"You once again prepare to enter... the world of survival horror." Those were the days. Lately, Resident Evil hasn't had much of either.
Where Resi 4 performed the impossible, spinning the grotesque and the Die Hard without dropping either, Resi 5 just gave up and trod on meekly behind, the imagination of its alpha versions eventually beaten out of a lukewarm final product. Resi 6's solution seems to be all things for all men: Leon for horror; Chris for guns; the mercenary for melee. In the meantime, what can the 3DS-exclusive Resident Evil: Revelations offer?
More than you'd think, but less than you'd hope. Revelations does 3DS proud in the ways that matter. It's a bona fide Resident Evil with lengthy single-player, excellent online, magnificent locations and some stunning 3D visuals. But it's not all jam. Revelations is a move back towards the horror side of the series and to this end makes big changes to the recent formula, most notably with its combat system.
The combat introduced by Resident Evil 4 has one problem for a horror game: once mastered, it's almost impossible for a competent player to be overwhelmed, never mind scared, by normal enemies. In response, Revelations' gunplay removes the ability to daze enemies with headshots or knock them to their knees, and the setting replaces the ganados with a new enemy called oozes.
The oozes are in keeping with the watery theme, looking like waterlogged corpses and only encountered on the massive cruise ship where most of the action occurs. But as a new standard enemy, they're a misfire and the biggest mistake Revelations makes. They're simply not much fun to fight. Oozes don't react to individual shots fired but will be 'stunned' when a threshold of damage is reached, which makes the gunplay feel more RPG-like than you'd expect in an action game. Shooting them is like shooting into a pile of ooze - no feedback.
It hints at a wider problem, the lack of imagination in enemy design. The ooze are poor, Hunters are from the first game in the series, and even the dogs are back. Aren't the spin-off titles where developers are supposed to experiment? Later, there are ooze mutations that are more interesting (including one with basically a giant sword and shield) but it feels too little, too late. For long sections, the best Revelations can offer is turning Hunters invisible.
Yes, you read that right. Invisible enemies are always a joke (one exception - the lift scene in Metal Gear Solid). In Revelations, the development team didn't even go through with it. These invisible enemies show up as an outline every few seconds, which means the subtler environmental clues (footprints, dust particles) are pointless. These battles are loose and baggy things, more like a shooting gallery than a fight, and far from tense.
The campaign flits from place to place as Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield and a host of other disposable BSAA agents struggle to find out what's going on and who's setting up who. Revelations squeezes every Resi trope it can into the ship's confines: an opulent ballroom, cramped rooms filled with lockers, secret offices, blood-streaked bedrooms and even a deep, hidden lab. There are also episodes set on terra firma, following various pairings of BSAA agents as they clean out offices and investigate crash sites. It's a varied set of environments that takes the player through 'real world' locations as well as the psycho-horror of the labyrinthine ship.
The new characters are a mixed bag, mainly because the script has moments of utter tone-deafness. At one point, you're at the bottom of a canyon as Chris, injured and prone, fending off wolves with a handgun while Jessica tries to get down and help. Pretty tense, huh? Well, it is until Jessica's voice actor deadpans: "Hold on, my sweet ass is on the way!"
What's more, Chris and Jill really are bromides these days. Chris just gruffs around saying manly things and occasionally telling Jill to be careful, while she utters boring clichés like "I hope he finds the peace in death he could not in life" after you've put a claw beast down with extreme prejudice. A great horror game doesn't necessarily need strong characterisation, but if it's going to show as many cut-scenes as Revelations does, it needs to be much better than this.
The ship saves the campaign, offering some classic Resi moments in gloomy environments reminiscent of a certain mansion. It's gorgeous, too, subtle and layered 3D combining with the best lighting and particle effects yet seen on 3DS.
The most surprising thing about Revelations is how often it resists the temptation of its own set-ups; slowly inching forwards, you hear a door slam, or something scuttle around the corner, but there's nothing there. The reveal is nearly always held back until you're just about to relax - and in contrast to the ooze, its bosses are a freaky clutch of organic nightmares. One in particular, a chattering hag who screams and shouts as you track her through the ventilation, is scarier than anything in Resident Evil 5.
The exceptions to the good-boss rule are a couple of huge monsters which are fought from mounted guns - a climactic cliché, and far from exciting. The underwater sections are another missed opportunity. When the ship starts flooding, parts of it have to be swum, and going through these tight spaces is an amazing chance for Revelations to deliver some real scares. But nothing stunning ever happens, no boss fights or big frights. It's bafflingly coy, only offering a few standard underwater types that are easily seen and dodged - and not one single, for example, mutated shark or zombie dolphin.
The campaign clocks in at over eight hours and is backed up by Revelations' ace in the hole - Raid mode. This replaces the usual Mercenaries mode with a series of assault courses built from strips of the campaign environments. You have to get from A to B and kill everything in the way, solo or with a local or online partner.
Raid is a great concept for 3DS, and Revelations executes it with conviction, style, and a hell of a lot of substance. The real hook is the combination of online co-op with a levelling and loot system. At the end of each run you're graded and are nearly always rewarded with phat loot and in-game currency. The kit can be used immediately, and the cash used to buy even more stuff from the shop (there are also special items that can only be bought with play coins, as well as StreetPass unlocks). I've played it for hours and there are still pages and pages of locked characters and gear.
What makes Raid mode so good is how little reverence it has for the usual way Resi goes about things; this is pure score-attack, and built to last. Raid mode adds health bars to the enemies, and can buff them with extra defence or attack. The common oozes can appear as giants, their attacks sweeping half a room, or a pack of wolves could disguise a tiny little bastard doing double damage at twice speed. The first couple of its 20 levels introduce things gently, but from then on Raid chucks the mutated kitchen sink at you.
The challenge and persistence, along with the ability to take in whatever tools you need from a soon-burgeoning inventory, make Raid a worthy replacement for one of the best bonus modes in gaming. The fact that you can buff your guns to eventually ludicrous levels always tempts you back in to its sterner tests. Revelations' campaign isn't especially tough, but Raid soon ratchets up into a real death run, with levels scaling for co-op, a separate hard difficulty, enemies receiving even greater bonuses, and piles and piles more ordnance.
Revelations' campaign feels like every great sequence is paired with a slightly botched one, but overall it just about delivers. Long after those twists and turns are a memory, however, you'll be running through the game's corridors with a pimped-out shotgun, a comedy costume and eyes on the prize.
Resident Evil: Revelations is gorgeous, huge, and offers the most fully-featured online co-op experience on 3DS. The single-player isn't quite the survival horror comeback Capcom promised but, with its brilliant take on score attack, Raid mode ensures Revelations delivers at least once on its title.