The Resident Evil series has taken gamers to some interesting and frightening places over the years. Over the course of the various installments on the PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast, the series has always been able to make players jump with its atmospheric graphics, twisted creature design, and moody music. However, the latest installment in the series gave us a good scare before we even saw it. We certainly jumped when we heard that the first portable incarnation of the series would be on the Game Boy Color. In spite of developer M4's GBC track record, which includes Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000 and Tazmanian Devil: Munching Madness, the notion of anyone coming up with an RE game on a portable console seemed like a daunting task. However, after checking out the game, which recently hit stores in Europe, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw. In spite of the obvious limitations of the hardware, RE: Gaiden is looking like it may be worthy of the RE mantle.
The game's story finds you in the role of Barry Burton, who has joined an underground organization--made up of ex-S.T.A.R.S. members and Umbrella employees--that is dedicated to stopping the Umbrella Corporation's work. Barry is tapped to track down a new type of bio-organic weapon, which has escaped from the Umbrella labs and has been traced to a luxury passenger ship called the Starlight, currently en route to Europe. It seems that the previous agent sent to eliminate the creature, Leon Kennedy, has disappeared. To add even more intrigue to the proceedings, the ship now seems to be drifting aimlessly on the ocean. Upon Barry's arrival, it's clear that things have gone slightly awry and are getting worse. Armed with just a few odd bits of weaponry--a knife and a pistol--Barry heads in and the game begins.
Obviously, the GBC isn't going to even come close to the present generation of home consoles, but the game certainly makes the most of what it has. The main gameplay is split into two types--exploration and battle. Exploration will have you making your way through the Starlight. You'll receive instructions via radio and eventually find a PDA that will help you keep track of your objectives and the information you discover. As you explore the Starlight, you'll come across the typical RE assortment of items. Weapons ranging from knives to rocket launchers and their corresponding ammo will be on hand, as will a veritable rainbow of colored herbs that restore health and status. You'll also find armor pickups, which can be equipped to help reduce damage from enemy attacks.
As you move around the Starlight, you'll come across a variety of zombies that will trigger the battle segments in the game. When combat is initiated--by taking aim at a zombie or being accosted by one in your travels--the game switches to a first-person view. Your enemies will be shown onscreen with meters underneath them. The length of the meter will depend on the enemy's proximity to you. A cursor will move along the bottom of the screen through the displayed meters and help you time your attacks. When the cursor is inside a meter's range, you'll damage your opponent when you fire your weapon. The center of a meter will feature a point directly in its center, which will cause a critical hit on your foe if you fire when the cursor is lined up properly. Critical hits are essential to quickly dispatching a zombie, as two will usually take one out. Doling out hasty death is a must when you find yourself surrounded by enemies.
Playing in both modes works very well, thanks to the simple and effective control scheme. When you're exploring, the D-pad moves your character, A serves as a context-sensitive action button, B calls up a targeting reticule that you can use to initiate a battle, "start" calls up your map, and "select" calls up your inventory. When you're in the first-person battle mode, the D-pad lets you adjust your view left and right, A fires your weapon, "start" lets you flee combat if pull off the proper controller input in time, and "select" calls up your inventory. The most useful control in battle mode is likely to be the B button, which lets you switch between your available characters. Over the course of the game, you will be able to use two other characters--old favorite Leon and the mysterious Lucia, an orphan who may have ties to the bio-organic weapon stalking loose on the ship.
In spite of its various gameplay styles, RE: Gaiden works as a whole. It manages to maintain the pacing of an RE game, although there's a larger emphasis on combat, which will make it difficult to conserve ammo. Graphically, RE: Gaiden does what it can with the GBC hardware. The game's top-down exploration mode features clean and simple detail on your characters and the environments. The zombies you'll encounter actually feature enough distinguishing detail that you'll be able to tell them apart from a distance at times. The only real catch with the graphics is that the indoor settings of the game are very dark, making it difficult to see objects and enemies at times. An icon system that pops up icons denoting usable items or the proximity of enemies helps, but things are still a bit dark in the game overall. In the first-person battle mode, the darkness isn't as much of an issue, as you can usually see everything pretty clearly. Enemy detail is quite high and very well done for the GBC. Scrolling is also very smooth when you look around, which gives it a solid look overall. In terms of sound, M4 has made effective use of what the GBC's sound hardware can offer. The "soundtrack" is sparse, but there are some clean sound samples for the zombies and weapons' fire, which are a nice touch. You'll even hear a bit of speech that says "Resident Evil" at the outset of the game.
Overall, Resident Evil: Gaiden looks as though it's doing all it can do on the GBC hardware--and doing it well. It offers a solid story and solid gameplay, which are complemented by equally competent graphics. The battle mode works well and certainly keeps the game engaging. The only real knock against the game is the dark indoor graphics. Hopefully, Capcom and M4 will try to address this issue before the game's US release in May. Even so, RE: Gaiden is shaping up to be a solid portable RE experience that fans of the series may want to check out.