Resident Sea-vil*

So… Deep Fear: the Saturn’s exclusive own-brand Resident Evil. On paper it has a lot going for it – a mix of military and civilian staff trapped together on an underwater base trying to escape before an unknown infection turns them all into strange monsters; and to make matters worse the main air supply system has broken down, leaving it up to the player to manually recharge individual areas and navigate flooded rooms to proceed - it all sounds like the perfect setting for a claustrophobic horror game.

Yet somehow Sega still managed to stuff it up.

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It’s not about the stilted voice acting (there are literally lists of especially awful dialogue from Resident Evil), or the naff CG (which is consistently poor on every level), but a fundamental lack of understanding of either the “survival” or “horror” parts of the survival horror genre.

Let’s look at each part individually just to really drive home how far off the mark Deep Fear is -

Survival

You can run out of air – sounds tense! There’s an (almost) ever present air meter on screen, ominously counting down to your inevitable suffocation… so long as you ignore the fact that the game offers infinite air replenishments at a number of points in all areas, and if the air does run out John automatically switches to his rebreather. But what if that also runs out? Not to worry, just throw an AIR GRENADE. Yes, really. Basically there are two fail safes in place if standard oxygen runs out, and in any case the first two can be refilled as often as you like at multiple points in each area literally right up to the last boss.

To make matters worse not only do you never have to worry about running out of oxygen but ammo and health are never a concern either! All storage rooms carry an unlimited supply of ammo for every weapon, and there are storage rooms in every area. This might be a good balance if the game only allowed John to walk around with a small amount of ammo, but right from the start you’re dealing with 50+ shots per weapon, and it only goes up from there. As far as health’s concerned there are three different kinds of first aid sprays, you can carry up to eight of each, and the first aid kits littered around the base always have an endless supply of the most basic type.

This really isn’t sounding too positive is it? That’s OK! Maybe the game has a super-restrictive inventory system, right?

Nope.

You’re never forced to make hard choices about what to keep with you because you can carry everything all the time – in theory this is a good idea – how often have people (myself included) mocked Resident Evil for having to choose between taking a tiny key and a shotgun? But in practise it means you’re always armed to the teeth and ready to heal no matter what.

Even the plot undermines the survival aspect of the game – at one point a plane falls into the ocean and crashes into the Energy Unit area, cutting all the power on the base. This could be exciting. This could change everything. Literally seconds later the boss says “switch to reserve power” and that’s it, everything’s back to normal and it’s never a problem again.

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Horror

So with Deep Fear failing on the survival front how does the horror bit fare? Well, I want to start by stressing that I like my horror games to scare me – I’m a quivering wreck when I play Project Zero/Fatal Frame/whatever we call it these days, Clock Tower has me panicking as soon as I hear those damned scissors and there was genuinely one time I made such a funny noise playing Resident Evil my husband came running into the room to see what was wrong. So when I say “Deep Fear isn’t scary” it’s not a boast, it’s a disappointment.

There’s a reason why zombies work. A reason why zombies are a good “quick” horror fix – rotting dead people are fundamentally frightening to humans on many levels. The dead shouldn’t walk. They definitely shouldn’t walk with their guts spilling out of their bloodied jackets. And nobody likes the thought of being eaten alive, right? So the point is with all this cultural baggage zombies don’t need a lot of explaining or detail to make for uncomfortable viewing.

So what does Deep Fear do? Weird mutated humans! That’s not a bad idea in itself, but the execution is plain awful. For starters, the monsters are too abstract; a combination of poor design and poor texturing means for some you’re genuinely left wondering what the hell they are - it’s hard to be scared of something when you’re honestly trying to work out what it is. This abstraction also makes them feel utterly random; these aren’t people that have died to a single horrifying virus, they’re just… things… sprinkled around the game to make you use a bit of your never-ending health and/or ammo supplies. There’s no story behind them, no tension building up as you realise this was all part of some evil plan - because it wasn’t. There’s no delicious trail of breadcrumbs leading to the shocking truth because you’re generally left in the dark and sent on fetch and carry missions for other people who are either busy or conveniently ever so slightly incapacitated right up to the end.

There are two major plot twists with regard to this mysterious virus (OK, so it’s apparently more of a parasite), and they’re both so bad you’d almost think they were a joke. The first is that anyone that’s already infected with something – anything – is immune. This means that John’s cold keeps him from being infected even though he encounters far more monsters that anyone. Now it’s nice to think that they wanted a reason for the player to remain virus-free throughout the game, but when the centerpiece of your horror angle can be negated by a runny nose then on balance it was probably best to not explain it at all.

The other major point is that this virus has a weakness – that’s great! What is it? A physical weak point on the base of the neck perhaps? An antivirus created in a secret lab? Actually their weakness is… oxygen. What’s worse is that at no point in the game do you defeat any enemy with oxygen, oxygen-imbued bullets (I wouldn’t have put it past the creators of a game that thought a mutant cow was a good idea), weaken them with some kind of atmospheric alteration – you get the idea. If they’d never told you about this “weakness” then nothing would have changed in how you deal with them; it seems this little fact only existed to get your SEAL rescue party off somewhere isolated so they could all get conveniently killed.

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Let’s wrap this post-Deep Fear venting session up.

It’s easy to assume that Resident Evil was the popular one because of the time it was released, or Capcom’s marketing, or the Playstation being cool or whatever – but games like Deep Fear really underline the fact that the reason people think Resident Evil was the best because it really was the best. Deep Fear just doesn’t get it: a survival horror game where you’re never struggling to survive nor afraid.

Now for the £10-ish the Japanese version goes for this is a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie on a Saturn disc, and going into it with that knowledge will give you a good few days of casual play. But this is neither a lost genre classic or even an experimental dead-end the way Sunsoft’s Hard Edge is, it’s just a bad Resident Evil clone that copies only the most superficial elements of the title it so badly wanted to be.

If you’re still in the mood for a disaster adventure sort of thing here’s a selection of better games that cost less (much, much, less) than PAL Deep Fear -

SOS/Septentrion (yep, a 2D SNES game did “Help we’re trapped and we’re going to drown” better)
Burning Rangers (Saturn)
Hydrophobia (XBLA/PSN/Windows)
The Firemen (SNES)
Bag of your favourite snacks and The Poseidon Adventure and/or The Abyss on DVD
90’s Resident Evil of your choice – honestly, even Gaiden gives Deep Fear a run for its money

*Awful pun stolen from the mighty Ant of Gaming Hell