Monday, July 28, 2014

Resident Evil: Revelations - Better Than Expected

Once the reigning king and quintessential embodiment of the survival-horror genre, the Resident Evil series has spent the better half of the past decade trying to recapture its former brilliance. Unsuccessfully, it would seem. I used to consider myself a fan of the series, from the slow-paced adventure-style gameplay of the originals to the stronger action focus of the fourth main installment. But ever since Resident Evil 5, which was itself an underwhelming letdown, I've found myself cynically jaded by the barrage of spin-offs to have been churned out by the grand corporate machine.

Resident Evil: Revelations was said to be a return to form for the series, offering a gameplay and atmosphere style that more closely resembled the originals while still retaining the over-the-shoulder third-person-shooting mechanics and control scheme that made Resident Evil 4 so successful. Revelations blends those two game styles (survival-horror adventure and action-shooter) relatively well, but it rarely reaches the full potential that either of those two styles are capable of delivering. The gameplay works surprisingly well on the 3DS, however, which makes Revelations a pretty good game when you can't take your PC or consoles with you.

As a survival-horror game, Revelations certainly values the moody downtime between monster encounters more than, say, Resident Evil 5, but it still feels to me like more of an action game than actual survival-horror. Enemies simply take too many bullets to kill, and you therefore collect too many bullets -- whatever happened to the good old days of having only two bullets to use on three (or more) enemies? It used to be that every enemy encounter was tense because you had to risk running out of ammo if you tried to kill it, or risk taking damage if you tried to conserve ammo; in Revelations, every enemy is designed specifically to be killed, and you're given more than enough ammo and healing items to get the job done.

Using the Genesis tool (a type of scanner that lets you search the environment for hidden items), you find tons and tons of bullets that you simply can't carry, all because of arbitrary inventory restrictions. There's no inventory management or customization to speak of; you just pick things up until you reach the limit. You're basically never at risk of running out of ammunition because it's basically everywhere, and because of the arbitrary restrictions on how much you can carry, you're constantly backtracking to restock or finding abundantly more than you need up ahead, anyway. Like regenerating health, it only allows for minor, short-term tension -- the risk of running out of ammo in a prolonged fight and having to scrounge for more -- but offers no long-term tension because you'll be back at max in no time.

The Genesis scanner introduces an interesting twist on survival-horror's typical "risk vs reward" mechanism, however; besides just scanning the environment for items, you can also scan enemies to build up a meter towards manufacturing a healing item. The closer you are to an enemy, the more progress you'll make on the meter, so do you scan from a safe distance for less reward, or risk getting closer for greater reward? If you're low on health and out of healing items, scanning enemies might seem like your best bet for survival, but that also puts you at risk of getting killed since your defenses will be lowered, which makes the tension doubly thick. This doesn't come into play very often, however, since you'll be sitting on a max supply of green herbs for the majority of the game, but it's an interesting idea that I wouldn't mind seeing more of in followup releases.

The whole game was unfortunately too easy for me to feel much actual tension, thus missing the point of survival-horror entirely. I was a bit concerned when I clicked "new game" and saw that "normal" was the hardest difficulty I could select, since "normal" is basically synonymous with "easy" these days. Harder modes are apparently restricted until you've beaten the game once, but I have no desire to replay the game, even in a higher difficulty. I really wish I could have played a harder difficulty from the start, since I only ever experienced two moments in the normal difficulty where I ever felt at risk of actually dying -- once when I was trapped in a room with no weapon, and once when I had to fight a bunch of underwater enemies.

Besides the old-fashioned "tank controls" and the presence of gory monsters, there's not a whole lot about this game that harkens back to the glory days of the original Resident Evil games. It's nice that Revelations is (generally) set in one, central location (a cruise ship), since it allows you to backtrack for items you might otherwise miss by constantly pressing onward towards the objective, and since it allows you to become more familiar with the setting, but repeating certain areas gets to feel stale, especially when you play random scenarios in other locations as other characters where the maps get blatantly recycled for no apparent reason. It doesn't help much, either, that the game starts with the two most boring, straightforward areas in the entire game.

The game begins with Jill Valentine and some guy (Parker Surname) searching a derelict cruise ship for her former partner, Chris Redfield. This sequence is meant to begin the game with some action and intrigue before flashing back to the proper exposition of the story, but it doesn't fulfill its intended purpose very well. There's not enough mystery or drama on the opening cruise ship sequence to care about, since you have absolutely no context for what's going on or what's at stake, and the flashback sequence lasts all of five minutes before you're right back on the ship. It feels like a pointless concession to shallow, impatient gamers, that the game has to start with action because people would be too bored to play a game for five whole minutes without shooting something. 

The game shifts rather frequently between different characters in different locations at different chronological times. You play as a combination of Jill and Parker, Chris and his partner Jessica, and two other guys named Keith and Quint, and everyone except for Jill feels like extraneous filler content. Jill is the only one who has a persistent progression through the game; she's the only one who unlocks upgrades and retains her exact status as you switch from episode to episode. Everyone else just gets dropped into random self-contained scenarios (with no persistent progress between them), which often feel like artificially forced action scenes and which rarely offer anything of substance to the story. If anything, they just interrupt the pacing and make me lose interest in whatever was happening before the change in characters.  

The cruise ship that Jill explores is seemingly meant to resemble the mansion from the first Resident Evil, both aesthetically (at times) and thematically, but it lacks the gameplay functionality of the mansion's puzzles. The original game featured a lot of logic puzzles that also required specific inventory items to manipulate -- besides just pressing forward and shooting (or avoiding) anything that moves, you also had to think to make any sort of progress. Solving puzzles helped connect you to the environment more, and offered a couple of branching paths based on what puzzles you were able to solve. Revelations has literally one type of puzzle, which occurs four or five times. That is a woeful deficiency of puzzles, since all you do otherwise is follow the GPS markers and collect keys to open locked doors.

Combat feels a little clunky and unsatisfying, which really shouldn't be the case for a game that seems to lean closer to the action shooter genre than the survival-horror genre. Weapon sound effects and recoil animations aren't always that enjoyable, and enemies don't react much to being hit. In the case of the basic enemies, you have to shoot them three or four times (over the course of roughly three seconds) before they recoil, which makes it feel kind of like you're shooting a bag of potatoes most of the time. Then, when they die, they stand around awkwardly for a moment before slumping to the floor -- coupled with their lack of reaction to bullets, it makes it really difficult to tell when an enemy has died, and there's no real satisfaction from getting a definitive "killshot," such as a decapitation.

In typical video game fashion, the final boss fight features a ginormous, fearsome-looking monster that's ultimately kind of simple to kill, and which emphasizes cinematic aesthetics more than compelling gameplay. I was really disappointed when I realized how easy it was, especially once it shifted into a dumb, scripted rail shooting sequence, but was grateful afterward when the game continued with an extra chapter's worth of calm resolution, flashing back to events long before the chronological start of the game, and finally ending with an actually challenging (and interesting) final boss fight. As much as I criticized the back-and-forth character switching and non-chronological storytelling a few paragraphs ago, I really liked the ending sequences, which probably wouldn't have worked if the game hadn't been switching around all along.

The controls feel natural and responsive on the 3DS, although I'm still not fond of the 3DS's inherently thin, blocky feeling in my hands, even with the XL model. Aiming with the thumb pad slider is easy, and I'm a big fan of handheld games now letting you adjust your aim by tilting the device, which feels like a much quicker, easier way to make small adjustments. Unfortunately, the tilt-aiming doesn't work well with the 3D visuals of the device, since tilting it distorts the image and causes you to lose the 3D. It's pretty cool that the game has an option to strengthen the 3D effect further, but a lot of graphics and HUD elements (like pick-up icons, crosshairs, open door icons, subtitles, etc) are displayed via 2D overlays in the foreground of your vision, which appear as double images unless you shift your focus towards the foreground (which then makes everything else appear in double images). 

You can kind of tell that Capcom had to cut a few corners to fit a "console-quality" Resident Evil game onto the 3DS (hence why several areas are recycled, I believe), but it never feels like a dumb, simplified handheld game. The episodic chapters and "previous on" cutscenes enable Revelations to be played in shorter stints, while still feeling like a full game experience. It's a shame, therefore, that Revelations never fully captures the tension the series is known for, particularly in its earlier installments. The survival-horror elements are underwhelming and sometimes feel almost non-existent, and the action lacks a certain amount of punch and ferocity to be truly satisfying, so the gameplay feels a little pedestrian. 

I'm not sure I'd recommend Revelations on the PC or consoles, but since there are few similar games of this quality on handhelds, it's worth checking out on the 3DS if you like to play your games on the go.  

1 comment:

  1. Played Revelations on PC and really liked it. The episodic nature of the game was great and the recaps before each episode were amazing. You should try Resident Evil 4 if you already haven't. One of the best. It features great inventory management, some great character interactions, nice customization and even a bit of actual exploration. It is also a long game, clocking at about 20 hours, not counting the amazing Mercenaries (single player horde like mod), Separate Ways (a totally new campaign of 5 hours) that are unlocked after beating the game.