Resident Evil Gaiden is quite different from the other installments in Capcom's Resident Evil franchise. The game is played primary from a top-down perspective, which eliminates the spooky camera angles and blood-curdling surprises that have become hallmarks of the survival horror genre. Likewise, there are no item slots, item boxes, or other such artificial limits placed on your inventory--an adjustment that increases your ability to explore, but also makes this Game Boy Color chapter less suspenseful than its console counterparts.
Strictly speaking, Resident Evil Gaiden is ordinary. What remains after the alterations listed above, as well as those detailed in the rest of this review, is a straightforward action game with a mild emphasis on puzzle solving. Besides the Resident Evil namesake and a well-crafted story, there's nothing that sets Gaiden apart from any of the countless other action games available for the Game Boy Color.
The most noteworthy aspect is the story, which is a clever whodunit that keeps you guessing as to the true identity of the villain. The Umbrella Corporation is up to its old tricks, using people as fodder in ghastly genetic experiments, but this time it's doing so aboard the Starlight, a luxury cruise liner. Leon S. Kennedy, a former member of the Raccoon Police Department, is ordered to investigate, but he promptly disappears. Barry Burton is then sent to rescue Leon and uncover the truth behind Umbrella's latest experiments.
Eventually, the two heroes team up and proceed to liberate a young girl from the clutches of a BOW, a bioorganic weapon capable of assuming human forms and transforming people into undead zombies. The plot has many twists and turns, and the ending is a surprise that should please longtime fans of the franchise--especially those who wonder exactly what happened to Kennedy in between Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Code: Veronica.
Playing through the entire game, however, requires incredible patience. In order to find Leon and rescue Lucia, you have to search the entire ship. The Starlight has more than 100 different rooms and passages, many of which are locked initially, so the challenge is to find out how and where to obtain the key or item that will unlock the door obstructing your path. Many of these items are lying in plain sight, but some are hidden in furniture or under dead bodies or carried by zombies.
As is the case in most Resident Evil games, you should avoid contact with zombies whenever possible in order to conserve ammunition. Nevertheless, combat is the only way to secure a few of the necessary keys. There are two ways to initiate a battle. One is to target a zombie with your weapon, which keeps the zombie at a distance during the early stages of a fight. The other is to walk up to a zombie and let it attack you, which brings the zombie up close and personal. Nearby zombies will also join the fracas at various distances.
The actual combat, however, is vastly different from the combat in other Resident Evil games. During a fight, the viewpoint shifts to a closer perspective, with your characters in the foreground and the zombies in the background. The cursor in the horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen represents your aim. In order to shoot or slash at a zombie, you have to press the attack button when the cursor is in the zombie's target area. The closer you are to the center of the target, the stronger your attack will be.
One significant benefit of the closer combat view is that you can equip and control all three of your characters--Barry, Leon, and Lucia--independently of one another. This means that while a zombie is munching on Barry, you can take the time to heal Lucia or equip Leon with an assault rifle. Furthermore, if you equip each character with a weapon, you don't have to worry about wasting precious time whenever one of them runs out of ammo--just switch focus and attack with another person. Throughout the game, there are also various armored vests and guns that you can acquire to increase your options in combat.
Unfortunately, the lack of real puzzles, combined with the repetitive nature of the battles, makes Resident Evil Gaiden a very tedious journey. Most of the time, you're just wandering from one level of the ship to another searching for keys. When you do engage in battle, it's almost always against the same types of zombies. Unlike in other Resident Evil games, there are no lurkers, lickers, dogs, or spider monsters to diversify your opponents. The save system further exacerbates the monotony, since there are only 11 preset points in the entire game.
The graphics and sound are about what you'd expect from a game of this type. There are no scary camera angles to speak of, but the way zombies sneak out of shadows in the exploration view and absolutely fill the screen in the combat view is pretty impressive. The way your characters brighten and darken as they move from room to room is also a nice touch. The music is depressing and sufficiently sets the mood, and digitized zombie moans interrupt whenever a creature is within earshot.
In the end, however, Resident Evil Gaiden doesn't inspire the same level of interest that the other games in the franchise do. Nonetheless, devout fans of the overall Resident Evil storyline will probably forgive many of the game's shortcomings in order to discover the fate of Leon S. Kennedy and Barry Burton.