Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Nvidia SHIELD TV
Release Date: Out Now!
With the upcoming release of the eagerly-anticipated Resident Evil Village, the next mainline entry into the survival horror series, I’ve felt inspired to continue where I left off with my reviews of the franchise. If you aren’t aware, I spent a lot of my time in lockdown last year educating myself on Resident Evil, by playing through all eight numbered entries (including prequel Zero) as well as the two interstitial Revelations games. Yes, whilst everyone else was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I spent the pandemic playing Resident Evil… There is a certain irony in that, eh? So far, I have published six reviews, so with all the zeitgeist around Village, I was reminded of my target to review them all! This time around, I am reviewing Resident Evil 5, which had the challenge of following up the groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed Resident Evil 4. It definitely pulls out the stops to do just that, with the addition of co-op play to go with an action-packed campaign across Africa; however, some of the staple horror elements of the series do end up suffering from the new direction the series takes. Overall, how does it balance out, you ask? Well, read on…
It’s All Connected
As I say, with Resident Evil 4 making such strides with a new over-the-shoulder third-person perspective and thrill-a-minute blend of horror and action (a template the series subsequently followed until 2017 and the first-person Resident Evil 7: Biohazard), the sequel Resident Evil 5 had a lot of expectation around it. For this game, the focus shifts back to characters from the original Resident Evil that started it all, as Chris Redfield (Roger Craig Smith) – who, going by the size of his arms, has been seriously working out! – meets up with Sheva Alomar (Karen Dyer) in Africa, in order to look into suspicious bioweapons handling. Surprise surprise, the local townspeople have been infected by a new Type 2 strand of the Las Plagas affliction from Resident Evil 4. When commanded, this makes them hostile against Chris and Sheva, but soon it becomes a more personal matter; Chris discovers that there is a connection between these events and the missing Jill Valentine (Patricia Ja Lee), his partner and the other playable character from the original Resident Evil. The last time Chris saw Jill, she was saving him by tackling Albert Wesker (D.C. Douglas) – also from the first Resident Evil – out of a window and down the mountainside below.
There is a lot going for this set-up; the crossover of multiple returning characters gives a climactic event feel to the story, as their arcs relative to each other are developed and closed off. Interwoven into an otherwise quite generic infecting-the-world narrative, these character dynamics do so, so much to lift it and engage the player into the on-screen action, especially if you have played the prior games and have that long-running familiarity with the parties involved. In addition, the African setting is refreshing; whilst it does initially threaten to be the source of a very PlayStation 3/Xbox 360-era brown colour palette, a lot is done to prevent that and mix it up, with fiery reds, mysterious blues, and pristine whites supplying visual variety as you progress through mountains, swamps, laboratories, and more. My experience of Resident Evil 5 has been the PlayStation 4 version, which does include a slight refinement of the graphics; the noticeable extra layer of polish adds to the cinematic feel the game strives for, an intent shown by the film-style letterbox aspect ratio in cutscenes and the energetic way the camera moves within them.
Sadly, though, there is cost and compromise with the new tone Resident Evil 5 pursues. By leaning even further into the action aspects that 4 proliferated, it loses much of the stomach-clenching survival horror that permeates previous entries, in particular when there is a natural comparison to the last numbered game with a focus on Jill and Chris – the original Resident Evil. See, it isn’t that Resident Evil 5 does not have horror in it, but it is decidedly more of a B-Movie run-and-gun vibe. You’re laughing along with the gruesome enemies and over-the-top plot twists, instead of tentatively approaching every new corridor in fear of the threats creeping up on you. Now, I do not think that this disparity is an outright bad thing, at least not conceptually, as there are merits to both approaches. You’ll still regularly be in desperate moments where you are running low on ammo, health, or both, but it’s more a source of thrills than it is raw scares. Resident Evil 5 gets a lot of criticism for straying away from the supposed survival horror DNA of the series (though not as much as Resident Evil 6 did, but we’ll get to that another day), and I can understand where that would come from. After playing those claustrophobic and atmospheric earlier games, 5 is quite a jarring course change, even considering the direction 4 started the series on.
It doesn’t help, either, when the execution of the story is a mixed bag. Whilst dialogue in Resident Evil has always been wonderfully melodramatic, Resident Evil 5 takes it to exasperation-inducing degrees at times. Some of the supporting antagonist characters are utterly two-dimensional, such as the initially-prominent bioweapons dealer Irving (Allan Groves) who gets practically no time to make an impression. Especially disappointing, though, are the short, cliché back-and-forth lines that playable characters Chris and Sheva share. Clearly, the game is attempting to craft a focus on the idea of partners and teammates; Sheva is Chris’ new partner, as he goes on a journey to find his previous partner Jill. Yet, when there is such a severe lack of development for Sheva in particular, it subsequently hurts the potential of her dynamic with Chris, and the effectiveness of any payoff it might have. As the game goes on, Sheva gets sidelined more and more, which is a real letdown. Her backstory and how it connects to the history of the series is tragic, and could have been the source of emotional moments… Yet, they never really materialise. As Sheva is pushed further into the background, so is that motif of partners, which causes certain late-game set-pieces to be less thematically hard-hitting than they could have been.
Talking of partners, the gameplay itself is centred around that as well. In general, the Resident Evil series tends to make a point of having a multi-character approach. Before Resident Evil 5, this has manifested in various forms, but always around the conceit of one player. The difference for Resident Evil 5 is that the entirety of the game can be played in co-op with two players, either in local splitscreen or online. It lends an entirely new feel to the experience – and one that is part of the reason for that aforementioned emphasis on thrills over scares, as having someone there with you pre-emptively removes a lot of tension. At a base level, the moment-to-moment mechanics are very similar to 4; you control either Chris or Sheva from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, stopping in place to zoom in with your equipped weapon and attack. Usuaully, this is a firearm of some sort, with your usual Resident Evil assortment of pistols, machine guns, rifles, and more. This stop-and-shoot system is a bit clunky now you can compare it to the recent silky-smooth remakes of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3, but you get used to it quickly, and the substantial kickback to the weapons is satisfying. Speaking of satisfying, if you stun an enemy or knock them to the ground, you can get close for a melee attack button prompt; these are very gratifying, from the crunching punches and stomps of Chris to the acrobatic kicks and somersaults of Sheva (pro tip: they’re also a great way to deal lots of damage without using ammo). If you time it right, then your partner and yourself can sync up to perform a combo attack, which is one of those yee-haw moments – especially whilst in co-op.
Indeed, Resident Evil 5 is built around encouraging you to work as a pair. Your inventory, for one, is cut down significantly from previous games, with only nine slots per character for items at any one time. Across the two characters, this means constant management of who needs which items is essential. However, it goes a bit too far – especially on lower difficulties, the sheer quantity of items strewn around can be too much for your inventories to handle, and leads to those awful moments of having to leave some items behind. As is series tradition, Herbs and First-Aid Sprays are your main source of healing, and you can now heal both your partner and yourself at the same time if you get close. If either of you runs out of health, then they’ll go into a Dying state, where your partner has a limited amount of time to resuscitate you; so, sticking close to each other is often crucial. As well as this, levels are structured in order to get you working as a unit. At a basic level, this means some obstacles needing both players to interact with them at the same time, but it also gets more complex at times, with some sections splitting Chris and Sheva up; one might have to cover the other from a vantage point, or you may need to get to two different objectives on opposite sides of the map. It’s not exactly the most intricate puzzle design you’ll ever see, but Resident Evil 5 does make you stop and think through how to divide your efforts at several points, and this makes for a nice breather from the combat sequences.
Helping with that, too, is a decent variation in said combat. Going with the way Resident Evil 5 surprises somewhat in the locales it throws at you, the enemies impressively match that. From the beginnings of infected Majini townspeople, you start to encounter resilient axe- and chainsaw-wielding mini-bosses, before escalating into rather disgusting set-pieces against insect-themed bosses and much more – with a decent human element to some fights as well. Further contributing to the “mixed bag” aspect of Resident Evil 5 are the occasional vehicle sequences: on the positive side, a section early in the game where you traverse a swamp on a hovercraft is a welcome idea that encourages exploration, but in contrast, the more frequent – and quite dull – on-rails sections are a misjudgment that disconnects the player due to the static action of holding down fire on a minigun. Overall, though, these are not too frequent, and as you get further in, fights are staged in tighter spaces that at least start to get closer to previous Resident Evil games in both setting and combatants. As level design starts to restrict your surroundings more, an increased emphasis is put onto utilising the movement options at your disposal, such as the handy 180 degrees quick-turn movement; this is much more fulfilling than the early tension-defusing open spaces. Another sign of the PS3/360 times that the game launched in is the amount of quicktime events during Resident Evil 5, too – whilst some of the time they can feel unnecessary, they do also play into the whole exaggerated feeling when they occur during set-pieces. They work much better when incorporated for dodge or melee reactions, where your response times need to be sharp and it is more of a test of player skill.
Over my time with the Resident Evil series, something that has consistently stood out is the impressive amount of bonus content they include with most of their games, and Resident Evil 5 is another proficient example of this. For starters, the main campaign – which takes around ten-fifteen hours, depending on your speed – contains a decent amount of replayability, with different difficulty modes and a selection of completion ranks depending on your performance (with S-Rank the target!). This is actually an area where the more action-packed, arcade approach of the game shines. Inherently, Resident Evil 5 is very easy to pick up and play, whether for a short burst or an extended play session. This is especially the case in co-op, being an ideal game to boot up with a friend, as you talk, laugh, and occasionally scream along with events; also, seemingly small features, such as the voice commands the characters can give each other, are performed with such an over-exaggerated enthusiasm that you imagine the developers must know how much fun people would have with them. Even hours and hours in, standing at the next door and continuously telling your friend to hurry up has a certain entertainment to it! Indeed, playing on your own is not quite the same; the more repetitive and silly moments strike less keenly in solo, and you notice much more of the occasionally awkward animations when you do not have the fun of co-op to gloss over it.
There is also a vast amount of collectibles, from the blue BSAA emblems scattered through each chapter (often in very hard-to-see places!) to the range of treasures that you can sell in order to afford weapon upgrades and new items in the menu screens between chapters. You can store items in these menus too, and keep them for a later chapter or a repeat playthrough. Collectibles are actually a key part of keeping you attentive, ensuring you have your eyes peeled for either emblems or the telltale glint of a treasure. You are well rewarded for pursuing the completion aspect, too, as it gives you access to figurines, outfits, screen filters, and more to shake up your experience; those outfits, in particular, are gloriously ridiculous and the source of much hilarity. Ever wondered how a safari-going Chris or secretary-esque Sheva would look? Well, Resident Evil 5 has the answers, aha!
As another plus, the DLC chapters originally released for Resident Evil 5 are now included in the base price of the latest edition of the game, which is the one I got on PS4. This includes the Lost in Nightmares prequel story that shows in more detail how Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield confronted Albert Wesker in the lead-up to the main campaign, and Desperate Escape, which runs concurrent to a certain part of the Resident Evil 5 story. Each is very satisfying in giving an expanded and alternate view of campaign events – they also have their own difficulty modes, collectibles, and S-Ranks to go for. As DLCs, they effectively fill their roles, each giving you a few extra hours of new content to experience without drastically straying from the core gameplay framework.
Closing off the rundown of the extras included, there is a handful of online multiplayer modes packaged in. This is definitely an unpolished selection, with differing success rates. The player-against-player modes – which are played either solo or in teams of two – are very unbalanced and unwelcoming for new players. Built around gathering points by either damaging other players or taking out CPU enemies, nowadays the few players still playing online tend to be very well-accustomed to the quickest ways of grabbing the best weapons for themselves. Slightly more successful is The Mercenaries United, where you take out enemies as efficiently as possible to keep your timer going and get as many points as you can. This can be played in either solo or co-op, and there are lots of characters from the Resident Evil series to play as – but, sadly, the timer on your play is quite short and works against player investment. Personally, I would have much preferred this as a more patient mode where you can take your time taking on waves of enemies (like in the brilliant Raid mode of the Revelations games) and surviving as long as possible, instead of the jarring stop-start experience here. Altogether, these multiplayer modes remind me a lot of the Resident Evil Resistance add-on for the 2020 remake of Resident Evil 3 – creative ideas that have clearly not had enough refinement to make them viable for extended amounts of time.
Resident Evil 5 is a game of peaks and troughs, genius and compromise. Key to enjoyment of it is knowing not to expect a suspenseful survival horror ala the previous games, but a rip-roaring venture that brings back past characters and has crowd-pleasing set pieces on the regular. Even so, you can see how much potential there was here for more. If they had turned down the corniness slightly and gone a little more horror, the balance could have been closer to the line that Resident Evil 4 walked so well – and that might’ve led to the twists and turns of 5 striking much deeper. Additionally, the co-op so core to the game is a double-edged sword. On one level, it opens up the unique enjoyment of playing with a friend; however, on another, playing with a partner – even if they are the CPU – supplies a level of comfort that further reduces the amount of scares. Ultimately, 5 feels quite experimental in the gameplay it intends to supply, and is only partially successful in how well it executes it – which is bad timing, as this is the game that finishes some major arcs of the series, and some of the failings slightly take away from moments of payoff. It’s not quite the epic follow-up to 4 that you’d hope for, but it gets close; and if you take Resident Evil 5 for the game it is – an endearingly over-the-top action-horror romp – then you’ll find a fantastic time to be had, especially if you bring a buddy along for the ride.