Evoking a negative emotion in a video game is sometimes just as important as evoking a positive one. It’s all well and good making the player feel happy, excited and powerful, but some story threads for example bloom when human sadness, feelings of loss and worry are present, it can tie players to characters is a truly potent way. In horror games, scaring the player is a powerful motivator, inducing fear and panic of what lurks in the darkness, pushing them in a certain direction or worrying them into a specific action. It’s often said that horror is particularly subjective; what scares one person another finds funny. What I realised when replaying Dead Rising was that it was the only game which my poor memory could think of to ever induce a certain emotion: anxiety. And whether or not this same emotion is brought out in others is to be seen, but for me it’s what makes Dead Rising a terrifying experience, despite also having a wonderfully camp tone.
Dead Rising originally released in 2006 on the Xbox 360 and I played the Xbox One 2016 re-release which, by in large, retains the soul of the original, chiefly uprezzing the graphics to modern standards and having the game play in a glorious 60 frames per second. I must’ve first played the game sometime around its original release, and at that time I would’ve been in my pre-teens. I liken the experience to a 70’s kid watching Halloween for the first time; Dead Rising fucking terrified me as a kid. The game clearly takes inspiration from classic Zombie progenitors, notably George A. Romero’s zombie design and the shopping mall setting he popularised. You play as Frank West, a charming yet somewhat sleazy photojournalist who arrives in the city of Willamette to cover the newly found zombie outbreak, a disaster which the United States government evidently tries to shroud in darkness. You claw and bite your way through the city’s vast shopping centre, hoping to reveal the sinister narrative behind the catastrophe and acquire the scoop of the century.
The first few times I ever played Dead Rising, I never really paid attention to the story, probably on the account of otherwise being occupied trying to keep the shit from being literally spooked out of me, but regardless I wrote it off as tropey nonsense, something of a basic plot being poorly translated from Japanese to English. On a replay however, I came to really enjoy what little narrative there is, of which is fairly understated yet clearly indicative of the greater tone the game aims to achieve. Dead Rising was developed by Capcom, a Japanese titan which I presumed lacked the talent or desire to fully commit to a gripping narrative, or so my younger self thought. In retrospect, Dead Rising embraces such a joyous campiness that only exaggerated Japanese creativity could imagine. “Willamette Shopping Mall” is one big outrageous stereotype of American culture, a celebration of excess and wanton spending to a degree it’s genuinely comical. As a Brit, the idea of a shopping centre housing a shoe store right next to a space-themed roller-coaster ride is outlandish. Food courts aren’t just specific locations, they intertwine with the rest of the stores, implying a notion that the average American can’t go 10 steps past the music store without a juicy burger, a theory further solidified by the fact half of the characters in the game (both alive and undead) are overweight. Is it offensive? Probably, but it’s intention for comedic effect is obvious, further heightened by cutscenes where characters stay resolutely po-faced throughout. As a teenager, the juxtaposition came off as cheap and tacky, but now I understand the purpose and I absolutely love it.
I think what’s most impressive about Capcom’s insistence towards a more light-hearted nature is that it doesn’t sacrifice the horror aspect at all. Sure, you could argue past experiences are driving the fear home for me, but I’m still going to argue Dead Rising is a scary fucking game. Right from the opening, as you fly through the city snapping pictures of the bloodbath below, people being torn limb from limb, falling off tall buildings in a splatter and feebly fighting for their lives surrounded by the mass undead, the portrayal of disaster is effective at creating an atmosphere worth dreading. A few minutes later you arrive inside the mall, joined by a handful of survivors creating a barricade at the main entrance, seemingly embraced by safety until all hell breaks loose and the undead ravage everyone in sight, and you’re tasked with fighting through the masses to reach the safe room above. This scene alone, where hundreds of zombies infest the entrance plaza, is utterly devastating and sets the game up for some serious horror moments. Even later in the game as you level up and build a formidable arsenal, hordes of hundreds of zombies still look perceivably threatening, despite their mostly rigid following of the rather tame Romero zombie formula.
I do mean hundreds by the way. From the game’s release, Dead Rising has prided itself on its ability to fill areas with up to 800 zombies. It’s impressive, especially for a 360 game which in many regards was a system that started to show signs of ageing very early into it’s lifespan, and when you see it, the prospect of playing the gimped Wii port which limits the count to 100 is laughable. Granted, avoiding zombies is sometimes the best route to take and doing so, particularly later in the game, isn’t the hardest thing to do which does downplay that element of fear slightly, but just the sight of them, huddled into tight packs with gory face designs and convincing movements, is scary alone. I am playing a version of the game which is higher definition, but I think the design itself shines through the most, especially for a game released in 2006.
Quite often however, even with full knowledge that evasion is the best strategy, I found myself diving in head first into legions of zombies just because the combat is so fun. It’s fun in its purest form: simple one button combat diversified with a large variety of weapons to play with. Dead Rising, despite the clear, structured objectives if lays in place, sometimes feels like it would play even better if it was just a sandbox, and exploring each store to find a new, unique weapon is part of the game’s charm, a charm which later instalments definitely understood by upping the ante and further increasing the weapon pool. It’s completely absurd, mind. The weapons you’ll find yourself using can range from the tried and tested baseball bat, the video game staple handgun, the ol’ reliable 2×4, but also maybe a large prop lipstick. Or a giant stuffed teddy bear. Or a bowling ball, golf club or shower head. Those last 3 might not sound too bizarre (okay using a shower head is definitely not my personal go-to in a hypothetical zombie apocalypse), but the way the game uses them is, having you use them like you would practically, launching the bowling ball down the plaza floor as if the zombies were pins, or rather than use the gold club as a bludgeoning tool, is has you instead take aim at zombies individually and whack balls at them, or the shower head, not a mere weak last resort, as its main attack has you thrust the object downwards into a zombie’s cranium as it spurts blood over the floor. It’s absurd, and it should utterly wreck the game’s otherwise serious tone, but Capcom did an excellent job separating the two so neither the spooky story nor the crackers combat feel lessened by each other, even if that lovely floral dress you donned shows up in a cutscene, I can still take the game seriously.
The gameplay does have its flaws however, some more apparent and damning than others, and one in particular even confuses me as to whether I love it or hate it. In terms of weapon variety, while it is overall quite strong, it definitely pales in comparison to later entries in the series, a criticism that obviously doesn’t work in isolation, but it’s hard to ignore the contrast regardless. Moreover, despite the potential arsenal you can accrue, because of the nature of the game’s narrative which has you traverse some parts of the mall more than others, some weapons are just more frequently found than other, more interesting ones. The classic baseball bat for example, along with the measly combat knife and 2×4, springs up quite often in cardboard boxes and bins, and I found myself always carrying at least one by virtue of them just being so common and broadly effective. It somewhat dampens the experience, to have so much potential creativity in how you execute the undead, only to fall back to using a piece of wood, purely because the game doesn’t have you explore areas where better weapons exist that often. Or more aptly put, the game doesn’t give you time to. One of Dead Rising’s most controversial features is the existence of a time limit, a 72 hour in game timer which runs down fairly quickly in real time and exists to provide agency to the main story missions, most of which are incredibly time sensitive down to minutes. To trigger most main missions (or case files as the game calls them), you need to be in a specific place at a specific time, and due to the meagre amount of overall time allocated, it feels like the game gives you no time to breathe, nor explore or let loose. This, I believe, is the primary culprit in why I feel so much anxiety when I play the game. Even ignoring the horror aspects, the fact you are timed at all times is deeply unsettling in a really strange way, unrelated to the disconcertment you feel from the games terrific tone. It’s a unique mechanic in the larger scale of video games, but I think that may be for a reason, as a lot of what the game does well almost feels inhibited due of this conceit. The mall, while not “open world” in a more fashionable sense, is rather vast and spans several different, substantially sized plazas, each of which is themed around a certain leisurely activity: the Wonderland Plaza houses toy shops and the aforementioned roller-coaster, the Entrance Plaza contains plenty of clothing stores, and the Paradise Plaza is a serene tropical-style area comprising of more general shops. As a result, spending some time to unwind and find a new set of creps in the Entrance Plaza almost feels impossible due to how you need to be somewhere at almost all times.
This is made worse by the introduction of side quests, which are nothing more than rescue missions with a boss. While that sentence sounds reductive and carping, it should possess more of a disappointing tone as sections are possibly the best parts of the game. While the overarching story is a bit thin, if captivating in its mildly silly nature, the characters – and mostly the game’s “psychopath” bosses – are what really reels you into the world of Dead Rising. “Psychopaths” are enemy, humanoid characters driven insane for a myriad of reasons as a result of the outbreak. While most of them are corny caricatures, they’re made with a tasteful stupidity that I couldn’t help but adore them. Kent, for example, a hotshot photographer who, after a series of separate challenges, you humiliate by proving you have greater poise with a camera, upsetting his infantile ego and provoking a boss fight, where his moves centre around his character as a cameraman. Jo, a rotund and bitter police officer captures attractive ladies as an act of redemption for her repulsive nature in normal society. Her wobbly kicks, stun gun swipes and slow dodge-into-handgun manoeuvrers are perfectly fitting for her ridiculous exaggerated character. Other psychopaths like Adam the clown and Steven the supermarket manager are horrifying in their own unique ways too, adding to the horror element in a way that compliments the standard spooky zombies.
But I started that paragraph as a negative, and the reason for that is pretty manifest. You simply aren’t given enough time to engage with these side missions and characters. Even if you complete missions as fast as possible, at most you usually have a few hours to kill before the next case file begins, which translates to 10 or 15 real world minutes to trek to the side affair, kill the boss and transport the survivors back to the safe house, which, spoiler, isn’t enough time. This is assuming the psychopath missions are available in between case files, mind. A lot of the side content overlaps with the main content, meaning quite often you’ll find yourself needing to decide whether it’s worth the effort trying to save a survivor on your way or during a case file, and most of the time it just feels unfeasible.
It’s also a shame that what appears to be quite a prominent mechanic in the survivor rescue missions is so devastatingly frustrating due to the games atrocious AI. Where the time mechanic holds value in what it adds to tension and just sheer ingenuity, the AI is indisputably abysmal. When rescuing a survivor – of whom appear sporadically throughout the 72 hour campaign in the form of psychopath hostages or their own little narratives – you carry out the very conceptually simple yet physically laborious task of leading them back to the safe room, found in the Entrance Plaza. For half of the game, the Entrance Plaza is rather remote, consisting of only one true dual-purpose entry and exit: the Leisure Park, an open stretch of land the mall uses as a hub to reach most of the other plazas. I despise the Leisure Park, not only because it’s crammed with zombies, no. That’s the least of its problems. Chiefly, a psychopath gang spawn in the park, the escaped convicts, who ride a jeep equipped with a turret gun at the rear. This makes traversing the park alone an utter chore, but getting survivors across with you is almost impossible unless you furtively move along the rim of the area. It’s a slog, made worse by the fact the convicts are the only psychopaths in the game to re-spawn every night, for some god forsaken reason. You could maybe deal with this if the AI had any wits, but they don’t. They barely have simple follow intuition, constantly clipping into objects and terrain, getting gripped and chewed on by the undead and generally just trying their best to fuck you off. Many of the survivors are, understandably, shaky and scared, but this makes them unable to initiate the zombies in combat and therefore makes the whole rescue mission even more tedious than it already was. And then there’s Otis, your liaison in the safe room updating you via walkie-talkies on potential rescue opportunities. To communicate with him you use said walkie-talkie, but doing so makes you incapable of doing anything else: attacking, talking, picking items up etc. I feel like this was a joke on Capcom’s part, as he seems to time his calls at the absolute worst times possible, getting annoyed if you don’t answer him as if he’s not the arsehole for interrupting whatever you’re doing.
Dead Rising has problems, but none of them are as divisive as the arguably magnificent and woeful time aspect. It’s front and centre and it’s the cause of much annoyance, yet so much gripping tension. I’m looking forward to going back to Dead Rising 2 as I seem to remember time not being as important as it was in the first game, and I think only then will I be able to surmise my feelings on it. I can surmise my feelings on Dead Rising as a whole though, and it’s a mixture of fear, joy and, of course, deep anxiety. It’s a special game for many reasons, and wholeheartedly worth experiencing.