Bend a knee, mortals, for you’re reading the words of someone who has approached gaming Godhood, and has touched the light of the virtually divine. I cleared a game that was truly a shameful mark on my record, one that I began nearly ten years ago and never finished – yes, I’m talking about Dead Rising (hereafter referred to as DR.) The banner would have given it away by this point; I just wanted to make it clear how much of an achievement this is. Finishing a long abandoned game is nothing special in itself but, much like Frank West, I delved deep, and discovered a disturbing truth. You see, Dead Rising isn’t just the first in an enduring series beloved by many, it’s an excruciating test of one’s abilities, patience, and sanity. And I beat it like it was my job.
I know, Frank, I know.
DR came out at a time before every developer was trying to cram undead, flesh-eating monsters into every new IP, and the zombie concept hadn’t been beaten like an undead horse. While Capcom has historically denied that its premise has anything to do with George A Romero’s “(X) of the Dead” films, the narrative pays excellent homage to Dawn of the Dead. Arriving by helicopter in Willamette, Colorado, photojournalist Frank West follows a tip-off about a major incident that’s still going on in the town. He lands on the roof of the local Mall, where the incident’s activity appears to be concentrated, and quickly discovers that he’s stumbled into a zombie outbreak. With the helicopter returning in three days’ time, he has 72 hours to get to the bottom of what’s actually happening in Willamette.
The story of Dead Rising was truly unexpected, in that it started off somewhat banal and seemed as though it would continue that way, before taking a 180 turn, tearing off into bat-shit insanity. Everything about how the outbreak started, the virus’ origins, character personalities, and the way events unfold comes totally out of left field. In a fashion that reminds me of Deadly Premonition, everything is presented in a deadpan, serious manner, while remaining completely absurd at all times. I started playing this again because I wanted to just beat it after all these years, and I finished it because it felt like there was no other option. Like a B-movie so terrible that it comes right back around to being awesome, I had to see it through to the end.
Pictured: Probably the weirdest, most frightening part of the game and it had nothing to do with zombies.
Before moving on to how infuriating the design is, even by 2006 standards, I really need to emphasise how bizarre the overall tone of the game is, and how that’s created by the characters. Frank West, despite being quite capable, immediately appears to the player as a complete mook. His outward appearance is just… Off. His face is weirdly proportioned, flabby even, and his appearance makes me feel a little uncomfortable at times. The other survivors, in comparison, look pretty standard for the graphics of the time, but Frank looks like he’d fit right in as one of the psychos. He looks to be just shy of middle-aged but moves like he’s in his sixties. His run cycle animation alone makes it seem like he’s always shat his pants, waddling furiously in an attempt to keep it contained.
You’d be forgiven if, at the beginning of the game, you thought that DR was just a load of ham-fisted dialogue and overly dramatic wank. It is, of course, but I assume that was the obvious intent. This is fairly well established when, near the beginning, Frank sidles around a corner, sneaking up on a suspected zombie while muttering, “Zombies, huh? I had a feeling you’d show up.” You could argue that there were a bunch of moments before this that established the same vibe, such as the old woman letting the zombies into the mall because she was frantically searching for her lost dog, or that the other survivors just let her do it. Frank’s dialogue near the start of the game, however, is what really lets you know you’re in for a game that’s all about being goofy, and everyone else’s behaviour follows suit.
And then there’s the fact that every third or fourth zombie will try to eat your crotch, like this.
The design of DR, at least in my opinion, is what really holds it back from true greatness on all levels. It’s also why I think anyone who actually manages to beat it, let alone get 100% on the achievements, should be congratulated to no end. The game is set to a 72-hour in-game timer, which equates to 6 hours in real time, but I would be absolutely shocked if anyone managed to reach S ranking on the first run-through in that time. Story events occur at specific points along this timeline, often requiring the player to be at particular locations at those times. In the meantime, Frank will receive scoops from Otis “Holy shit, will you shut up?” Washington (my nickname, not the game’s) about other survivors that need rescuing, or putting down, throughout the mall.
The map design of the mall itself is a memorable one, excellently laid out, and you shouldn’t need to refer to the in-game map very often, once you’ve been playing for awhile. This is a good thing because you will absolutely need a photographic memory of its layout to do everything the game throws at you. Having objectives like killing psychos or rescuing survivors between missions is fine. However, these objectives all have a time limit on how long you can accomplish them before you lose your chance to do so. For survivors and psychos this just means that they’ll disappear, but missing the start of a story mission can mean losing the chance to pursue the story at all once your window of opportunity closes. On top of all of this, saving is manual, and save points are few and far between.
“Mhm, yeah, look, whatever – just get in the damn room.”
When translated into actual gameplay, you’re often forced to choose between following the plot or pursuing the side objectives because those are going to conflict with one another on the reg. It’s possible to do everything in a single run, but you’d need to know exactly where to go, when, and in what order to get to it all. Getting around can be an absolute pain in the ass, and as obvious as it might sound, the zombies are a much larger threat than they seem. In a manner that gave me ‘Nam-style flashbacks to Dying Light, zombies can latch onto you from a ridiculous distance and by lightly brushing against your character model. Even at higher levels you still take an absurd amount of damage from… Well, everything, and zombie hordes will destroy the unwary and unprepared.
Until the higher levels, Frank is pretty useless, slow, and weak. Taking damage will stop you in your tracks long enough for something else to wind up its attack before you’ve recovered, which happens regardless of your level. A wrong move in a fight with a psycho could potentially lead to a KO, as you won’t have time to properly recover or escape after their attacks. It’s worth noting that the survivors are even worse. The AI’s pathfinding will take them right into a horde of zombies, where they’ll be caught and slowly mauled until you throw yourself into danger to rescue them. By contrast, the psychos are ruthless killing machines that enjoy invulnerability periods after taking damage, a mechanic usually reserved in games for players or allied NPC’s. They can also effortlessly glide past zombies unharmed because of course they can.
“See you in your sleep after the game – aheh, ahah, ahehehehahahehaheheahahahaaaaaa!”
Honestly, there’s very little about the gameplay that’s enjoyable in itself, and I’d be calling this game a steaming pile of whatever passes for festering zombie faeces if it weren’t for the story and characters. Before I talk about how the entire game is redeemed by this fact, I really need to impress just how ridiculous DR is for its design and gameplay. First of all, there is no difficulty selection when you start, it’s always the same. Keep that in mind when I say that the game starts out challenging, becomes exceedingly difficult about halfway through, and the last third of the game is 100% solid bullshit. The time constraints on the last few missions, and how little preparation they allow, is completely bonkers. It’s one of the few times I’ve yelled at a game for cheating, and meant it.
Psychos are incredibly powerful, taking a whale of a beating and dishing out punishing amounts of damage. Dying in DR doesn’t just mean retrying, it means reloading from wherever you last saved, almost guaranteed to be nowhere near close to where you died, and doing everything again. Run through the mall to get to that location, again. Pick up any weapons or items you collected along the way, again. Passing this game is not a question of skill, but a trial of your patience and perseverance. There’s a part in the maintenance tunnels towards the end of the game that made me want to put my fist through my god damned monitor with how many times I had to reload and run aaaallll the way back there. In the end, I had to take advantage of an exploit, and even then the game found a way to fuck me for the sheer-shitting audacity that I might try to win.
When I finally reach Hell, I’m sure that I’ll be playing this section repeatedly, for eternity.
SPOILER WARNING: There’re some spoilers in this section, just some things I want to vent about. If this is the sort of thing that might upset you then skip to the next part, or otherwise read on. All that said, the game is nearly eleven years old at the time of writing this, so, really.. You’ve had time.
There are a couple of moments in this game that I’m certain were put there expressly to torment players. Firstly, fffffffffFFFFFFFFFFFFUCK Carlito; I just want to put that out there. Secondly, this guy will hunt you down in an indestructible van while you’re on case 7-2, trying to collect all the time bombs before they go off. He will run you over, or smash into you if you’re in a vehicle, and when you’re cornered near one of the bomb-laden vans he will stop and lob grenades at you until you return to the tunnels. The only way I could beat this section was to lure him to one of these corners, and slowly take him out while dodging grenades. Your reward for beating a boss that isn’t really meant to be defeated in the classical sense? A cutscene; one that will leave you stranded in the middle of a zombie infested tunnel, far from the objectives, exits, or your vehicle. Who in their right mind would think that’s a good idea?
The only character more annoying and absolutely maddening for how difficult they are to beat is Carlito’s sister, Isabela. There’s a mini-boss section that is comprised of her chasing you around the construction area of the mall on a motorbike, while zombies hold you in place because of course they do. It took me so long to beat and, in the end, I had to make use of another exploit just to beat her. If you run into the toilets, she’ll apparently forget your existence and ride away. Running back out as she tears down the hall gives you a few seconds to get some pot shots in on her before she comes roaring back to put tire tracks on your face. It was a fight full of cheese, and cheesing your my through it in return was the only way to succeed. The end boss was easier than both of these fights, and they’re not really optional side bosses either.
BECAUSE MEAT NEVER TRIED TO RUN ME DOWN AND SHOVE A GRENADE UP MY ASS, CARLITO, YOU ASSHOLE!
Putting up with all of this, enduring it even, is worth it. The cutscenes, character development, and complete lunacy that is the story makes up for the poor gameplay and design in spades. Frank himself delivers some of the best deadpan, ill-timed one-liners that would make Connery-era Bond cringe. The survivors are always in weird situations, and sometimes it’s honestly funnier to just let them die just to see how it happens. (I promise I’m not a sociopath.) The psychopaths are extremely over the top, which turns facing down a deranged, murderous killer into a light goof. Even the story takes some unexpectedly sharp turns towards the bizarre in its developments, while still being intriguing and legitimately well written.
Despite the grim setting and scenario, all of this is delivered with a light-hearted levity, as though the game is self-aware and poking fun at itself. The environments are brightly coloured, which maintains an “upbeat” vibe throughout the game world. Character behaviour is so overly dramatic that it’s nigh-impossible to take it as seriously as the situation would imply you should. Your weaponry ranges from handguns to nerf-swords, and costumes worn will be carried on into cutscenes, making for incredible moments like this one:
I wore this head for a large majority of the game – every cut scene was sheer brilliance as a result.
Dead Rising hasn’t aged well. Its controls are clunky, the survivor AI is dumber than a sack of potatoes, the human enemy AI mirrors real psychopaths frighteningly well, and it’s mercilessly hard overall. Its design is brutal, requiring something akin to superhuman prescience and determination just to beat the game, let alone reach 100% completion. Even at the time it came out, checkpoints and quick-saving were well established in games, so Dead Rising’s sparse manual save points are the cherry on top of this sadist sundae. Despite all of this, I got a lot of laughs out of how ridiculous everything is, in the characters, story, and overall atmosphere. It’s like a Leslie Nielsen fever dream made manifest, with Frank West making for the perfect kind of bumbling idiot hero a title like this needs. Whichever way you regard it, however, Dead Rising paved the way for one of the most iconic series of the past couple of generations.