By MooseyMcMan 4 Comments
It's that time of year again, when ghosts and ghouls, horrors and horribles, calamities and climate change wreak havoc and scare us all to our bones! (But seriously stay safe whether you're in sub-arctic temps in the US, surface of the sun temps in Australia, or whatever else wherever else).
But, in honor of this scariest of months, or more likely due to complete chance, I played a couple of capital S Spooky Games in January, and both of them I found to be well worth writing about, and for entirely different reasons! Just know that, since it's a few years old, I'll be getting into some legit SPOILERS for Soma, but I'll mark and hide that stuff as is needed. And some gameplay adjacent spoilers for the new Resident Evil 2, if you are worried about that and have somehow managed to stay away from the memes surrounding it (I really loved the game, so just go play it if you're interested).
Soma's a game that I wish I played a lot sooner than I did. Not only that, but a game that I wish I had been able to go in completely fresh on. But, due to a lot of things around that game at launch, like seeing so many people complain about the 'running away from monsters' sequences, and reading that the PS4 version was a technical mess at launch (what with that being my only option), I waited on it. So in some ways, with the official addition of Safe Mode (that makes it impossible to die via monster attack), and I think better optimization on PS4 (still wasn't perfect, but nothing game ruining for me), I probably had a better moment to moment experience than I would have back in 2015.
On the flip side, I didn't stop myself from listening to discussion of the game on Giant Bomb's GOTY podcasts that year, and there were more than a few things from the game that came up in discussion. Austin and Vinny talking about how they stayed up super late huddled around a TV trying to finish the game in a hotel room did so much to make me REALLY want to play Soma. But, it also spoiled me on some key moments in the game, and that stuff was so striking that it stuck with me, even to just a few weeks ago when I started playing it.
Stuff like the very nature of how things work in this world. Specifically minds, for lack of a better word. This one moment, that I remember them talking about, fairly late in the game, when Simon needs to "transfer" his mind from one body to another. And even knowing what was going to happen, it took the surprise off, but it was still such a horrifying moment when Simon realizes he wasn't "transferred" to another body, he was copied, and the previous Simon still existed.
And then the game gives you the choice to either leave that previous Simon there, alone, to wake back up hours later. Alone. In a facility that's slowly losing power and breaking down. Alone. At the bottom of the ocean. ALONE. Or, to kill him, and spare him of that. I went for the latter.
I could go on and on about so many different parts of the story, and why they're so good, even if they are frequently horrifying, but instead I'll narrow it down to two in particular.
The first one is the character Catherine. In a lot of ways, she's just the typical "talking voice that tells you what to do" video game character. And in a very literal way, she is just a talking voice, because after Simon meets her in her robot body, she gets transferred (copied) to an omnitool that Simon carries around for the rest of the game (though she's only conscious when plugged into a terminal).
At some point Simon asks her what it's like just being stuck in an omnitool, and though he expects her to be displeased, she doesn't mind it that much. If anything, after she mentions that she was never really comfortable in her original body, she seems like she prefers this new form, at least compared to that. That's not just a more interesting take on this than the expected "of course the original body is best," but as someone who has a whole host of discomforts with my body, I can relate!
I'm pretty sure over the years I've mentioned things like my chronic illness, my own "gender troubles" / being nonbinary (the nonbinary-ness is not a trouble, to be clear), and the passage of time only seems to make some things worse. The game never explicitly delves into anything like that, and I don't think there's enough in there to make a definitive case for anything other than Catherine being a character who wasn't entirely pleased with her original body. But even so, what's there is extremely relatable, and it's something that I would love to see explored further in a story more dedicated to that, rather than just a small part of this game's larger narrative.
And that brings me to the other thing that really stuck with me, the game's ending. Or, endings, perhaps more accurately. So, after something going wrong every single step of the way, Simon and Catherine are at the final stage of Catherine's grand plan to preserve what little is left of humanity after a comet destroyed the surface of the Earth: Launching a computer simulation, loaded with whatever scans of humans they could get, into space, where solar power will keep it running, hopefully, for millennia to come.
In typical, everything comes down to the literal last second storytelling, Catherine's and Simon's minds don't get transferred (copied) to the simulation until the rail gun launching the satellite into orbit is charging to launch, and in my head, I knew what was going to happen. I knew what they were going to do, because it's exactly what I would do if I was writing the ending of this game, and that still didn't make it any less of a punch to the gut.
The satellite launches...and unlike the last time Simon's mind was transferred (copied), this time the game's perspective stays with the old Simon, at the bottom of the sea, not in the simulation in space. Again, I knew it was coming, Catherine knew it was coming, but Simon, somehow, did not. And as frustrating as it was that he somehow didn't see it coming, I do still think it was enough within his character to make that reasonable storytelling wise, but what happens next is the coldest, most depressing thing in the entire game.
Everything around him breaks. At first when I was playing the game, I thought it was just random chance, though a brief glance at a fan wiki said that it was his yelling and swearing at Catherine that stressed her out so much that she caused an overload, which went through everything around her, and broke everything.
Except Simon, who was left alone. In the dark. At the bottom of the sea.
To wait until his battery runs out and he dies.
But that's not actually the final ending of the game, because, in a rare moment of the game throwing its audience a bone, after credits, it switches to the other Simon. The one who made it onto the simulation, into what was supposed to be an ideal world. And, until the end of this bit, I was expecting the game to throw one last bit of misery in there. Was Simon the only one in this simulation? Was the simulation actually bad, somehow?
Thankfully not. He meets up with Catherine, and the two look across a stretch of water at a beautiful city, and the camera changes to show the satellite in space, floating along, just fine and dandy. For all the pain, misery, and horror, it worked.
Even if one Simon was left alone.
END OF SPOILERS.
So, if you skipped over the spoiler section, suffice it to say that I think this game's story is incredibly strong, and unless you think a scary game might literally give you a heart attack (and I don't mean this as a joke, I'm sure it's happened at some point), or something else (the game is EXTREMELY dark (figuratively) and depressing), I really can't recommend it enough.
Just... play on Safe Mode. I did from the start, and I don't think you can change it midway through. For as good as this game is as a "walking simulator," and it's probably my favorite one that I've played (definitely my favorite story in one), the capital S Spooky Game part of this game seems like it...would not be so good. I'm just not a fan of the Amnesia style Spooky Game, for lack of a better word (though I've never played Amnesia itself). That style of game where you have no way at all to defend yourself, and your only recourse in the face of the game's enemies is to either run, or hide.
Now, elements of that style, in other games, I think can work splendidly. I think it worked the handful of times it was used in The Evil Within 2, and I think it works even better in, well, not to get ahead of myself, but in another game I played recently. But those are cases where the best parts are taken, modified in some ways, and aren't the only adversarial force in the game. Without going into details that probably just sounds like nonsense, but believe me when I say there's a meaningful difference between invincible enemies, and enemies you can't kill but can stun (despite that I don't think you could even do that in The Evil Within 2, but those sequences were so short/the stealth was so well designed in that game that it didn't bother me).
And so I recommend playing in Safe Mode. It doesn't remove the monsters from the game altogether, so if you wanted you could still play in that mode, and just pretend that the monsters could kill you. Still try to hide and sneak around them, but really, those are still the weakest parts of the game. I was still just trying to get through those as fast as I could, to get to the next story section. But at least I never got frustrated like I did in the past with something like Outlast, which I thought was a bad game all around.
However, Soma, is good. Play it if you haven't. It's dark and depressing, and maybe in this dark and depressing world, that's the last thing you need. Some days are like that for me too. But if you're down for that, this game gets the Moosey Seal of approval. For years I've meant to make a joke image of a seal (the animal) with that text on it, but I still haven't yet. Maybe someday...
Resident Evil 2 (2019).
If Soma was a game that I love for the story, but not the gameplay, then RE2 is the opposite. The story's fine, but it's mostly enjoyable because there's just enough cheese in the dialog that I can't tell how serious the game is taking itself, but the game part? It's the chef kissingest of chef kisses. I definitely consider myself a fair weather Resident Evil fan. I jumped on with 4 (loved it), really enjoyed 5 (despite it, in retrospect, being kinda racist (but that's a whole other discussion)), dabbled with some of the earlier games but they never clicked, and I played 6, enjoyed some small parts of it but found it overall to be just a mess. I didn't even bother playing 7, because the whole hick/hillbilly horror aesthetic turned me off so much.
But this remake of 2? It is, in so many ways, what I've always wanted survival horror games to be, but never actually realized because most of the "survival horror" games that I liked were really just spooky action games. RE4, Dead Space, etc. The Evil Within 2 was maybe the closest, and I could make an argument for Prey (2017) being at least survival horror adjacent, but really I liked those games because they were stealth games, with solid stealth mechanics.
Resident Evil 2 is a Survival Horror game, and it's incredible. It takes the world design ethos of those old games, but combines it with a modern look, controls, and seamlessness that makes it not just work, but honestly one of the most compelling games I've played in recent memory. Of course, maybe that's impacted by the last handful of games I've played being the sorts of things I often enjoy in spite of themselves (Assassin's Creed Odyssey/I'm midway into Yakuza Kiwami), but I'm definitely being sincere when I say a Survival Horror game has never clicked with me the way this game has.
The main problems I had with the old Resident Evil games were the ones that just about everyone who doesn't like those games had: The controls and the camera angles. I could at least appreciate the camera angles aesthetically, especially in the PS4 remaster of the GameCube remake of the PS1 original, but even that I felt like I was fighting the game more than the zombies or other critters. And the reason why the more action oriented "survival horror" games didn't click with me the way this game has is that they just give you so much ammo. I don't think there was ever a single encounter in RE4, or any of the Dead Space games where I was running low on ammo, so I had to just run. And again, The Evil Within 2 appeals to me in the way games like Metal Gear or Splinter Cell do, it just has zombies instead of generic military men as enemies.
And that's another thing, RE2 has the best zombies I've ever fought in a game, because they can stress me out in a way no zombie ever has before. But the differences with these zombies are so small, so subtle that it's hard to believe no big budget game has really thought of this before. The just move in the ways that an undead creature would move. They're erratic. They judder and lurch unpredictably. They don't just move in straight lines, giving you an easy target. They will just stand around if they don't know you're there, but once they do, they come after you. Even if you've managed to shoot off all their arms and legs (as this game has perhaps also the best dismemberment and flesh disfigurement in any game I've played (also shout out to videos games for getting me to praise dismemberment and flesh disfigurement)).
The other brilliant thing about these zombies is the uncertainty with how much it takes to "kill" them. Most games, and for good reason generally, there's a very set, consistent amount of damage needed to defeat enemies, even if those numbers aren't surfaced to the players. But in RE2, you could have to hit a zombie five or six times in the head to "kill" it, or you could get lucky and have its head explode after the first shot. But unless you get that lucky head explosion, it might just stand back up. It could be twenty minutes later when you're passing through the room again, or it might be seconds later as you're trying to pick something up nearby. As best as I can tell, there's no consistency to it, but this is the rare case where I think it works 100% in the game's favor.
And then there's him.
As you just read, I have long been critical of the Amnesia or Outlast style of horror game, where you're hiding and running from an invincible enemy. Every time it devolves into trial and error bad stealth. So, then, why does Mr. X, an invincible enemy in a Survival Horror game work so well for me? I think part of it is the menace, both figurative and literal that follows him around. Aside from some scripted moments where the game cheats with Mr. X's location, he exists somewhere in the world, and he's loud. You can hear him clomping around from rooms away, and if your headphones are good enough (mine are probably borderline in this regard, but they're what I have), you can get a decent idea of where he is, or at least what direction he is.
That clomp clomp getting closer always gave me pause. "Is he coming? Should I just wait a minute for him to pass? What if he comes in here?" The audio design in the game is just so fantastic, and using it both to have an idea of when Mr. X is approaching, but also that being used to up the stress because Mr. X is approaching is just again, chef kiss level good.
Another thing I love about him, and I mean this genuinely, is that like the game as a whole, and really the era of Resident Evil this game is from, his design is just so silly. He's this enormous mountain of muscles, with this stoic grey face, and he wears this ridiculous giant trench coat and fedora. Or whatever kind of hat it is, it's hard to tell when I'm always running away from him (or I shot the hat off for the Trophy). But that mix of inherent, but still subtle cheese with the genuine stress this game can induce is something I just really love. And again, why this works for me, but the less silly more, "we're invoking the legitimate terror of being trapped with murderous hillbillies" vibe that what I've seen of RE7 has.
I really could just go on and on about Mr. X, and all the other enemy types, but I'll hold myself back, because I don't want to spoil any more than I have. I had never really played the original, not outside twenty or thirty minutes on a used copy of the N64 version. That was in a brief stint of after loving RE4 so much that I wanted to go back and experience some of the older games. The point being that I was able to go into this one about as close as fresh as I could have, at least while still knowing things about the greater Resident Evil lore, some of the bonus modes, etc.
I do have a few complaints with the game. I wish there were more differences between the Leon and Claire playthroughs. What I was hoping for was unrealistic, but I would have loved if each of them had a totally unique campaign. Instead, what we get is the same general campaign, aside from a sequence toward the middle that changes for each of them. In both cases that includes (very minor spoiler) a bit where you play as another character (different for Leon and Claire), and I think both of those are my least favorite sections of the game. And for different reasons, which I shan't spoil.
I get having the first playthrough of the game be roughly the same, but after I beat Leon's story, I unlocked a "2nd Story" option, which was also not as different as I hoped. It cut off some of the start of the original playthrough, introduced tougher enemies sooner, and remixed some of the bigger puzzles in interesting ways, but aside from that... It was just another playthrough of the same game. I don't know how much of the similarities between the playthroughs is due to a dedication to the original game, lack of resources (or relative lack, because the game has astoundingly good production values), or whatever. But if they do something like this again in the future, I'd really love if there were more concrete differences.
And honestly I just wish the game was longer. There is a part of me that wants to invoke the "is this game's length worth the cost," but I feel bad doing that, even though I know games are expensive, and the drive to spend money efficiently on them is real. Especially in these days, insert "in this economy" joke here. But really, I wish it was longer because it is such a great game that I could have just kept playing it if there was more. Even after beating the 2nd Story and getting the "true ending," I kinda want to start a fresh game, and go through the characters in the other order. Maybe even try it on Hardcore, though playing with limited ink ribbons, and no auto-saving sounds like even more of a nightmare.
I guess I could keep banging my head against the (unlockable) 4th Survivor mode, which on paper shouldn't be that hard. I watched a video of it online, and it only takes about ten minutes to complete if you know what you're doing. But somehow the person in the video manages to dodge and weave around enemies, and when I try to copy their moves, I get grabbed. I dunno, it isn't the sort of thing that I think plays to the game's strengths. RE2 is a game that moves back and forth between slow and methodical, and hurried, depending on the enemy situation. But this mode, even without a timer, just feels like I need to keep moving, but there's so many enemies, and no additional ammo or healing items to be found in the levels, and it just got frustrating.
Okay, full transparency: Between my writing this and posting it, I went and DID finish 4th Survivor mode. And I have to say, given how silly Tofu is, and how ripping the Tofu music it, it was worth it.
And that brings me to another issue I have with the game, which wasn't really a problem too much with the main game, but for whatever reason was here: The flashlight. It's fine when it's on, it illuminates enough to be useful, but not so much that it completely eliminates the darkness. There's no battery to worry about, but there's also no way to manually turn it on or off. It just turns on in areas marked by the devs, and turns off when you leave those. Most of the time, not a problem. But every once in a while there would be a room too dark to really see in, and the light wouldn't come on. And in 4th Survivor mode, it felt like that was in A LOT of rooms.
I ended up turning my brightness up, for just that mode. Can you blame me for wanting to leave it a little low to increase the spookiness in a Spooky Game?
But the game as a whole, I did truly love. And I'm interested to see what those DLC stories are like. I'm not expecting them to be especially long or anything, but I wonder how much of them will be reusing areas from the game, or if there's new places to explore.
And I'm excited for the future of Resident Evil, for the first time in...a long time, at least. I was going to say over a decade, but that's not true, because I was excited for how absurd and ridiculous RE6 looked before that came out. And RE5 was a decade ago, I was excited for that game, and oh no the endless march of time... But I do wonder what form RE8 will be. Probably more like 7, right? I keep hearing that there's different teams working on the RE games, and if the 7 team is making 8, that's what I would think. Not that I mind, in theory, it being first person, but that aesthetic and tone turned me off, whereas returning to classic RE cheese was exactly what I wanted from the series.
So if I have to wait a handful of years for whatever this team does next (RE3-make? An original spin-off set back in the 90s again? RE9?), that'll be fine. If it's as good as this was, it'll be worth the wait.
Thank you as always for reading!