Biohazard 7

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Capcom’s third wind for Resident Evil amounts to a reset, going back to a familiar premise with new tech and ideas cribbed from rivals. Effectively jettisoning the reams of lore the series has built up–along with the over-the-shoulder gunplay which became a staple from Resident Evil 4 onward–Resident Evil 7: Biohazard drops us in a Southern Gothic mansion populated with creaky doors, themed keys, puzzle traps (occasionally lethal), and skulking, hard-to-kill monstrosities. There are few weapons, and even fewer clues for survival.

As a setup, it’s basically identical to Shinji Mikami’s original, genre-defining installment. Time and tech advances have allowed for a far greater degree of formal playfulness, which Capcom’s team uses it to its advantage. Besides the switch from fixed Dutch angles to the ever-present POV shot giving a more visceral thrill to every creeping encounter, there’s also the way Resident Evil 7 presents challenges which only appear to conform to gamer expectations. Interactive video tapes of previous victims appear to offer solutions for future puzzles (and also questions about how the camera is being held in the found footage), but have steps that could very well cause death. Apparent boss fight scenarios which require players to opt instead to run over their immortal enemy with a car, or avoid the fight entirely. Whether less complicated or more, answers are counter-intuitive to how decades of genre-building have conditioned its audience.

This lines up nicely with the fringe nature of its storyline. Ethan Winters (a stock name for a stock protagonist) is searching for his missing wife in the Bayou when he runs afoul the Baker family. Trapped and forced to use his wits, players must wind Ethan through the cannibal rednecks’ labyrinthine estate, fighting/running from them and their brood of mutant horrors while piecing together clues about the latest bioweapon.

Delightfully, Resident Evil 7‘s aesthetic is built around oily corruption. Human(oids) come with a constant sweaty sheen. The grounds are overgrown with weeds and the swamp encroaches, as if nature is reclaiming this place. Early on, Ethan is tied at a dinner table where oozing, rotten innards are served on a platter like fried chicken. Where Resident Evil‘s more stately mansion had a cleanliness bordering on preserved sterility, every surface in Resident Evil 7 breathes and breeds. This isn’t a viral outbreak in a lab, or even a zombie siege, this is an epidemic hiding away in a remote corner of rural America. Appropriately, the monsters–bloated, distended beings with engorged mouths, protruding teeth, and blackened skin–seem to birth from bulbous sacs which line the walls of the Baker house’s bowels. The casual revelation they are missing people, having been abducted, experimented on, and “turned” subservient to a hierarchy of masters, almost qualifies as a political statement. It evokes the kind of revulsion you feel when recognizing an ugliness that’s always been in front of you.

“Don’t Worry About It”

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For bringing Mega Man into three-dimensional gaming, Keiji Inafune’s Capcom team broke down the character’s essence. Set in a flooded far future, where treasure hunters loot the cavernous ruins of a precursor civilization to power the surface world, Mega Man Legends fixates heavily on equipping the Blue Bomber. Shops offer parts for your buster gun and items to help in a bind, but the meat of this endless reconfiguration comes from scrounging up busted devices and discarded schematics during dungeon raids. Hand them off to Mega Man’s adopted sister, Roll, and she’ll give you specialty weapons and equipment–rocket skates, springs to help you jump higher, and a drill that can bust down specific walls in seconds. Each addition prompts return trips to previous sites. Dig around enough, and you’ll uncover a honeycomb of these ancient halls, loaded down with deathtraps and prowling murder machines to test your walking, customized tank against.

Mega Man Volnutt is also as much a do-gooder as previous iterations. Crash landing on an island with his family, he immediately strives to make himself useful to the sleepy community, doing odd tasks or helping a pregnant woman get to the hospital. Beyond platforming superheroics, where he fights off a group of tenacious, if ineffectual, pirates, Volnutt is a jack of all trades. Give him a purpose and the right tool, then let him plow through.

Significantly, Volnutt is happy to compartmentalize these aspects of his life. While his exploration intersects with attempts to repair his family’s broken ship and a mandate to stop the pirates from inadvertently unleashing doom, a steady, dreadful realization of familiarity dawns on the boy. Arcane writing he’s able to read. Dormant tech he knows how to operate. The implications become all too clear by the time a genocidal final boss rolls around to confirm them. Yet, Volnutt never discusses this with anyone, even when it’s clear it troubles him. When prompted by Roll to open up, he simply responds “Don’t worry about it.”

The line is a brush off, but it also sums up the conflict of Legends. The smiley, perpetually sunny Kattelox Island (and, presumably, the world it inhabits) exists within the craggy walls of older civilizations which suffered calamity. Cautious and fearful, they’ve responded by taking on soft domesticity, rarely exploring and happy to watch game shows or read comics to forget (rather than acknowledge) the danger which lurks beneath their feet. Paradoxically, all their material comfort rests on gems which must be looted from these dangerous places. Volnutt, like other diggers, walks in both worlds, and learns the consequences of the two mingling too much. Given the happy-go-lucky milieu of the surface world Inafune and crew have constructed–where crippled girls can walk within moments of hospitals getting new equipment and even the pirate scourge are cheerful, loveable dorks as likely to fall in love with their enemy as they are to shoot at him–it’s natural a people pleaser like Mega Man would avoid distressing the populace. So, he keeps his work at work, in the dark underbelly, where monsters wait to rise again.

Resident Evil: Revelations 2

r-e-revelations2 A continuity entry, packaged first as an episodic game, Revelations 2 almost functions as a demonstration of the Resident Evil games’ various mutations. Resident Evil 4‘s over-the-shoulder gunplay, the partner characters of 5 and 6, even a step-tracing plot for its second protagonist similar to Code Veronica all factor in. We open with the inexplicable abduction of Claire Redfield and rookie counter-terrorist Moira, gradually revealed as part of an experiment in yet another bio-weapon (the implications of which are only given lip-service, unfortunately). Six months later, fellow series staple (and Moira’s father) Barry Burton comes looking for them, only to befriend a mysterious child named Natalia. The innovation in Revelations 2 is the ability to alternate between partners in each pairing (or have the role filled by a second player), a mechanic Capcom get some mileage out of. Claire and Moira quickly figure out how to utilize their dispositions in combat: gun-shy Moira picks up a flashlight and quips “Guess I’m on light duty,” then spends the game blinding undead enemies so her counterpart can blast their skulls apart. Barry and Natalia more resemble the dynamic of The Last of Us, a middle-aged man leading a surrogate daughter through an infected hellhole (the undead here occasionally blossom weak points similar to the fungi of Naughty Dog’s monsters). Natalia can distract enemies by throwing bricks at them and squeeze into small spaces to unlock doors, but is mainly used to sense approaching danger. The pairs crisscross over space and time, Barry often left wondering about the causes of the ruinous scenes he comes across. Fitfully exciting amidst the franchise piece-moving and thrills recycled from the Shinji Mikami days.

“I’m Afraid That Might Be Slightly Suggestive”

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Aquapazza: Aqauplus Dream Match has a deceptively simple audacity. A crossover fighting game built around a handful of obscure-to-Western-audiences video game erotica franchises (also known as “eroge”) from Japanese publisher Aquaplus, with all the bells and whistles and flash and excess of the genre at its most baroque, including 20-hit combos and a 13-fighter roster (with a further 13 partners, providing backup). And through it’s commitment to these fundamentals, Aquapazza has a better cast of women than any other game released this year.

Developer Examu could’ve easily bungled its gambit with the same T&A indulgence of a Soul Calibur or a Dead or Alive–the designs of plenty of the characters run up to the edge of that line. Instead, the tone they adopt is one of Capcom’s 2D brawlers (i.e. Street Fighter II or Capcom vs. SNK), with cramped stages, an often punishing demand for precision and speed, and a barely-there plot intended to get oddball matchups like Tears to Tiara‘s scantily-clad bow-hunter Morgan vs. Kizuato‘s demonic Chizuru, or ToHeart2‘s wrestling schoolgirl Tamaki vs. Utawarerumono‘s sake-drinking swordswoman Karulau. Far from cosmetic differences, they inform fighting methods–Morgan must use her limited arrows carefully, while Tamaki is a shockingly efficient ground-based bruiser (frustratingly, if you’re on the wrong end of her special attacks). The biggest success in Examu’s lineup is another ToHeart2 figure: bookish Manaka. Frail, unassuming, and klutzy, many of her attacks are actually accidents, weighty tomes flying from her hands as she trips which end up knocking out enemies or tipping over a row of bookshelves onto them by mistake, she even gives an apologetic bow for knocking someone out. The balance in Aquapazza is just enough to make it so her rise through the ranks of more skilled opponents seem both believable and based on little more than sheer luck, the in-over-her-head nature of her arc making Manaka the closest the game has to a protagonist.

Examu smartly exploits the anime style to fully express their characters, whether it’s partners like Ma-ryan throwing temper tantrums over a defeat or Karalau “slipping” her hand from a sake bottle as a cheap attack, but still adhere to the Aquaplus form. The sparse cutscenes (not dissimilar to the visual novel approach most eroge takes) have plenty of innuendo (especially in each character’s ending) and images meant to be leered at. Character selection will have conspicuously bouncing bosoms. And, even with proper characterization, it’s hard to get past the way characters like Morgan are barely-dressed, a complete appeal to the eyes of teenage boys.

That there’s still a boys’ club mentality to Aquapazza‘s proceedings is no surprise. We are talking about eroge here, the precedent for the one-dimensional relationship minigames of Bioware’s Mass Effect series. And yet, Examu’s wildly diverse group of women–of serious students and happy-go-lucky warriors and stoic badasses and, yes, sexpots who are quick to jump in the sack–is a much better treatment of femininity than the persistent misery and victimization of the Tomb Raider reboot and Beyond: Two Souls (both hypocritically masquerading as “girl power”). Lara Croft and Jodie Holmes are defined entirely by men (the former through rape threats, the latter by being raised by Willem Dafoe), making them hollow shells. Men in Aquapazza are few, and the women hardly fawn over them–indeed, the only one who does ends up being the villain, using the tried-and-true bad plot device of a love potion to instigate the whole dang mess. This becomes pointed when characters make it to the final boss, a brief dialog underlining their worldviews as opposed to her’s. The Aquapazza women get personal, political, philosophical, appeal to reason or feeling, or just plain bluster their way to a fight. They have range.

It hardly gets out of the shadow of the male gaze, but Aquapazza dares to show something more than what its audience wants.