Within the last decade the video game community has been witness to the rise of what can be comfortable referred to as "nostalgia gaming" (or retro gaming if you so choose). Many a gamer spent countless nights as a kid staring at CRT TVs, tightly clutching a gamepad, mesmerized by the collage of pixels on screen. These man and women, having grown up and until now seen the advancement of gaming as primarily a graphical race to the top, yearned for a return to the games of their past. A new age was dawning, making that which was once old new again. Soon proudly pixelized games sprung up everywhere and gamers had truly entered the age of nostalgia gaming. To this day titles such as Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, Cave Story and more continue to please longtime gamers everywhere with their oldschool sensibilites, now coupled with the knowledge gained from an industry over 40 years old.
However, the era of nostalgia gaming has not been equally kind to all its artstyles of yesteryear. Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 graphics have been largely left in the crypt. Preferred instead are that these older 3D games be remade in higher resolution, as has been seen with Capcom's Resident Evil remakes. Where is the waterfall of games looking to feed on the nostalgia of mid-90s Playstation fans? It seems we are doomed to a world that has forgotten the 3D graphics of yesteryear. Vaccine seeks to fill this void, unapologetic in its low res polygons and outdated control scheme. Does it succeed, or is it proof why the age of early 3D graphics should be allowed to go the way of the dodo?
Vaccine (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Steam, Switch [Reviewed]
Developer: Rainy Night Creations
Publisher: Rainy Frog LLC
In Vaccine the player takes on the role of either Rita O'Connor or Manuel G.P., two gas mask wearing individuals locked in a creepy Victorian mansion à la Resident Evil. Upon starting the game you are immediately greeted with the message, "Despite all your efforts your friend got infected again. Find a vaccine before the time runs out." With that, you're off to the races to find a vaccine and save your friend within the 30 minutes alloted, which counts down at the top of the screen throughout your quest.
Some friend you are. Can't even be bother to remember the poor guy's name! Or is "Is" his name? Hmmm...
The first thing that needs to be said about Vaccine is that it nails its graphical style beautifully. The game, with its low res 3D character models and pre-rendered backgrounds, looks like it could be running on a Playstation. For a moment I thought the gas masked main characters were retextured models of Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid. That's pretty impressive. The game wears its classic Resident Evil inspiration on its sleeve, from the menu style to the paintings and pictures that can be interacted with at every corner of the mansion. Even the classic camera angles that shift as you walk about make an apperance. I wish I could say I have nostalgia for this artstyle, but I skipped the 5th generation of game consoles in favor of waiting for the 6th. Regardless, even I can appreciate the effort put into these lovingly recreated polygons.
The controls, however, are a much more questionable tale. The infamous tank controls from Resident Evil's past have returned as well. Pressing up on the analog stick moves you forward, left or right rotates your character in that direction and back makes you backstep. I don't know if there's anyone out there who ever missed tank controls in video games, but if there is Vaccine has you covered. You become aquainted with the controls rather quickly, even with the constantly changing camera angles, but it's not uncommon to constantly miss picking up an item due to inprecise movement. One unforgivable ommission, however, is the lack of an immediate turn around button. There are times where you'll want to quckly turn around and escape an attacking monster only to find your rotation speed makes this impossible. This one small addition would have prevented many of my unfair deaths.
What quickly seperates Vaccine from it's PS1 inspirations are two elements: its rougelike gameplay and stats. First, I'll address the rougelike gameplay structure. Every time you start the game all the rooms, enemies and items are randomized. All that remains the same are the starting room and the knife you're given at the beginning. This is no doubt intended to keep the game fresh on subsequent playthroughs and bolster its replayability, but without a map function it can also quickly become a nuisance. Doors you open do not close themselves, giving you an idea of where you've already been. Even so it's easy to get lost, especially during runs where many of the same few types of rooms repeat themselves. You'll have to do some backtracking at some point, whether it be due to encountering an enemy in a room you're not equipped to face or not having found the right key for a door yet. A map function would have gone a long way to alleviate the undue stress this causes.
Stats provide a new twist on the classic survival horror formula. You'll gain experience points for each hit you land on an enemy. You can then trade in these points to increase your 5 stats in the inventory menu: Determination, Stamina, Health, Aiming and Luck. Determination lowers the time required for opening doors and reloading, Stamina increases the time you can run, Health makes your more invulnerable to damage, Aiming increases the strength of your attacks and Luck...increases your luck with items? The description is rather vague and in my playthroughs I didn't notice any difference the Luck stat made. Health and Aiming are the most crutial, and you'll want to raise them quickly to take on the undead hordes.
Speaking of undead hordes, in this ever changing sprawl of a mansion you'll encounter 5 different creepy crawlies: zombies, bats, rats, crawlers (similar to Lickers from the Resident Evil series sans the long tongues), and a large boss zombie. Bats and rats can be dispatched with easily, either with one flick of the knife or bullet from a gun. Zombies require a bit more finesse, though swiping your knife and backing up when they approach usually does the trick. Watch out though, as they can quickly become dangerous in a group. The boss zombie does tremendous damage, but is largely confined to one room and moves slowly. Only take him on when you've leveled up your aiming stat enough and have either your pistol or shotgun with you, with ample ammo of course.
It's the crawler enemies that quickly ruin the game balance. These fast and agile critters shuffle on the ground and rack up massive damage on you if they get close. The knife will rarely ever do enough damage in time to finish one off before it's eaten away all your health, so a pistol, shotgun or 2 proximity mines are your only choices of survival. Problem is you have no idea whether you'll find a pistol, shotgun or mines during your run, and the lack of a turn around button means escaping a crawler ambush is highly unlikely. Also, more than once a camera angle obscured the path ahead, leading me straight into the arms of one of these horned, tan colored menaces. Even if you do manage to run from one that notices you, it'll follow you all around the mansion until you figure out a way to finish it off. There's an item called a repellent that supposedly makes you unappetizing to enemies, but I don't think crawlers are picky eaters. One still hounded me for minutes until I ran into a dead end. Giving the player a pistol alongside the knife to start with might make have made these guys manageable, but as things stand if you run into one without a gun on hand, you're screwed.
See that crawler in the doorway? If you see that and you don't have a gun, run. Run far, far away.
Besides the items already mentioned are an energy bar that temporarily increases your stamina stat, chewing gum that temporarily increases your aiming stat, and gold and silver keys you'll need to get through doors in the mansion. Some of these items are a bold color like bright green and can be easily noticed in the dull colored mansion, but keep a keen eye out for the more drab colored items like shotgun ammo and chewing gum. They might just be your key to survival.
This game also has some semblance of a story in it about an alternate dimension and more information on the disease that's infected the creatures in the mansion. Throughout the mansion you'll find pieces of paper and books that give greater insight into the disaster that has befallen the mansion and it denizens. However, some of it is just scientific technobabble that most people just won't find interesting. I'm no village idiot, but I'm no rocket scientist either, and some of the info is just plain boring to read.
This is actually one of the more interesting reads in the game.
Should you manage to administer the vaccine to your friend, you're immediately tasked with doing so again, this time with a shorter time limit and another random room layout. Your stats carry over making sure all that leveling up wasn't for nothing. However the enemies don't increase in difficulty, meaning that if you make it to the next run and your stats are too high the game might become too easy as you steamroll through zombies and crush crawlers with a few shots. This just highlights how unbalanced the game’s difficulty is. First it's too unforgiving, making every crawler a skittering nightmare and the next thing you know you're mowing them down like it's open season!
In terms of sound design there's not much to say. The sound effects are minimalist, which I’m more inclined to attribute to keeping in the style of PS1 than laziness on the developers part. The music is one continuous track, which is spooky enough to keep the game's atmosphere unsettling even after frequent runs.
No true PS1 game would be complete without it's share of glitches and Vaccine isn't short on them. More than once the music abruptly cut out before the game began, leaving me running around an eerily silent mansion. A few times I was caught in a situation where the attack patterns of a rat and a zombie synced up so perfectly that escape was impossible and, as you can see below, I once clipped through a wall after being pushed by a crawler, rendering me unable to move. I was then slowly nibbled to death by a rat. What a way to go.
If you look closely you can see my arm sticking through the wall. Shoddy game design or discovery of a future speed running strat?
When it's at its best Vaccine showcases a solid foundation for a great horror game and the potential for classic PS1 games to be reevaluated by the gaming community as worthy of imitation and admiration, both in gameplay and graphics. Unfortunately, questionable game design, uneven difficulty, inadequate controls, and a lack of variety serve to greatly hamper the experience at every turn.
I would be wrong in saying I didn't have any fun while playing Vaccine. There's always something mildly appealing about carving through zombies in an abandoned mansion, especially on the go. And as someone who's first experience with classic Resident Evil style gameplay was playing Dino Crisis on my PS3 in 2015, even I could appreciate the unapologetic nature of the game's old-school aesthetic. But unless the developer has some big updates in store for the future, I can't see myself recommending this game to anyone. If you're still hankering for an authentic PS1 horror experience my advice is this: Dust off that old PS1, pull out a copy of Resident Evil 1-3, and let the legend come to life again.
Final Score: 5/10