Of keys and cross-dressers
When we think “survival horror”, Resident Evil is often the first franchise to come to mind. The first game pioneered a genre whose focus on atmosphere over action proved that not all games need to be explosive and over-the-top. The cryptic and labyrinthine mansion slowly doled out subtle clues about the sinister goings-on of the Umbrella Corporation, and the dusty hallways and unsettling groans of off-screen zombies combined to create a truly terrifying experience. Resident Evil also paved the way for other horror franchises like Silent Hill and Parasite Eve.
But then this happened:
Video courtesy of YouTube user Chris Silencio
This is the finale to Resident Evil 5, and in case you didn’t catch it, it took place in the mouth of an active volcano. My favorite part was when Chris used his fists to pummel a boulder into submission. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the original Resident Evil’s claustrophobic hallways and slow, shambling zombies. While I’m sure there are those who prefer today’s more action-heavy take on the series, the unwieldy tank controls and cheesy dialogue of the classic entries will always have a special place in the hearts of many.
The transition from survival horror to launching-a-rocket-into-a-tentacle-nightmare-inside-a-volcano happened somewhere around Resident Evil 4. Leon S. Kennedy’s mission to rescue the president’s daughter forewent the puzzles and backtracking of the previous games in favor of an emphasis on gunplay. The title is often referenced in lists of the best action-horror games, and rightly so; Resident Evil 4 did for action-shooters what Resident Evil 1 did for the horror genre.
Resident Evil 4 released first on the Nintendo GameCube in 2005. Three years before, in 2002, the GameCube remake of the first Resident Evil launched. This is the same year that saw the release of Resident Evil Zero, a prequel to the mansion incident detailing the trials of the STARS Bravo Team that the protagonists of Resident Evil 1 were sent to rescue. Looking at the release dates of each entry, Resident Evil Zero can be considered the last game in the “classic” style. That is, it was the last game containing tank-controls and static, pre-rendered backgrounds and a heavy emphasis on puzzle elements.
But before the genre-shaking Resident Evil 4, and the train ride of scary shit in Resident Evil Zero, there was an odd, sometimes overlooked entry in the series. Resident Evil Code: Veronica followed the exploits of Claire Redfield after she escaped the nuking of Raccoon City depicted in Resident Evil 3.
The overarching story of the Resident Evil series has always been fraught with nonsense and confusing twists, but Code: Veronica takes the cake. While searching for her brother Chris in Paris, Claire happens upon an Umbrella facility. She is taken hostage and transferred to an island fortress someplace in the Southern Ocean. What follows is an absurd series of events centered around the Ashford family and its cross-dressing heir. I won’t go into too much detail about the story here, but suffice it to say that making exact sense of Code: Veronica requires patience that I do not possess. What I will focus on instead is the gameplay, setting, and how it compares to the rest of the series.
First released for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, Code: Veronica illustrates an interesting blend of the series’ characteristics. It adheres tightly to to the formula established in the previous games with an emphasis on key collecting and backtracking. The story of the island is told mostly through the environment, and the game does a great job of creating a feeling of tension.
The island is divided into several distinct areas like a prison, palace, and a military training facility. This simulates the many areas of the Raccoon City mansion like the guardhouse and the laboratory. Each area is creepy in its own way and is ripe with locked doors and puzzles that must be solved to move on. In this way, Code: Veronica is an enjoyable homage to the glory days of survival horror.
But for everything the game does right, there are a few problems. First and foremost is the introduction of what may be the worst character in video game history: Steve Burnside.
I know Resident Evil isn’t exactly lauded for its strong voice acting, but there has to be a line. It turns out there is a line, and Steve crosses it with abandon. His “cool dude” attitude is in direct juxtaposition with the grating voice work. The character himself is also responsible for about sixty percent of every bad thing that happens to Claire. Throughout the game Steve shoots at Claire with a fully automatic machine gun, accidentally fills a vital escape route with poison, and transforms into an unkillable rampaging mutant. Steve is so horrible that it’s hard to feel sorry for him even when this happens:
Video courtesy of YouTube user BobelVago
I suppose it was destiny that we contributed to his inevitable death.
Code: Veronica is also the game responsible for the return of Albert Wesker, the rogue STARS agent that turned into a horrifying meat tornado in the above RE5 clip. So naturally Code: Veronica contains early elements of the absurd action that would characterize later games in the series. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on your personal tastes, but one could argue that the return of Wesker is a sort of harbinger of things to come.
One thing that should be mention is that this game is difficult. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the most difficult of the classic games. Ammunition is of course scarce, but enemy distribution and density provide a hefty challenge. This is most evident about midway through the game when players take control of Chris, Claire’s brother. When the perspective switches, Chris has access to the items Claire left behind in item boxes. Without knowing that this switch is coming, though, the player can be caught off-guard and unprepared. This can be very detrimental during the second half of the game because monsters are stronger and more unforgiving, and there seem to be fewer overall healing items.
For all its faults and camp, Resident Evil Code: Veronica was a fun trip down memory lane. Revisiting this odd title in the venerable franchise has made me appreciate the design of its first three entries, and I am eager to revisit them.
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