Curse is without even the tiniest smidgen of originality, though it is a convincing memorial to a classic genre.
Though Capcom's Resident Evil series achieved legendary status by the late 1990s, both it and the survival horror boom that it spawned haven't been quite as popular in the past couple of years. However, Asylum Entertainment is not following the prevailing trends. The small British developer, best known for a handful of kid-friendly PlayStation games like Powerpuff Girls: Chemical Xtraction and Teletubbies: Play With the Teletubbies, has just released a very adult survival horror game for the Xbox called Curse: The Eye of Isis. Despite the company's lack of experience with this sort of game-making, and a few noteworthy miscues, the designers have traced the footsteps of Resident Evil as carefully as a chiropodist. This leaves the end result without even the tiniest smidgen of originality, though it is a convincing memorial to a classic genre.
Curse veers outside the lines just enough to stave off Raccoon City déjà vu. Stereotypes--like genetic experimentation gone wrong--have been exchanged for an Egyptian theme that combines a Victorian penny dreadful with The Mummy series of movies (the ones starring Brendan Fraser). The year is 1890, the place is the Museum of Great Britain, and the mystery involves a gang of thugs who are out to steal a statue called the Eye of Isis. You play as Darien Dane and Victoria Sutton, who are childhood friends that met in the land of the pharaohs while their parents were supervising archaeological digs. Just before a reunion takes place during a private showing of the Eye, something strange happens involving the relic and the death of a custodian. As a result, Darien then sneaks into the locked museum and begins to investigate.
Unfortunately, what initially seems like a fresh take on an old standard goes nowhere new. This may be the first use of Egypt as a survival horror plot device, but the cursed Eye of Isis is best at--wait for it--animating zombies. And mummies that act like zombies in rags. You spend the entire adventure shooting, beating, and flamethrowing the undead back to the grave, looking for keys to locked doors, and grabbing health power-ups. What few puzzles have to be solved are simplified by a gleam that spotlights important objects. If you've got the gray matter needed to use a controller to play this game, you can effortlessly solve the puzzles.
The only significant change to the Resident Evil formula is an Indiana Jones-style chase that leads from the museum to the London sewers to a train station to a cargo ship headed to Egypt. Fittingly, the finale takes you to a pyramid. Since all the locales you visit later are explored in the same fashion as the initial museum, there isn't anything that really stands out, aside from some slightly different enemies and some slightly different gloomy backdrops. At least everything moves along at a quick pace, so it's hard to get bored.
There are a few issues with mechanics. Asylum has mirrored the clunky Resident Evil camera system. Viewing angles are more about being cinematic rather than easy-to-use. You typically face the camera, with no idea what's in front of you, and you often run into unseen enemies when the viewing angle suddenly changes. At least the gamepad has been tweaked to compensate for these abrupt switches. If the camera in front of you suddenly moves to your rear, for instance, you don't have to immediately change how you're pressing down on the D pad. As long as you don't pause, you can just keep going. This eliminates one of the central problems with this dramatic style of presentation--constantly running into walls.
Adding to the awkwardness is the moving save point, in the person of your friend Abdul Wahid. While it's nice that he follows you around providing both this service and an extra inventory, it's jarring to fight to a new location and discover him already waiting for you. Also, the map makes it hard to find your way around, as rooms aren't labeled. It's best to ignore the map altogether and trust your instincts that rooms are going to be in logical locations, since they usually are. You usually just have to follow the bad guys to find the door you need to open.
Some aspects of Curse for the Xbox have been cleaned up when compared to the PC version. The game is certainly a lot smoother on the Xbox. Enemies no longer get caught on corners and walls, nor do they forget that they're in the middle of a scrap and wander away from you until you fire a couple of rounds into their backs. Enemies seem quicker as well. Even the common undead thugs at the beginning of the game are swift enough to take a chunk out of you before you can blast them to bits. This usually wasn't the case with the PC version. Buggy quests have also been addressed. The water bucket bug, which prevented you from applying medicine needed to continue the game, has been eliminated, as has the vanishing Osiris room key issue.
Still, Curse is really a better story than it is a game. Despite the hackneyed design, the plot unfolds like classic pulp fiction. You've got a hero with a mysterious past, a gutsy heroine, and a collection of enigmatic bad guys and creepy monsters. Atmosphere is tremendous. Every location is shadowy and eerie, thanks to effective, grimy textures and a handheld lantern that illuminates everything from below like a flashlight held under a person's chin. Echoing footsteps and melodramatic voice acting contribute more chills to the haunted corridors. Well-drawn backdrops set an darkly attractive stage, even though there are too many doors to open and too much reused artwork (how many toilets are needed in a museum basement?). Character and monsters also look great and boast lifelike animations, especially the mummies, although you do have to kill the same three or four baddies over and over again.
You can best consider Curse: The Eye of Isis as something of a trip down memory lane. If you didn't get enough of the survival horror phenomenon back when it was the biggest thing in gaming, this is a solid play, available at a budget price. If you did get your fill of zombie-smashing, this is a somewhat tedious walk over familiar ground. For better or worse, Asylum hasn't made a fresh new game so much as it has fashioned a tribute to Resident Evil with hieroglyphics.