Resident Evil: Revelations is a wonderful surprise. It benefits both from the low expectations set by the previous, shallow Resident Evil on the Nintendo 3DS and from the fact that it is a very good Resident Evil.

It also benefits from being, perhaps, the game that makes the most of Nintendo's year-old handheld.

That a Resident Evil is a showpiece for a Nintendo handheld is an oddity, considering the DSes have been a line that shined best with the primary colors of Marios and Pokémons. And it is a stunner considering that this hallowed horror series turns out to be a great showpiece for some amazing 3D.

There were instances this week when I was telling Kotaku colleagues that I think this might be the best Resident Evil game I've ever played. The back half of the game tempered that, but, yes, this one is special.

While Resident Evils 4 and 5 were more action-oriented—more Rambo than Psycho, this one was pitched as bringing back the tense Resident Evil 1 vibe by putting players in scary places with limited ammo in their hero's gun and creepy monsters of some sort, ready to spring from any corner. This is a a brand-new game, but the promise from its creators was a rebirth of what made Capcom's PlayStation-born horror series great.

The promise has been met in many of Revelations's best episodes. Yes, "episodes." The game is structured like a TV show, one that occurs mostly in the year 2005 some time before the events of Resident Evil 5.

The set-up is that, in 2004, terrorists destroyed the wonderful floating city of Terragrigia but were repelled by two squabbling government organizations. We play as any one of several foot-soldiers for the government groups in a series of episodes that mostly deal with the events a year later when the terrorists and their bioweapons—not zombies!—appear to be back.

The story is tolerable, but there isn't a cliché about rival, acronymed government agencies that Revelations doesn't treat as the most clever plot twist of the year. You'll see the betrayals and conspiracies coming, though hopefully you didn't anticipate Revelations in the hope of experiencing a great yarn.Thank goodness the game doesn't depend on the creativity of the tale it tells nor the novelty of the characters who populate it.

The main, advertised player who you'll control is Jill Valentine, heroine of the first Resident Evil. She is partnered with Parker Luciani and tasked with exploring a creepy cruise ship, the Queen Zenobia. The big ship is essentially a floating equivalent of RE1's mansion. It's stranded in the dark somewhere on the Mediterranean and full of hallways to explore, locked doors to return to and many, many creepy evil things to introduce to your bullets.

Jill's episodes—or parts of episodes—are the game's main sequence and are returned to, cliffhanger after cliffhanger through the duration of the 10-hour campaign. Her sequences are also most of the game's best, as she is usually in deep trouble, strapped for ammo and blind to the horrors around the next corner. You control her with the tank-like slowness that is a hallmark of the series, which I still consider essential for building a creepy mood. Jill doesn't run and although she can move while shooting, the finger gymnastics needed for a player to accomplish that mean she'll usually have to stand her ground to shoot the ship's nasty inhabitants. That makes the action all the more wonderfully tense. You skulk and scramble in a third-person view. You shoot in first-person.

Resident Evil Revelations: The Kotaku Review
WHY: Because it's a superb Resident Evil game and easily one of the 3DS' most impressive games.

RESIDENT EVIL REVELATIONS

Developer: Capcom / Tose
Platforms: 3DS
Released: January 26 (Japan), January 27 (Japan), February 7 (U.S.)

Type of game: Third-person single-player shooter that flips from horror to action, plus has a multiplayer score-based mode.

What I played: Cleared the campaign on normal difficulty in 10:04:22. Dabbled with multiplayer for a few missions.

My Two Favorite Things

  • Shockingly good graphics that deserve to be played with the 3D cranked
  • A classic franchise chopped into focused, short "episodes," streamlining away notorious elements


My Two Least-Favorite Things

  • Nearly as many storyline cliches as there are lines of dialogue.
  • Too many big-action levels amid the more distinct, creepy, scary ones


Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "Should be a system-seller for the 3DS!" -Stephen Totilo, Kotaku.com
  • "New gameplay! Old plot twists!" -Stephen Totilo, Kotaku.com
  • "I could walk and shoot AT THE SAME TIME. But I didn't want to!" -Stephen Totilo, Kotaku.com

You're going to have to like backtracking to like this game. Jill's bits on the Zenobia have some of the old Metroid-style rewarding of backtracking in them, an element that also made exploring the mansion in the first Resident Evil so much fun. As you find each key on the Zenobia, previously unlocked doors reveal treasures.

In many of the game's episodes, players will switch from playing as Jill to controlling other characters in the Resident Evil pantheon at different locations and in different moments in time. Every character has a partner, and all patter back and forth with each other through a surprising amount of voice-acted dialogue. The dialogue is dumb, which is a series tradition, too (Example: Female character says, "This cave is cold." Male character says: "You should have worn your thermal underwear." or… Male character is injured. Helpful female character yells, "Me and my sweet ass are on the way!").

Hopping from place to place and from character to character makes the game feel a little Call of Duty-esque, but that actually helps. This is, after all, a mobile game, and it benefits from being broken into half-hour chunks. These welcome changes of theaters and characters—as long as you don't mind occasionally being partnered with a character codenamed "Jackass"—also help establish needed breaking points.

The game's creators do a good job of including mostly legitimate cliffhangers that you want to see resolved, and they include "previously on" videos at the start of each new episode. They also, thankfully, include an auto-save function that chucks the series' typewriters but also helps make this game compatible with a commuter's lifestyle.

Revelations is a better Resident Evil because of its structure. All of the chopping of the story forces the developers to deliver a satisfying experience in each episode, and they meet that need with an impressive range of gameplay styles and tones. Jill's levels may often be the most survival-horror, but they are interspersed with some good high-action machine-gun-everything chunks, some good exploration-heavy chapters, some timed chapters and so on. A superb soundtrack reinforces whatever careful or reckless mood the developers are trying to provoke in the player. By the end of the game, however, the ratio of action levels to everything else swells to far in favor of Rambo action than I'd hoped. It's not a huge problem but still more of a departure from the throwback style I enjoyed earlier in the game.

I liked this chopped-up take on Resident Evil a lot, because the series, for all of its excellent tension and action has often felt padded. Even the wonderful Resident Evil 4 dragged for me in the moments beyond the town and lake and before the game's final hours. In this game, there's no time to waste the player's time and no need to beef things up. Each level is focused and lasts long enough to make the right impact. The game is never exceedingly scary, but it did make me jump a couple of times—just because it occasionally demands that you creep through it so carefully while the music pulls your nerves tight.

The series' subtractions in Revelations were smart; so too are the new game's additions. A major element is the Genesis device which doesn't make gardens out of dead rock but instead scans a room from a first-person view in a throwback to Metroid Prime. Jill or any other protagonist can use the Genesis to survey a room, panning with the 3DS' Circle Pad and then holding a button down to commence the few-seconds-long scans.

Scans will reveal hidden items, but they are more useful for gaining health. Scanning any enemy, you see, gains the player research points, 100 of which generate one health refill. Here's the smart twist: you get more points the closer the enemy you're scanning is to you. And the other smart twist: you have to lower your gun to scan. This is a classic high-risk/high-reward system, and it compels the player, marvelously, to make this horror game more nerve-wracking in order to make it survivable.

The other good addition is an expansion of the series' weapon system. Collected guns can be upgraded with collected parts that do everything from increase damage and stopping power to amplify potency for closer targets or fire two bullets for every one trigger pull. That's a nice expansion of player choice that mixes well with the wide variety of pistols, shotguns, knives and other weapons of infected monster destruction.

All of these elements I've described so far, including the chopping of the levels into small, focused sequences, could make Resident Evil: Revelations one of the better console Resident Evils, but the game is all the more extraordinary for running on a handheld.

It makes the 3D on the 3DS feel relevant like no game on the platform before it. The glasses-free 3D effects on Nintendo's machine can sometimes be uncomfortable. If I push 3D to its max setting on most games on the machine, I feel as if I'm straining my eyes and I find that even small hand movements or the bounce of the train I'm riding while playing will cause the game's imagery to double. I've always held the 3D in check, usually to 50% potency at best. Not here. For some reason, I was able to comfortably and effectively play it at the game's most extreme setting.

The game looks fantastic on the 3DS even with the 3D turned off, but I highly recommend players go into the option menu, switch to "very strong" for the game's 3D effect and then slide the system's 3D slider to the max. In the dark, where you'd best play a Resident Evil, it's easy to maintain a visual focus on the 3D, and it is rewarding for Revelations, because it creates the effect of looking through the 3DS' top screen almost as if it is a keyhole beyond which is an expansive three-dimensional moving diorama of a horrific world.

I had a harder time maintaining glasses-free 3D focus under the bright lights of the New York City subway, so I lowered the slider. But however much 3D I used, the depth it gave the game's graphics significantly enhanced the look of the game. The 3D doesn't make anything pop out at you, so don't expect is as a tool for generating cheap scares. Instead, expect it to effectively suck you in.

Early in my playing of Revelations I did struggle with the controls. The game can be played as a twin-stick shooter, with the right "stick" amounting to your right thumb gliding over part of the 3DS' lower touchscreen. It doesn't work well that way and might better function with the attachment of the optional 3DS Circle Pad Pro add-on. But I don't have that thing.

Fortunately, the right-stick camera control proves not to be necessary for players like me who become adept with the nearly digital intentionality of Jill Valentine's body movement and with the freedom to scan a room down the barrel of a gun in first-person. In other words, yes the game can let you look in one direction while moving in the other, but you don't need to. This is a game about focused action, not about doing two things at once.

The full Revelations package, with its satisfying campaign, abundant voice-acting, dozens of cut-scenes, impressively deep 3D and realistic graphics, makes the 3DS seem way more formidable than it had six months ago when Resident Evil Mercenaries was clumsily puffing up a mini-game into a full-priced game.

Revelations makes the 3DS' Mercenaries seem like even more of a joke because it actually contains a better version of a Mercenaries-esque mode in it. Here in Revelations you get 21 Raid Missions, all maps pulled from the campaign, playable solo or offline and online co-op. They are glorified shooting galleries that you run and shoot through for points. You cash these points in for better weapons and upgrades as you level up your character. The main drawback is that co-op play is not that intimate. It's just two people in a level who can do the same shooting. But considering this all feels like a generous extra, that's no big demerit.

I'm sure some people would like a scarier Resident Evil than Revelations, though this one undeniably moves closer to RE1 than either of the last big two. I'm mostly satisfied with the mix here. Episode after episode, the game feels like an anthology of the series' past tones. Fat has been cut, additions have been made, corny dialogue continues to be chattered and an under-appreciated piece of hardware has been programmed masterfully.

Resident Evil: Revelations' is one of the series' best and it is a 3DS essential, a worthy continuation of the release of substantial and technically impressive games on the platform that have been coming out, about one a month, since the fall.