December 13, 2009

Review – Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
For three consecutive nights, my girl and I have loaded our WiiMotes as if they were pistols, complete with nerdy sound effects, and found more multiplayer fun with The Darkside Chronicles than any other game we’ve played together this year. With a guilty weakness for light gun games, but a collection of titles that left plenty to be desired, we initially went into the game with a healthy amount of hesitation.

As stifled as the genre is, given that no amount of fancy words changes the fact that players are simply pointing at the screen and pulling a trigger, this release offers a reminder that there’s a genre to develop a game within, as with any other. And while the mechanics are straight-forward, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of creating a memorable experience, so long as developers accept that challenge rather than trying to shoehorn existing franchises into the setup.

Keep in mind I’ve largely ignored Dead Space Extraction for this very reason, simply because it’s burdened with the perception of providing a quick and easy means of moving the franchise onto the Wii.

When it came to The Darkside Chronicles, I did only expect to play long enough to get my Resident Evil fix. And yet for three nights in a row, we’ve played until our eyes were swollen red and our trigger fingers went from itchy to aching.

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
So here we are, with me telling you that the game offers something entirely different from my initial expectations, primarily in the way it pushes against the walls of the cage this genre creates, but does so in a way that makes more of those limitations. As a series, Resident Evil has always flipped between titles seeking to innovate, and ones that seem content to recycle previous successes. The Darkside Chronicles definitely fits into the first category, admittedly aided by the fact that it draws on the two best examples from the early releases in the franchise.

The prime experimentation, and my biggest area of concern leading up to the release, is the camera bouncing – which takes obvious inspirations from films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. More importantly, and getting back to the matter of games, this technique acknowledges the first-person perspective inherent to the genre and offers a greater chance for immersion as characters move, fall, and get grabbed by monsters or knocked down by explosions. And it accomplishes a great deal for the atmosphere while never making me as nauseous as I feared it might.

It is worth mentioning that there are times where your partner will have to save you by shooting an attacker, and depending on their skill this may end some friendships.

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
The result of playing with the camera is that there’s less of a confined feeling of being stuck on a rail, even though you are. There’s a minimal window of orientation necessary before it makes sense, when I accepted that I don’t need to shoot absolutely everything passing through my viewpoint as the screen shakes with the hurried footsteps of the characters.

The game always splices these moments with steadier pauses as players work to take down zombies and other abominations directly blocking their path. This makes the more frantic sequences of motion ideal target practice for headshot pros, and those looking to shoot as many objects as possible to reveal hidden archive items and money for weapon upgrades – players can upgrade the power, speed, and other features of weapons.

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
While single-player is always an option, the game demands two-player participation, offering a mix of fear and excitement that is best fed by having a partner around to become equally unnerved at times. The game slowly crawls through hallways, while the jittery camera builds a level of suspense reminiscent of the titles this game borrows the bulk of its source material from.

That seems to be the most important point of all, that the game has the ability to create that tense fear that made me a fan so long ago. There were plenty of times we truly did feel a sense of having survived stages, and there was that delightful idea of having accomplished something significant after finishing the game, though we’d really just been sitting on the couch with our arms pointed toward the television.

This also makes the game feel more like a complete experience, rather than something demanding consistent replay. We wanted to push through the game in one sitting, but that just wasn’t happening, with at least seven hours of zombie killing based on our run-time. But after we finished, I did spend money on upgrades for weapons and replay a few key chapters again.

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
The stage selection is a series of glass shards, offering memory cubes in much the same way as I remember Code Veronica and Resident Evil 2. The fan in me is helpless to resist the revisit. In many ways, Capcom knows exactly what I remember most about those games as well, even something as obscure as where the Police Chief took the Mayor’s daughter.

Some of these events are modified to accommodate the new game – Claire and Leon are never separated and thus their time with Ada Wong is changed to reflect that, but not stretched so far as to cause any significant complaints.

While the revisits were my preference and the game gets to them rather quickly, the larger story that ties everything together isn’t off the mark for the series. Leon is teamed with a typically steroid powered partner, and they follow a lead that confronts them with the Veronica virus, thereby causing Leon to trace the history from the beginning of his experiences with Umbrella.

At the very end, this over-arching narrative loses some steam, and the last boss encounter is an ordeal that follows a more traditional design path. But the build-up offsets this, or at least pushes it far enough toward the end to never prove a major issue.

The bulk of stages have an excellent sense of pacing, handing out story fragments with scenarios that keep the gameplay from ever sinking into deep repetition – as much as a light gun game can at least. This is best seen in the way certain boss encounters work with the gameplay, particularly during sequences where players are in motion while shooting. There’s plenty of ammo to go around, with all the classic weapons waiting to be discovered along the way. It’s apparent that determined marksmen could beat the game with a pistol, assuming they pick their shots just as enemies charge, and always hit a bosses weak spots.

Review Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles
What I’ve enjoyed most about The Darkside Chronicles is the added chance for accessibility, the way I was able to share my memories of prior gaming experiences that are well burnt into my mind, without having to make my girl sit and watch me play the originals.

I don’t know who was worse off for making the other tense because of this – me knowing what was coming, or her imagining any number of possibilities as I cursed when recognizing the setup for the crocodile attack and/or Mr.X.

The Darkside Chronicles is a well accomplished evolution on Umbrella Chronicles, with a more determined focus – a game that finds its own footing, even while remixing events from previous releases.

It’s far less the straight revisit I expected, and more a means of experiencing the best origin points of the franchise’s history from a different perspective, whether you want to walk the streets of Raccoon City again, or spend some time with the always delightful Ashford family.

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