James Stephanie Sterling
Vaccine Review – Jenny McCarthy’s Worst Nightmare
Developer: RNC Publisher: RNC Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: February 21, 2017 Copy purchased
Vaccine is a brilliant premise mangled by a terrible videogame, a classic example of how execution is just as important as the idea.
This should have been a game I adored. Resident Evil reimagined as a roguelike with randomized hallways and the lingering threat of permanent death. Stylistically, the game apes Capcom’s survival horror classic right down to the mid-90s graphics, boasting archaic tank controls, fixed camera angles, and unreliable combat to really bring the nostalgia home.
Also it’s terrible.
Demonstrating only a surface-level understanding of survival horror, RNC drapes its game with all the aesthetic trappings but has very little substance backing up its style. This is a studio that knows very well what Resident Evil looked like, but doesn’t have a clue why it was actually enjoyable to play.
Protagonists aren’t just inefficient at fighting, they’re absolutely awful at defending themselves in tiny corridors and rooms where combat is often unavoidable. The generic zombies and rats – so gaudily designed they look like they belong in the original Alone in the Dark – are allowed cheap shots thanks to obscure camera positioning or the game simple deciding they get to break through an attack and latch onto the player for anywhere between one and four free attacks in a row.
Every single run ended the exact same way for me – chased down by some four-legged thing that is ludicrously fast and prefers to trap you in a corner where you can’t run away. Since it takes longer to die than you do, any battle inevitably ends with its victory – and it’s presented as a regular enemy that could spawn at any time.
I’ve died in the corner of a room many times to count. It’s far too easy for enemies to box you in, especially the aforementioned quadruped that is impossible to name more helpfully because it’s just a jaggy clump of flesh onscreen.
This is a game that can’t even get tank controls right. It’s not like they were ever good – certainly not good enough to be worth preserving in a game released past 2001 – but somehow Vaccine makes them even worse, increasing the truck-like swing of characters when turning to such a degree they’ll be veering left and right while trying to navigate the straightest hallways.
Poor bastards can’t even open doors half the time without struggling to face them correctly.
Despite its random elements, no single run of Vaccine feels unique or different. You start in the same room, given thirty minutes to find a vaccine for a friend who got vaguely infected by a vague infection. From there, you follow a pretty rote pattern of progress – the only thing that drastically changes is the maze you gotta draw in your head as you move.
Quite why you need a vaccine for somebody who’s already infected is anybody’s guess, but I guess Cure wouldn’t have been as cool a game name.
Seriously, if you need a vaccine after you’re already infected, then you’re not so much looking for a single shot as you are planning out an entire course of vaccine therapy. This is stuff still being researched and likely not what the developer had in mind when making this game.
Considering how violently your friend is vibrating in bed when a run starts, something tells me we’re well beyond the point of inoculation.
Anyway, from this starting room you always need to pick up the knife before manually equipping it from an ugly and uncommunicative menu that uses only minuscule highlighting to let the player know where on the screen they’re navigating. Get used to this laborious process, because you have to start every game this way.
It’s easy to miss this knife thanks to the game’s messy graphics causing objects and backgrounds to bleed into each other. My first few knife-less runs were even less fun than later ones, and those later ones have been miserable.
Once the knife is equipped, you’ll wander repetitive corridors and rooms looking for a gold and silver key, as well as learning what doors open and what doors don’t. There’s also something about interdimensional travel but frankly all the lore notes are so badly written I barely gave a shit about the story.
Frequent typos and eccentric sentence structures make whatever “story” this game has pretty tough to stick with.
Combat is a grueling and tiresome slogfest. Although you can find guns (if you’re lucky), the knife is your trusty standby, and using it is about as fun as licking a rain-soaked trash bag. You basically just hammer the attack button to swing ahead of you, stepping back every couple of swings so you don’t get grabbed and bitten. You do this over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
It’s not scary and it’s not tense. It’s just boring. Staggering backwards, flailing a knife around, hoping you hit something and that the dreary zombie-shaped splodge isn’t granted some free attacks just because the game felt like it.
Firearms provide some distance but aren’t reliable and deal disappointing amounts of damage. You’ll need to ready and fire them just like the original Resident Evil, hoping that your positioning will be enough for Vaccine to decide you scored a hit.
If you’re feeling tasty, you can lay down a proximity mine… that the creatures will not walk into. It’s more like setting a trap for your future self, as your forklift of a protagonist will inevitably veer into it later.
You’ll gain experience points for fighting monsters and – bizarrely – opening or closing doors, unlocking skill upgrades that might as well not be there for all the impact they have on the game. You can pump up your defense all you like, it won’t matter once you’re back’s to the wall and you’re being mangled by something found in Masahiro Ito’s reject bin.
Stats are lost when runs begin anew. If there are permanent unlocks on offer, I didn’t stick around long enough to see them, because this game makes me philosophically sick.
Healing items can be abundant or extinct depending on how generous a run feels, but they’re woefully crap regardless. Even the “big” health kits restore a minuscule amount of health, and since it’s almost impossible not to take damage thanks to ambushes and abundant enemy advantages, Vaccine is a battle of attrition designed entirely in the game’s favor.
It’s complete bollocks, is what I’m trying to say. I think of some of the great roguelike-inspired games of the past few years – The Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, etcetera – as well as modern indie horrors such as Outlast, and it frustrates me how the Republican National Conv… sorry… how RNC could get things so drastically wrong.
Random elements drawn from a shallow pool that gets repetitive quick, permadeath that’s more annoying than thrilling due to sloppy combat and formulaic introductory sequences, such a glib disregard for balance that some runs will be nearly unwinnable by nature. This is how Vaccine fails as a roguelike.
I could tell you how it fails as a survival horror, but we’d be here all day. Suffice to say that hallways littered with the world’s least scary zombies and some skinless dog-boy that might as well wear a shirt reading “Game Over” isn’t my idea of a spooky time.
Someone should let RNC know that numbers flying out of the heads of everything when they take damage is rubbish in a survival horror, especially when they’re bright red or white and are bigger than a character’s mashed potato face.
Vaccine is shit, but it does say its own name in a creepy deep voice when you start it, which is the single thing it has over Resident Evil 7.