• Jim Sterling

Capcom's Comeback

Capcom is enjoying a creative and critical renaissance of late, producing a string of top quality games that have not embraced the shallow "live service" trend - a trend that has seen many games turn into sparse open wastelands with plans to fill in all the missing content later.

In stark contrast to the sprawling expanse of nothingness that is Fallout 76 or Anthem, Capcom's recent releases are tightly designed, expertly paced, content-rich games that remind us how our entertainment software used to be, long before recycled nebulous busywork replaced gameplay, and vague "lore" replaced storylines.

The company's latest production, Devil May Cry 5, is Capcom's second most successful launch on PC, beaten out by Monster Hunter: World. Meanwhile, Resident Evil 2 was three times more popular on Steam than Resident Evil 7, itself a damn fine game. One hopes that these figures translate to wider commercial success, that we may have proof not every game needs to be a meandering open world designed primarily to scam season pass money out of people.

Given the publisher's past history, it's highly possible we'll see them lament the eventual sales figures of these titles, claiming they all sold "below expectations." The expectation problem is one I've talked about in the past, where publishers promise absurdly high sales to their investors, only to talk about how disappointing their games were later. You can look up stories about most Capcom games selling "below expectations" in recent years, which is disheartening considering these apparent letdowns still sold millions upon millions of copies.

To Capcom's credit, however, they have not responded to alleged disappointments by "pivoting" all their games to live services in a fit of panic. When Destiny 2 sales failed to meet Activision's lofty goals, their answer to investors was to increase monetization and downloadable content offerings (this is before Bungie claimed the Destiny rights from Bobby Kotick's Layoff Factory).

After years of letdowns, Capcom's answer has apparently been to go back to the drawing board and work out what makes games entertaining and interesting. Rather than desperately chase a saturated market, Capcom's latest games have been filling gaps in the industry where customers are being woefully neglected. Straightforward, challenging action games. Survival horror games. Lots and lots of Monster Hunter.

Monster Hunter: World, launched at the start of 2018, is considered by many to be the official start of Capcom's comeback streak. The game famously shunned loot boxes at a period of time when most major publishers were shamelessly shoveling in-game gambling into every product they had. According to producer Ryozo Tsujimoto, the presence of in-game gambling would be disruptive to the flow of the game.

While ultimately a little thing, it's reflective of how recent titles from the Monster Hunter publisher are putting the experience, not the monetization, first. The concept of just making a damn good game appears to be dying out in the "AAA" space, where big publishers are more concerned with stitching together perpetuated online environments where impulse purchases can be teased out of customers and problem gambling can be exploited. By most accounts, Monster Hunter: World was indeed a damn good game, despite server issues on PC garnering a mixed audience reception initially.

With a lively world, and an opening up of the series to make it more welcoming to newcomers - without sacrificing the elements that make Monster Hunter what it is, accrued critical acclaim as well as five million sales in three days.

While the consistent streak may have started with Monster Hunter: World, there can be no doubt that Resident Evil 7, released a year prior in 2017, made a bold statement regarding Capcom's creative endeavors. A first-person horror game with an emphasis on stealth, Resident Evil 7 took huge inspiration from the likes of Amnesia and Outlast, yet cleverly retained an old school Resident Evil formula thanks to an amazing map design reminiscent of the original PSX game's mansion setting, alongside familiar puzzles and unforgettable boss encounters.

Fast forward to January of 2018, and Resident Evil 2 is enjoying not just the praise that Resident Evil 7 enjoyed, but way more success in terms of sales. It's almost as if the original Resident Evil games were popular for a reason, and that the reason didn't magically disappear when "AAA" publishers cynically decided to tell us certain genres and gameplay styles were "dead."

A full-on ambitious remake, Resident Evil 2 transports the original game's story to a full-on action-horror setting that takes place largely within the claustrophobic confines of Raccoon City Police Department. In today's market, where hatred of linearity and obsession with game length leads to unnecessary padding in a lot of boring games, it's truly refreshing to play a game like Resident Evil 2. A game that's concerned only with one thing - being a game.

It's a simpler title in terms of structure, and all the better for it. No wasted material, no time spent doing practically nothing, no disrupted pacing. Just wall-to-wall blood and zombies and horror and atmosphere. That's all I wanted, and that's exactly what I got.

Devil May Cry 5 is Capcom's most recent release, and it's truly jawdropping. Boasting a fluidity in its combat that never fails to satisfy, DMC5 is a layer-cake of gameplay depth with three distinct player characters each boasting a ludicrous amount of attacks and combos. Where many games confuse depth for sprawling size, Devil May Cry 5 simply gives you more and more delightfully absurd moves and weapons to pummel demons across straightforward linear levels.

And they are most definitely levels, something you usually only see in indie games these days.

The environments may be linear but they are instantly replayable because the game is just that damn good. It doesn't need to keep you coming back with content roadmaps and the promise of perpetuated content, it keeps you coming back because DMC5's gameplay is such an adrenaline high. It helps that, despite their railroading nature, DMC5's levels are nonetheless filled with secrets and hidden items.

Another thing Capcom's been doing, something I'd like to see done across the industry, is offering its special editions as upgrades, not just separate purchases. Many "AAA" games nowadays offer multiple special editions at rather extreme prices, which leads one to a crossroads. If a game is really excellent, I'd like a bigger and better version of it, but at the same time I don't want to risk wasting extra money on a game I might not like because I haven't even played it yet.

Capcom, meanwhile, typically only has one deluxe version of a game (at a significantly reasonable price compared to other publishers), and if you buy the base game, you can pay the difference to upgrade it whenever you want. This flexibility means you don't potentially waste money upfront but if you really end up loving the game, you can still get the special version without having to buy the whole thing again.

This has been done for both Resident Evil 2 and Devil May Cry 5, and I'd be very interested to see if that's improved sales. It's not just a more customer-friendly move, it actually encourages, rather than strongarms, post-launch spending.

None of this is to say the company's perfect. Indeed, it's only been a few short years since the shockingly poor Early AAAccess release of Street Fighter V, and a handful of months since shameless advertising was shoehorned into that very game. The "below expectations" trap that Capcom often finds itself is alarming, and the presence of microtransactions in DMC5, seemingly to fulfill an obligation, is a stain on an otherwise excellent game.

But good work is good work, and Capcom's been doing some thoroughly good work with its games. One can only hope this isn't like the Electronic Arts renaissance of the late 2000s, where they lost money after overhyping genuinely good games before returning to their old ways as a scumbag publisher of greed-fueled trash.

One rather hopes that these games continue to be successful, meet Capcom's expectations, and demonstrate that you can make money by giving people what they want rather than what they've already had over and over again.

Also, since they remastered Onimusha, here's hoping for a new one of those. C'mon Capcom... you know you want to.

© 2019 Jimquisition. I don't really know what else to write down here. Why are you even reading down here? Are you bored? I'm bored, so I don't really know how I'm going to help you with that. I'm listening to a podcast. You could do that too if you want! It's something to have on at least. Am I hungry? I dunno, it's kinda late. Maybe just a snack...