Republished on Monday, 31st October 2016: We're bringing this article back from the archives to celebrate Hallowe'en today. The original text follows.
Originally published on Monday, 27th October 2014: My first taste of survival horror came courtesy of Trip Hawkins' ill-fated 3DO. Our family gaming room was one of approximately six around the UK to play host to the Panasonic edition of the so-called Interactive Multiplayer, and we had a copy of the original Alone in the Dark lying around. I remember being fascinated by Edward Carnaby's adventure, but aside from admiring the polygonal presentation, I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to do. As such, my younger self promptly returned to the less frustrating embraces of The Horde and Theme Park.
As the years passed, I did eventually grow to appreciate fearsome franchises such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but I always felt that these titles had an obtuseness to them that put me off. As such, it was the more instantly gratifying games like Syphon Filter, Tony Hawk, and Tekken that largely occupied my PSone playing time. Despite this, I always harboured a desire for a horror game that I could actually enjoy, but doubted that it could ever be done – after all, ambiguity and a massive sense of mortality was essential to many of the spooky titles of the time.
Shinji Mikami proved me wrong. Originally part of the Capcom Five, I was secretly delighted when Resident Evil 4 shed its GameCube exclusive origins shortly before release, and shuffled onto the PlayStation 2. Reading about the game in magazines, it sounded like the type of title that I'd always wanted: tense, terrifying, and totally playable. More to the point, I was thrilled that the Japanese developer had opted to return to the drawing board, after Hideki Kamiya's “super cool" series reboot emerged as its own brand, Devil May Cry.
Despite that, I distinctly remember being somewhat disappointed with the Leon S. Kennedy starring sequel when I did eventually get my hands on it. The game had style in spades, for sure, but battles against sea monsters and chainsaw wielding villagers didn't quite provide the white knuckle experience that I was yearning for. Fortunately, that moment came about two hours into the game, not long after I'd recovered the mouthy subject of my mission, Ashley Graham. And it was in a non-descript cabin with the wavy haired Luis Sera that I realised survival horror had been redefined.
This sequence remains one of the greatest pieces of game design of all time. By this point, the title's given you plenty of opportunity to familiarise yourself with the over-the-shoulder combat mechanic, and it suspects that you've probably fallen into a routine. Indeed, in the open spaces of the village environments it was easy to turn on your heels, run, and pick off your prey without too much trouble – but then the release literally slams the door on this technique, and forces you to adapt on the fly.
And you really do have to act fast. Book cases can be used as temporary barricades, while you scavenge for supplies around the tiny room. However, no sooner than you've trotted upstairs to collect an incendiary grenade will the Los Ganados be looking to rip off your head. The thing that makes this sequence so brilliant is that it really makes you panic, while empowering you at the same time. You'll find yourself taking potshots at one window, and dropping stun grenades in front of the other – all in an instinctive blitz of gameplay bliss.
And it doesn't end there. The undead will deploy ladders and attack from above, so you'll need to carve a path through to the stairs and try to cut off their entry points. It's a five minute fight, but it feels like an hour, as you run low on ammunition and struggle to keep the enemy at bay. But the gruelling sequence's real brilliance is that it's an active encounter: you're on the back foot, without a doubt, but other than your limited munitions, you're fully capable of coping with the decomposing problem. The sense of terror, then, comes from the sheer scale of the threat that you must face.
It's a technique that's been used in subsequent survival horror games, too: the original Dead Space was at its brutal best when it forced you to use stasis to take on Necromorphs from all different directions, while The Last of Us is packed with moments where you're up against impossible odds. For me, these all prove that survival horror doesn't have to leave you frustratingly underpowered in order to be effective – in fact, I'd argue that the terror is most potent when you think that you can cope...but only end up doing so by the skin of your teeth.
Do you have fond memories of the cabin sequence in Resident Evil 4, and do you agree that it ushered a new era of survival horror? Be a purist in the comments section below.