From the outset, “Revelations 2” creaks with age. The series has gone through so many permutations its heroes are now children of side characters. Longtime zombie killer Claire Redfield welcomes Moira Burtonto a new job with a paramilitary corporation that fights bioterror in the form of mutagenic plagues and undead supersoldiers. During a welcome party for new recruits, Claire and Moira are kidnapped by another mysterious paramilitary group. They come to an abandoned penal colony covered in Cyrillic signage and are spoken to by a woman who calls herself the Overseer. Each of the four episodes follows Moira and Claire as they try to escape from the island and unmask the Overseer. Shadowing them is Moira’s father Barry Burton, the balding camp barnacle held over from the original, who’s partnered with Natalia, an adolescent survivor of the island’s genetic experimentation, in a futile attempt to save his perpetually departing daughter.
For all its plot complications, the game overflows with familiar backdrops — old factories, abandoned prisons, a mine quarry, a misty forest, flooded sewers. Combat encounters feel like miniaturized facsimiles taken from older games. Yet, buried in all the dead weight of the series past, “Revelations 2” still has a sense of life. While the lead-footed gunplay, requiring one to anchor into an over-the-shoulder view to shoot, has never felt more laborious, it’s surrounded with cooperative partner dynamics that feel substantial enough to merit a zombie-free game of their own.
In the first half of each episode Claire gets the guns while Moira is limited to aiming a flashlight to distract or stun enemies. In the second half of each episode, Natalia can sense zombie locations through walls, sneak unheard through areas to scout them out and throw bricks to set up distractions while Barry waits with the munitions. Switching between characters—or negotiating a strategy in advance with another player online—creates a beautiful complication for all the shooting. In the best cases, the awareness of two simultaneous but uneven abilities produces a rhythmic pattern of moving through space. But over time the promising interplay of these systems feels like it’s constantly being interrupted by zombies, who reduce every encounter into the same kill-or-be-killed panic.
Funnily enough, the game’s Raid mode strips away the narrative pretense and provides the most replayable combat in the series. Built around short arcade-style gauntlets, Raid is a sprint for points that can be used to upgrade weapons and character with a surprisingly large roster of characters and special abilities to return to even after you’ve taken one to the limit. This kind of combat system feels like an ideal of the videogame form, the absurd ardor of one momentarily trapped in a time distortion, fixated on the least productive possible activity while in a rapture of progressing to the next torturously close level.
This sentiment works its way back into the story sections of the game, which comes to an improbably wonderful conclusion in the fourth episode. The asymmetrical character abilities are pushed toward a point of potentially antagonizing one another, as Claire and Moira ascend a distorted fairy tale tower on separate timelines, Barry and Natalia descend into a hellish underworld of enlightenment paganism. The ruined machinery of mercantilism becomes backdrop a supernatural blood vendetta in which the most vulnerable person in the game starts to seem like its most threatening.
As one gets closer to the game’s conclusion, a gorgeously absurd tribute to the original, the more the character’s mechanical differences add to a disquieting narrative momentum, making it seem like you may be controlling the game’s hero and villain simultaneously. This produces a beautiful sense of temporal vertigo, looking back at all of the mechanical interdependence and seeing it as the sign of catastrophic rupture between caretaker and child. “Revelations 2” never fully embraces any of its symbolic layers, instead making one conscious of how much possibility there is in them before returning to a howlingly campy conclusion.
“Revelations 2” feels like perhaps the best end point to a series that has slowly become a farce of itself over nearly two decades of sequelization and financial exploitation. It’s a game that’s both absurdly distant from the original in plot and mechanics, yet surprisingly faithful to the spirit of purposeful incoherence that’s behind the series’ most effectively unsettling games.
Like a punchdrunk heavyweight in the 15th round, “Revelations 2” is both a sad echo of former glory and an agonizingly perfect summation of it. It should have been over long ago, but it remains a marvel to see how much will remains in the slouching goliath, the once powerful frame of sculpted muscle and sinew slowly turned into dead weight, counting as a victory anything that keeps it on its feet for another round.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen
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