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Is Survival Horror Making a Resurgence?

Shambling back into the light.



Is Survival Horror Making a Resurgence

Like every good monster, Survival Horror just won’t stay dead. For such a beloved genre, it has had more than its fair share of ups and downs. It has been on top of the world, and it has been backed into a corner with just one green herb and a handful of bullets left. It has, like a scientist dabbling with things beyond their comprehension, evolved and grown with the times, and slunk back into the shadows. But with the recent release and successes of both the Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 Remakes, is Survival Horror set to claw its way back to the top?

A Once-Butchered Genre

Horror games as a whole haven’t enjoyed the same stability, reception, or sales as, say, Shooters or Platformers. There was a time, not too long ago, when they were considered out of date – unpopular and unprofitable. Publishers refused to greenlight anything too dark or disturbing, anything that disempowered the player, anything that didn’t fit the pre-established mould of “games that sell”. Anything original. But ticking boxes does not a good game make.

Existing franchises were butchered, pared down, cut back, squashed into cookie-cutter experiences that robbed them of any individuality or macabre charm. The action-horror take on the genre started so masterfully in Resident Evil 4 began to overshadow the survival-horror in its sequel. And by Resident Evil 6, any semblance of true terror had been thrown out the window, replaced with explosive, Michael Bay-esque blockbuster action. The Resident Evil franchise became a shade of its former self, an over-bloated, under-developed, wildly absurd parody of what fans had come to love.

Image: Capcom - Resident Evil 6's bombastic action was too much for most fans.
Image: Capcom – Resident Evil 6‘s bombastic action was too much for most fans.

Similarly, Dead Space went from the perfect homage to survival horrors of old, that wasn’t afraid to try its own thing and bring the terror to a new setting and generation, to a Dead Space-shaped shell filled with microtransactions, pointless co-op, and derivative military shooter-inspired enemies. For some bizarre reason known only to them, the higher-ups at EA saw Dead Space’s success and thought they could make it more successful by removing everything that made it so gruesomely special, and forcing it to play like every other third-person shooter on the market.

Predictably, both Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 bombed. Fans weren’t happy with the unfocused messes their once-beloved franchises had become and simply refused to buy them. Despite the setback, Capcom learnt from their mistakes with the terrifically terrifying Resident Evil 7, which blew both critics and fans out of the water, and set the entire series back on the right track. Dead Space, however, was not so lucky. EA refused to admit their own poor decisions and blamed developers Visceral Games, shutting the studio down for good in 2017, and effectively killing the franchise.

A little action every now and then can be the perfect palette cleanser to break the tension, but not if it comes at the expense of the scares. Thankfully those dark days look to be a thing of the past. A result of, ironically, looking to the past.

Image: Motive Studio - Under EA's leadership, the Necromorphs devolved from nightmares to bullet sponges.
Image: Motive Studio – Under EA’s leadership, the Necromorphs devolved from nightmares to bullet sponges.

Remaking the Past

The horror genre has made quite a comeback in recent years mainly thanks to the rise of PT-esque psychological horrors – haunted houses with twisted corridors, places whose very geometry is out to get the player, patrolled by terrifying stalker enemies that the player is powerless to put down. While this style of horror shot to fame around a decade ago, renewing interest in the genre and proving to publishers the world over that horror wasn’t dead, these games weren’t true Survival Horrors. The true fun of a Survival Horror is the ability to fight back, to succeed against the odds and blast your way out of tight, nigh-on impossible, situations by the skin of your teeth.

Gamers didn’t see a true return to proper Survival Horror until Capcom released their brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake. Taking everything that made the original a timeless classic, Capcom breathed new life into their more than twenty-year-old game with stunning new graphics, modernised and fully updated camera and controls, a redesigned story that honoured the original, reworked enemies, and more. Taking cues from modern horrors – such as turning the hulking Mr X into an unkillable, ever-present stalker – while also staying true to the original’s vision, meant the game slotted in nicely with the modern gaming landscape. Players were suddenly reminded of what they had been missing, and began clamouring for more.

That’s not to say there hadn’t been attempts at reviving the genre before then. Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within and its sequel The Evil Within 2 both tried to reinvigorate fans by bringing many of the genre’s tropes and staples to a new audience. But, either because they were released at the wrong time, their stories were too impenetrable, or players simply didn’t want to risk taking a chance on an unknown name, they failed to generate much interest. Which is a shame, as both games were a step in the right direction for the genre. Especially The Evil Within 2, with its old-school mechanics blending nicely with stealth and a more open world, and some truly horrific creature design to give it its own monstrous personality. 

No, it was Resident Evil 2 Remake’s incredible success (and to a lesser extent its follow-up Resident Evil 3 Remake’s moderate success) that brought Survival Horror back to the forefront, both in the minds of players and producers. Survival Horror had once again proved it was a viable genre, all it needed was the right game in order to sell, to prove that fascination with all things macabre was real. And it’s this sentiment that sparked new interest in the classic titles of old, and saw the re-release of two giants of the genre: Dead Space and Resident Evil 4.

Image: Capcom - Slow and steady, Resident Evil 2 Remake took things back to terrifying basics.
Image: Capcom – Slow and steady, Resident Evil 2 Remake took things back to terrifying basics.

Return to the Ishimura

January 27, 2023, saw the release of Dead Space Remake, a stunningly beautiful, horrifically gruesome update of the original 2008 game. Not only did this remake understand everything that made the original so scary – the oppressive atmosphere, the ebb and flow of tension and release, the utterly horrific Necromorph design – it knew what to improve for a modern audience.

Dead Space Remake is positively dripping with atmosphere (along with other, best unnamed, viscera). The creaks and groans of the derelict hulk of the USG Ishimura echo around the player in full 3D audio, making it feel as if the hull will split or tear away at any moment, ripping protagonist Isaac out into the endless darkness of space in an instant. Enhanced lighting effects and volumetric fog obscure corners and corridors with impenetrable shadows, while realistically flickering lights make the player jump at every movement. Necromorphs lurch and strike with increased ferocity, and take more damage as each blast from a Plasma Cutter flays away skin and bone in sickeningly impressive detail.

But the ship itself is also more open. No longer does it feel segmented, cut into bite-sized chunks of terror. Now, the Ishimura is one large, interconnected ship – one the player is free to explore and backtrack once more routes and areas open up to them. The increased memory of the current generation also allows for more objects to appear in a given level – this means more detail and worldbuilding, but also fully expanded areas complete with new items and secrets to find. In a similar manner, the story has been greatly improved, adding more depth and personality to the main characters, while also fleshing out the background lore.

The game knows what worked in the past – and brought it all back kicking and screaming – but it also learnt from over a decade of new game design, breathing new life into an old corpse.

Image: Motive Studio - The USG Ishimura looks stunningly atmospheric. Just keep an eye on the shadows.
Image: Motive Studio – The USG Ishimura looks stunningly atmospheric. Just keep an eye on the shadows.

The Return of an Occult Classic

Then, on March 24, 2023, another titan of terror was released onto the world, fresher, bolder, and bloodier than ever. Resident Evil 4 Remake built upon the work of Capcom’s previous remakes and created something wonderfully familiar and yet breathtakingly new. Adapting the seminal original game – the game that introduced the world to what would essentially become the third-person shooter – was no small feat. Yet while the original is still loved the world over, and still holds up remarkably well today, RE4 Remake offers a new take on the classic formula. One much darker and much deadlier.

Like with the new Dead Space, RE4 Remake doubles down on the oppressive. The current generation’s extra memory and processing power have allowed for some horrifyingly macabre environments. The sparse grey forests of the opening sections have become dark, dense, and disturbing woods, packed with bent and twisting trees hung with shadow. The castle is a gothic nightmare of dismal corridors and truly impressive great halls. Cult iconography, and the signs that something truly sinister is going on behind the scenes, litter the game from the start. But again, these areas don’t just look prettier (read: spookier), they have also been massively expanded far beyond the scope of anything its original creators could dream of creating back in 2005. With these expanded areas come new challenges, collectables, and even entirely new side quests – bonus optional content designed to allow players to fully explore and soak in every last gory detail.

Enemies – the swarming, hive mind-like Ganado – twitch and lunge erratically, betraying their Las Plagas-infected state earlier on. And Leon’s new ability to move and shoot at the same time, means they have become infinitely more aggressive, swarming the player in greater and deadlier numbers. And, as before, the story and characters have received some much-needed rewrites. The campy, over-the-top tone has been dialled back for a welcome dose of realism, and the characters talk and act a little more like real human beings.

Reworking both of these hugely influential titles was a big risk for their publishers, but one that paid off in the end. And some positive sales figures (3 million copies sold in two days for RE4 Remake), proved that there is a viable market for Survival Horror games, that players are crying out for more terror.

Image: Capcom - Resident Evil 4's disturbed villagers have never been so beautifully terrifying.
Image: Capcom – Resident Evil 4‘s disturbed villagers have never been so beautifully terrifying.

A Vision of Things to Come

It’s all very well looking to the past, but what will the future hold? Remaking old classics has certainly been a profitable choice for companies – the fanbase is already there, after all – but for how long will that gold vein last? The future looks bright for a potential Resident Evil 5 remake, or Dead Space 2 – remakes that retool these games into the true Survival Horrors they were always meant to be, but players need new stories, new ideas and concepts. So do games, lest they stagnate. Players don’t always know what they want, and so developers need to be allowed to take risks. The Callisto Protocol may not have set the world on fire as intended, but it was a step in the right direction. It was new. It was different. And it was amazing for trying it.

The upcoming and long-awaited sequel Alan Wake 2 is also reportedly going down the Survival Horror route, and I’m all for it. The Lovecraft and Stephen King-inspired world is perfect for cerebral scares and tense resource management. But I’m still holding out hope for something entirely unseen. New titles from new and existing developers. New experiences that delve into the horrors that lurk deep within the human mind. New fantastic, grotesque, abominations of monsters to stalk me through the night. And shotgun with a couple of shells too few to fight back.

Image: Remedy Entertainment - The long-awaited sequel to Alan Wake is set to dive deep into the waters of Survival Horror.
Image: Remedy Entertainment – The long-awaited sequel to Alan Wake is set to dive deep into the waters of Survival Horror.

Survival Horror games need to survive. They allow players to live on the edge, never fully in control but never completely on the back foot. They are an experience quite unlike anything else in gaming, and when done well, they haunt your dreams long after the credits roll.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.