The Resident Evil franchise is frozen in the midst of an identity crisis. The series, initially founded on the creaking floorboards of the survival-horror genre, is at a crossroads. Capcom, the title’s publisher, seems to want one of those mega-millions blockbusters that Activision and EA are always pumping out. If Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City didn’t tip you off, then maybe the globetrotting, stunt-running, set-pieced explosions of Resident Evil 6 will set the record straight. With the series’ predominant tone deviating drastically from its roots, it’s hard not to see the threat posed by contemporary triple-A bestsellers. Sony Santa Monica’s God of War episodes are leading the push for the type of ‘quantity over quality’ mentality that seeks out the largest, most breathtaking blast-radius rather than the sharpest, most poignant statement. It’s possible that this is just the nature of the entertainment industry, with Capcom simply doing what’s necessary to make money in the modern age. It’s disappointing. Yet, at this level, if the series has begun to turn away from the claustrophobic scares of its predecessors, we, as paying consumers, are really the only ones to blame.
The franchise’s latest entry, Resident Evil: Revelations, has conversely attempted to buck that trend. At the very least, the game tries for some negotiable middle ground. After debuting on the 3DS back in early 2012, Revelations proved that it occupy the miraculous no man’s land of dichotomous dark corridors and giant squid monsters. The experience has now been ported to the recently obsolete Xbox 360 and PS3, and despite a tendency to wallow in mediocrity; it’s still the best Resident Evil since the GameCube days.
If there’s any one thing Capcom’s latest entry gets right, it’s the setting. The suffocating hallways of the original manor were ideal for the type of haunted-house scares that you loved as a kid, and Revelations captures some of the sparks of that magic. By placing the main storyline on a derelict cruise ship, the developers have proven that there’s still a little horror left in the old standby. For the uninitiated, visualizing the Queen Zenobia is simple. The locale takes the claustrophobia of the original mansion, blankets it in Metroidvania-style progression, and finally throws in some nautical nonsense for good measure. Despite the fact that Revelations’ setting feels like a cardboard dollhouse compared to the equally subaquatic city of 2007’s near-perfect blockbuster BioShock, the Zenobia is still portrayed with admirable detail (for a 3DS port), and feels exceptionally relevant to the inherent nature of the franchise. By the time you reach the darkest depths of the expansive ship, you’ll start to wonder why it took seventeen years to bring the series to sea.
While we’re looking back, it’s pertinent to note that there’s one thing the franchise never did well, and that’s narrative. From a series of horribly mutilated character arcs to a canvas of plot-holes and logical fallacies, storytelling has never been a forte of the series. Revelations (a well-structured game with episodic content, returning fan-favorite characters, and a perfect setting) could’ve been an outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not even close to one. When the plot isn’t being jerked in a half-dozen convoluted directions, it resolves to being held together by a slew of tactless, mindless and habitually soulless dialogue choices. “This isn’t good,” quips a protagonist upon first uncovering the lumbering, razor-bladed frame of a carnivorous horror monstrosity. In a similar vein, inspecting environmental objects will often lead your character to some remarkably shrewd remarks, including the particularly bright observation that the rotting human corpse on the ground smells like rotting flesh. Thanks for the tip.
Playing devil’s advocate, it’s fair to state that players have never flocked to Resident Evil for its poignant narrative explorations. Although it’s been historically proven that a zombie game can tell a beautiful story, let’s pretend it can’t be done. The issue, then, becomes centered on the contrast between the competing tones of dialogue, plot, and gameplay. Even in a state of complete vulnerability (my character has been crippled and is now fending off zombie-wolves with a few rounds of handgun ammo), the tone of dialogue feels starkly, awkwardly wrong. “Me and my sweet ass are on the way!” tweets my femme fatale partner as she swoops in for the rescue. A later scene pushes the envelope, delivering, in another state of extreme helplessness, the proposal that the descending monsters are attacking because, verbatim, “you’re such a flirt!” This ludonarrative dissonance, while certainly not game-breaking, transpires to dissolve the carefully constructed tension and fear that the title has worked so hard to establish.
Equivalently, when you purchase an experience like a Resident Evil game, you come into it with certain expectations. One of them, a genre standard, is the notion that you’ll soon be frightened, edgy, and anxious. The sheer, unilateral purpose of the title’s mechanics and structure should be to scare you, or in more recent iterations, to provide gripping, visceral entertainment. Due to the aforementioned narrative issues, unfortunately, Revelations doesn’t often manage that. Even in a scenario of complete helplessness – low health, powerful enemies, tight spaces, and low ammo – the overarching sensation is one of stress rather than fear. You won’t care about the characters, nor will their eventual deaths have any impact on the story. The enemies, despite some truly creative designs, aren’t particularly harrowing. Unsurprisingly, this amounts to a feeling of anxiety. Yet, it’s the kind associated with the threat of being forced to replay a level, not the kind that draws out an actual emotional investment. In the real world, this brand of mental strain is called stress, and it’s largely not a positive force. Capcom, on the other hand, will have you believe it’s authentic fear.
While the storyline of Revelations has left much to be desired, it’s not the only element that needs improvement. In the move from the 3DS to home consoles, Resident Evil: Revelations has lost a lot of the flair that made it such a critical success on Nintendo’s portable. Gameplay, the absolute godsend of a game with mediocre graphics and narrative, feels largely one-dimensional in Capcom’s latest. As a cartridge-based survival horror feat, Revelations on 3DS was justified in omitting puzzles, reducing scope, simplifying animations, and reusing level designs. On a late-cycle Xbox 360, however, the experience just can’t stand up. There are literally thousands of alternative third-person shooters out there, and this RE entry does absolutely nothing to stand out from the pack. An Arkham Asylum-inspired scanning mechanic adds the slightest ounce of variety, but in the long term, it’s just not enough to spice up a lackluster experience.
Fortunately, Revelations recoups a fraction of its losses with some solid sound design. As you might expect, the score brings ambiance, energy, and tension to the Zenobia, and it does it surprisingly well. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call it subtle, the sounds and musical interjections employed here provide for an eerie, cold, and escapist trek through an otherwise featureless setting. The title’s cruise liner, from a visual standpoint, comes off as forgettable, monotonous, and even hollow. Yet, with all the right creaks and moans, it becomes something a little more alive. When you’re porting from a last-gen mobile device, well-versed sound design can make for a world of difference, and this is certainly no exception.
In the end, this is a game that strives, rather valiantly, to lead the franchise in the right direction. As to whether or not you’ll enjoy the newest Resident Evil, it all comes down to your relationship with the series. Revelations doesn’t manage to get a whole lot right, but it succeeds in bridging the well-worn gap between action-movie bombast and Paranormal Activity. If you consider yourself a franchise evangelist, go on and catch a ride down to your local brick-and-mortar. For practically everyone else, though, there’s little this game does that other genre heavyweights (BioShock, Alan Wake, Dead Space, The Walking Dead) haven’t already done better. The crucial, essential piece missing from Revelations’ puzzle is genuine terror, and even a night spent searching the flooded bowels of a devilish cruise ship can’t seem to drum it up. If you’re in the market for a mid-year Halloween treat, Red Barrels’ OUTLAST is shaping up to quench that thirst. For the rest of you, though, it might be time to break out the old purple lunchbox.
An eerily cryptic setting, solid sound design, and the game's ability to transition between action and horror.
A convoluted plotline, soulless dialogue, repetitive gameplay, mediocre graphics, and finally, the lack of lasting, authentic fear.
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/