. is somewhat improved over Resident Evil 5–when Sheva was likely to waste herbs at the slightest provocation–this game is still better played with a human partner, in whatever capacity you can have them.

These campaigns, though, feel unbalanced. The sheer scope of locales is certainly admirable, but while Leon and Chris get a lot of fleshing-out and solid plot-driven action, Jake’s campaign is brief and scattered, with an air of disorganization. This is due largely in part to the elongated timeline: while both Leon and Chris have campaigns that only span a few days, plus a flashback chapter for Chris, Jake’s campaign stretches over half a year. His story drags in comparison to the hyperactive events of Tall Oaks and Lanshiang.

The gameplay mechanics are polished and sometimes even inventive. Technically, running and gunning is now an option, but it won’t get you very far very fast; survival depends heavily on accuracy, something you really don’t get unless you’re aiming while walking or standing totally still. It’s a good fix for Resident Evil 5, when stopping to shoot was still forced, even though the platform was capable of more versatility.

Capcom has also solved the inventory problem of Resident Evil 5; each player has their own inventory, and if you’re playing with an A.I., you’re not responsible for managing their herb and ammo collection. The inventory still hangs over ongoing action, though, so any respite you might have gained in accessing your stuff is lost in the mad shuffle to get in and out of the screen before something gnaws your leg off. Herb ingestion is also easier in tablet form, and it’s possible to organize your stash in a way that gets you healthy without having to mix in the middle of a fight for your life. Herbs as health have never seemed particularly logical, but better to have any kind of health system at all than to give all characters special self-regenerative powers.

The addition of a melee system is also a huge plus; kicking and punching enemies will drain your stamina, and you’ll know when you run out by the depletion of the bar in your status box, as well as your suddenly sluggish movements on screen. You won’t be able to run very well, either, until your character has sufficiently recovered from the onslaught–potentially leaving you stranded in the middle of the hoard you were attempting to escape from.

Rather than the shop system of old, Resident Evil 6 introduces a new mechanic for upgrading not only weapons, but abilities: skill sets. The skill points you pick up while fighting for your life can be traded for increased damage, higher magnification, and how your A.I. partner behaves. While interesting in principle, the limit on how many skills one can have equipped at once is frustrating to someone who occasionally enjoys being overleveled. On the other hand, this is a useful in-game restraint to that kind of behavior, and certainly a unique expansion from the shop system, which made it possible to go into a final boss battle with everything you needed to make that fight extraordinarily easy.

The gameplay is solid, the score is invigorating, the mood teeters just enough into survival horror to be satisfying, but there’s still a resounding meh in the latest addition to the franchise. Ultimately, Resident Evil 6 is trying too hard to be too many different things–a survival horror game, an action game, and a simple puzzle game, all packed with enough content to have the length of an unambitious RPG. With its attention splintered across genres, it leaves irritating potholes behind to trip up on.

The thing that I found most redemptive above Resident Evil 6 was the story–a sentence I never expected to write about this franchise. These tales were poorly paced, but the characters of the Resident Evil franchise have never been particularly compelling before this installment. Helena’s backstory, coupled with the attack on Tall Oaks and the murder of Leon’s beloved President, is actually moving; Chris’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder in the face of prolonged exposure to combat is viciously real; Jake’s reluctant effort to help save the world after his spotted history as a mercenary is sympathetic and redeeming.

The villains are as forgettable as ever, except for their truly cringe-worthy monologues. On the whole, the dialog is regrettable, though the voice acting is improved. There are few new and exciting aspects to the gameplay, and while a balance is struck between “action” and “survival horror,” it’s a precarious one. The stories of the protagonists, though, are compelling. That is what will ultimately keep me replaying this installment, though maxing out all my skills is a close second incentive.

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The villains all look the same, too. The slicked-back hair, the weird fashion choices…

7.5/10

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