In an effort to get the most out of Resident Evil: Revelations, I ended up lying on my bed in the dark with two pillows propping the 3DS up in front of me. Making yourself play in those kinds of restrictive conditions seems antithetical to the portable nature of the 3DS, but then it's hard to immerse yourself in Revelations' creepy atmosphere when you're riding the bus, hanging out in a busy airport terminal, or playing in most of the places you're likely to get out a handheld. Just by virtue of playing out on the small screen, Revelations was never going to scare you like its best predecessors. The kernel of a great, classic-feeling Resident Evil game is in here, but the limitations of the format and some offputting storytelling techniques keep it from joining the ranks of the best entries in the series.
You'd expect a game called "Revelations" to offer some, you know, insight into the greater Resident Evil mythology. Moreover, this game's supposed placement on the timeline right between Resident Evils 4 and 5 allows a perfect opportunity to tie into the events that led into the latter game, such as Jill Valentine becoming Wesker's mind-controlled slave and Chris Redfield linking up with new partner Sheva Alomar. Aside from the BSAA's peripheral involvement and a throwaway reference to Africa toward the end, though, Revelations foregoes any intriguing links to other RE games in favor of offering a totally self-contained storyline. The plot involves competing anti-bio-weapon task forces, the new bio-terrorist organization Veltro, and, um, a gleaming futuristic aquapolis that gets overrun by rampaging BOWs. And there's a satellite that shoots sun-lasers? Considering none of this stuff has ever really been mentioned before or since in other Resident Evil games, all these goings-on feel disconnected from the rest of the franchise. By the end of the game, what passes for the story's meager revelations fall flat in that broader series context. It doesn't help that there's hardly anything in the story that actually suggests when in the RE timeline the game happens, or that you should even care when it does in the first place.
The best idea Revelations has is to set most of the game aboard an opulent pleasure cruise liner-turned-floating bio-weapon research lab. That setting, with its grand banquet hall and other antique-looking luxuries, immediately recalls the original Resident Evil and the tense, claustrophobic sense of place its oppressively creepy mansion brought about. Revelations' mansion-on-the-sea approach is equally sound, and there's a fairly lengthy section in the middle of the story where it feels like the game has finally abandoned you there, forcing you to explore every room and utilize all your abilities to find keys with anchors inscribed on them to make it through. But the plot is broken up into an unnecessary episodic format that works against you ever really feeling like you're trapped in the inescapable grip of the ship, since you're frequently being whisked away from Jill Valentine and her shipboard plight, and forced to play as other characters in less-interesting places. Most of those new characters run the gamut from dull to ridiculous to vaguely offensive. One of your team members goes by the callsign Jackass and sounds like a Three Stooges reject, while Chris' new partner Jessica is so needlessly sexualized that when she finally lands on the ship ready for action, she appears in a skin-tight catsuit that leaves one leg entirely bare and the other wrapped in purple stripes. Resident Evil has gotten away with (and arguably benefited from) a certain amount of cheese in the past, but much of what isn't Chris or Jill in Revelations just feels silly and out of place.
Even if some of what's going on is kind of ludicrous, at least it looks nice while it's happening. We probably haven't seen everything the 3DS is capable of yet, but at the current moment Revelations' production values are pretty impressive for a handheld game. The characters are detailed enough, and--more importantly for a Resident Evil game--there's a robust enough lighting model that's used in the right ways to create a set of appropriately moody environments. Some parts of the game don't really look like they were meant to be viewed in 3D; specifically, a good number of the textures give an ugly moire effect when you've got 3D on that disappears when you turn it off. But on the whole the game makes a strong impression technically, and the music and sound design might as well be coming out of a console if you play the game with decent headphones on.
By default the game clings to the over-the-shoulder Resident Evil 4 style of gameplay, which means you won't be moving your character and aiming your weapon at the same time. That should be fine for anyone who's stuck with the series so far, but the small screen and small controls make the combat feel awkward on occasion, especially in places where overly tight camera angles make it damn near impossible to see the enemies coming at you. The enemies also don't transition very clearly into their death animations, so I ended up dumping more ammo into a lot of foes than was necessary to actually kill them. You have a dodge move that will theoretically help you avoid taking damage when you're cornered, but I found the timing on that move so finicky that I never felt like I'd properly mastered it by the end of the game.
Despite all that clunkiness, I did find myself getting genuinely sucked into the game's fight for survival from time to time, and the requisite jump scares did their job effectively when I was playing in my carefully constructed chamber at home. The gameplay is also nicely enhanced by a few peripheral systems. You can upgrade all of your weapons with sets of collectible mods that tweak damage values, firing rates, chance to stun enemies, and so on. There's also a running set of in-game achievements that challenge you to complete some boilerplate objectives (like dodge 20 enemy attacks, scan 15 collectibles, and finish the first three episodes) to unlock some new in-game gear. And you've got a first-person scanning device to use in the story mode to uncover extra items and collectible handprints scattered around the environment. Those little extra features add some nice variety to what's otherwise a standard Resident Evil campaign experience.
As you go through the storyline you'll also unlock "raid" missions, which are snippets of the campaign broken up into short, timed levels where you try to set a high score. There's a whole separate metagame attached to the raid mode where you level up multiple characters and buy new weapons and gear with both battle points that you earn in the campaign and Play Coins you get from walking around with your 3DS. It's nice that there's some depth and customizability to the raid missions, and they'll give you something to do if you want to keep playing after the story is over, but the game's action isn't good enough on its own that I wanted to go back and spend a lot of time on those missions after the fact.
Of course, if you want Revelations to play like a proper third-person shooter that lets you move around and shoot at the same time, you can always slap the $20 Circle Pad Pro (hitting retail the same day as Revelations) onto your 3DS. But that adds a significant amount of weight and bulk to the 3DS' nice, compact design, and making that tradeoff for slightly better controls just wasn't worth it to me. Your mileage may vary, and the Circle Pad will be useful for a few other upcoming games, but to me it's not worth making Revelations half again more expensive and increasing the size of the system that much just to get marginally better controls.
That's the fundamental issue with shoehorning a big, console-style game like Resident Evil into a form factor the size of the 3DS. You just can't get a game that plays as well or makes as big a visual impact as it would on a big TV, and if you start bolting peripherals onto the system to alleviate those problems, you start to negate what makes the system elegant in the first place. Revelations could have mitigated the effects of its limitations with a more memorable story and more appealing (and maybe more familiar) characters, but the game doesn't deliver enough on any one level to make it easily recommendable if you aren't a diehard fan. Revelations isn't exactly a bad Resident Evil game, but the series has certainly seen better.