"Favour... returned." *Dies*
Continuing in the vein of previous on-rails shooter The Umbrella Chronicles, which related the downfall of Umbrella in re-imagined sequences from Resident Evils 0, 1 and 3, The Darkside Chonicles fills in the remaining gaps, covering the events of Resident Evil 2, RE: Code Veronica and leading up to RE4. Although, following on from The Umbrella Chronicles (henceforth just 'UC'), and what many people saw as the far superior Dead Space: Extraction (I wouldn't know, Extraction gave me motion sickness) it seems like DSC (that's Darkside Chronicles, let's keep with the acronyms) may well fall through the cracks. Which is a shame, because it's an altogether, slicker, tighter, classier affair than UC, featuring some of the series' most memorable major and minor characters and recounting its most character-driven stories. Where UC gave us Jill Valentine snapping a zombie's neck with her bare thighs, DSC shows us Annette Birkin shedding a single perfect tear for the neglect she's shown her daughter. Where UC is full of characters uttering weird non-sequiturs and humourless observations of the obvious, DSC has a dry sense of humour and some lively banter.
It's also, it must be said, a huge technical improvement over UC. It looks a lot better, properly portraying the atmospheric environs of RE2 and RECV, and lending the characters an appearance that's both slightly more realistic and a lot more stylish. The finicky headshots have been improved, becoming much easier to pull off on lower difficulty settings. And replaying the chapters to improve your score is made more palatable by their being shorter and more numerous, and with less protracted boss fights. It's also now possible to focus on improving your score in different areas at a time, so, for example, you don't have to try and juggle blasting huge numbers of enemies with lining up headshots. And the rewards and archives you get are more interesting as well, including character models, voice recordings, and bonus costumes.
But I'm always the first person to complain about the exaltation of the technical when it comes to video games. There's one reason I was so keen to get DSC, and that's my enormous love for Resident Evil 2, which, as you may remember me mentioning about a million times, is one of my all-time favourite games.
The transition to rail shooter naturally distorts the storyline and the atmosphere of the original - and destroys the sense of exploration and strategy. But it's also clear that this transition has been handled by people who genuinely care about the story, and who are interested in trying to draw out its strengths. So, although Leon and Ada now only spend just a little time with one another, their few scenes together are more touching, and their attraction is depicted in a more low-key, less melodramatic fashion. In the same way, without giving anything away, the original “Killed the boss! Fuck yeah!” ending is morphed into something more measured, almost understated (at least by Resident Evil standards), which focuses on the emotional fallout for Sherry Birkin.
I've noted before that RE2 has probably one of the best supporting casts in the RE franchise, and that's kind of acknowledged here by the way a lot of them seem to just turn up for a cameo death scene. Still, Chief Irons is suitably deranged, and Marvin Branagh's fate might potentially make you jump the first time you play through that chapter. And if these guys seem to get a bit of a short shrift, it's more than made up for by the skilful way the game handles the bigger players. Annette Birkin, in particular, is portrayed as less of a two-note maniac and more of a conflicted and tragic figure (even if her introductory monologue does meander into complete gibberish).
It's harder for me to gauge the Code Veronica chapters, because that's now the only mainline Resi game I've never played. Still, Claire is one of my favourite characters in the series, and these chapters are made a lot of fun by her alternately exasperated and flirtatious banter with irrepressible, wise-cracking Steve Burnside; by a delightfully ostentatious and playful villain; and by some truly engaging environments ranging from a ruined prison camp to an Antarctic base.
The weakest part of the game, for me, was the third set of chapters, relating Leon's first and last mission with Krauser (both of whom reappear, this time on opposing sides, in RE4). Although this part of the game at first seems kind of clever, given how it's actually presented as the framing narrative for the other two stories, it's also pretty light on storytelling and character, quite tedious at times, and seems to end rather abruptly - unceremoniously jumping from one boss fight straight to the climactic one. (I've also got to mention that I found the 'losing' ending that you can get for this sequence to be somewhat stronger than the 'winning' one, which makes me wonder why they included both.)
By focusing on the stories of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles presents a tighter, more focused game than The Umbrella Chronicles, while also improving on many of that game's flaws. The standard of writing is relatively high, and I found the action to be fun and challenging while avoiding becoming repetitive or tedious (at least in the RE2 and RECV chapters). If you're a fan, I think you'll find this to be a classy, good-looking re-imagining of the originals. And if you just want to shoot zombies and monsters with your Wii-mote, there's that too.