Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles Review
After the lukewarm reception the much-hyped Resident Evil 5 received earlier this year, die-hard fans may’ve felt Capcom had injected a new viral strain of their own into the feel of the venerable series. With a much more prominent emphasis of explosions, action setpieces and boss battles with automatic, unlimited-ammo weapons, the newest core RE entry just didn't feel exactly right. Not that this more adrenaline-fueled approach was a complete case of poisoning the well—RE5 just seemed to be envious of action games and cover shooters in ways the traditional Resident Evil’s of old (or even RE4, for that matter) never were, even with the presence of Chris, Jill and Wesker, and the inclusion of a plot that essentially wrapped up a story arch that had been left hanging since Code: Veronica.
Darkside Chronicles, despite being on-rails, is true, classic Resident Evil. It takes what makes the series great—namely atmospherics, a B-movie plot and actual zombies—and crafts a new story around well-known characters while taking a trip through familiar scenarios of the past. And while I did enjoy Chris and Sheva’s perilous expedition through Africa, I just don’t think RE5 felt entirely honest as part of the series. Darkside has no such problems.
The game opens in 2002, four years after Umbrella contaminated the areas in and around Raccoon City. Leon, partnered with eventual-adversary Jack Krauser, is on assignment in South America to investigate reports of a new viral outbreak in the region. Unsurprisingly, everything goes to hell when the two arrive are ambushed by a horde of zombies--real ones—in a seemingly deserted village. Leon serves as Darkside’s narrator, filling Krauser in on his own past experiences with Umbrella’s undead and biological experiments, as well as Claire’s experiences from Code: Veronica, whose virus is related to the new strain.
So there’s a lot of shared history inherent in Darkside’s narrative—par for the course for a sequel to Umbrella Chronicles. For those that’ve made their way through the first game, you already know what to expect: a lot of co-op friendly light-gun shooting chronicling events from past games, with some situational re-interpretations that allow for two players to be present where they may’ve been solo in original canon. Interestingly, when the game begins you have your choice as playing as either Leon or Krauser, and the POV perspective, as well as your actual positioning in the scene, is different depending on who you choose. After the first level, Leon takes over with the voiceover; at this point, perspective is thrown out the window. Whether you pick Claire or Leon (or alternately Claire and Steve) in their respective RE2 and Code: Veronica chapters, your character’s perspective remains the same, while the second player’s placement is switched out depending on which character you initially choose. What does this mean? Considering that Leon is recalling past events from four years ago, and that he was not even present for Claire’s ordeal in Code: Veronica, a fixed perspective essentially means the player is held hostage to Leon’s interpretation of what happened.
Now, I’m fully aware that the changes made to the basic chronology in the games depicted was most likely simply tweaked to ensure a two-player co-op experience, but it still creates some narrative implications. For starters, beyond the first stage of the present day episode, the camera perspective works the same way as it does in the flashback parts of the game, suggesting that even through the current mission, Darkside’s gaze is always Leon’s.
Given the traumatic events he’s already seen, then, can Leon really be a reliable narrator? Or is Capcom simply tweaking canon in a temporal sense, for the benefit of increased accessibility to the game? Could a narrative bias lend itself towards characters facing their “darkside,” as has been referred to in the game’s ad campaign and talks with the producer? We don’t get an answer to these questions. But judging from its new first-person perspective shaky-cam visual design, it seems like any choice on the part of the developers that makes you think more about perspective is certainly intentional—details may be fudged here or there in terms of canonical narrative, but the game is nevertheless more engaging than Umbrella Chronicles, and it’s interesting to see what became of the Veronica virus’ remnants before the Plagas outbreak of RE4.
This one’s tougher, too, as the almost-Cloverfield-esque camerawork makes precision shots a must, particularly in some of the later levels or when squaring off against some of the game’s more powerful bosses. As a whole, Darkside is a marked improvement over Umbrella (although it still lacks the limb-blasting of either House of the Dead: Overkill or Dead Space: Extraction). In addition to a greater challenge, the weapon tweaks, which use an improved upgrade system to max our your guns’ stats, give the game a little more meat to make up for a shorter single-player campaign; whereas Umbrella lasted for upwards of 20 hours, you can finish Darkside in six or seven, giving this one much tighter pacing. The presentation has received a pretty nice facelift as well, making Darkside one of the better-looking third-party offerings on the Wii, with particularly good lighting and texture effects.
It is too bad, however, that backstory points (such as what exactly happened to Krauser between the time in the game to his change of heart and Plagas injection in RE4) are only hinted at, and not explored more fully. The same can be said, more or less, for the shorter present-day part of the game, which feels a little rushed compared to the relatively in-depth RE2 and Code: Veronica chapters. Even the “darkside” theme is a bit underdeveloped, but that’s probably more a function of the overall B-movie silliness that is more or less synonymous with the series’ various story arcs. In essence, what the game may lack in exposition or narrative complexity it makes up for in nostalgic capital, a refined weapons system and a classic Resident Evil feel. This is, for the most part, more than I can say about RE5; perhaps the dev team for the inevitable RE6 would do well to delve into their own past before deciding where to go from here.