Thoughts on RE:Revelations 2 and Mid-Size Releases
I will admit, I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Resident Evil Revelations 2. I’m somewhat fond of the first Revelations game, but my taste for that game has always been tempered by the recognition that it has many not insignificant issues, most of them related to the fact that it was designed as a 3DS game. For Revelations 2, I can say I wasn’t particularly impressed by the little preview coverage I saw of it. It sort of looks like a ripoff of The Evil Within, as the game goes for a much more grungy, “rusty” look that is more reminiscent of Silent Hill than previous Resident Evil games. In addition, I’m not one who really favors episodic content, as I like to be able to complete a game at my own pace without being artificially held up by having to wait for the developer to actually release the rest of it. And before release there were some disturbing rumors of microtransaction-focused design floating around. Nonetheless, as impressions of the first episode came out as being generally favorable, and as I am a complete sucker for Resident Evil, I decided to jump aboard in spite of my earlier reservations.
Turns out, I actually really like what I’ve played so far of the game (the first three episodes). It is a likeable action game that manages to improve a lot on its predecessor. The thing is, though, that Revelations 2 actually doesn’t have all that much in common with its forebear. Gameplay-wise, the scanning mechanic from the first game has been ditched, the monsters are very different (not just in appearance and theme, but they are generally faster and more aggressive), there is now a very helpful dodge mechanic (similar to Alan Wake if you’ve played that game), and the AI-controlled partners you fight alongside aren’t merely just another gun but function more for support functions. You can even switch direct control between the main combat character (Claire and Barry) and the support character (Moira and Natalia). The one similarity I can find is that the weapons upgrade system has carried over. Story and setting wise, they are even more different. So far, none of the characters introduced in Revelations have appeared in Revelations 2. There have been a few brief mentions of the Terragrigia incident, but that’s about the only reference it gives to the original’s story.
Oddly though, Revelations 2 maintains the Alan Wake-style episodic structure, replete with “Previously on…” recaps at the beginning of each episode. The episodic structure kind of made sense in the original Revelations, as it provided convenient break points and story recaps that complimented the portable nature of the game, but for this downloadable title, it makes somewhat less sense. Capcom has used this as an excuse to release the game episodically, but on a weekly basis, which means the game is done in its entirety, and they are just trickling out content for reasons unknown. I’m somewhat leery of episodic releases a la Telltale as I think they are exploitative of customers with months often passing between episodes. I prefer to only buy these games once the entire season has been released and reviewed But I guess Capcom has done episodic content in the least objectionable way, as if you buy the season pass you don’t have to wait too long to get all the content you’ve paid for, while if you’re on the fence about the game, then you can buy one episode for $5.99 and then decide to buy the rest based on whether you like what you’ve played.
In terms of creating an offshoot series with the Revelations name, the only thing I can think that really ties these games together are their apparent low(er) production budgets. As much as I like Revelations 2, it’s apparent that it hasn’t received nearly the same amount of investment as Resident Evil 5 or 6, which is more obvious and understandable in light of it’s $25 price tag. A lot of little things add up to give this impression, but two things stand out the most. Firstly from a technical perspective, the graphics are middling for even a PS3/360 level. Secondly, a lot of the levels are used twice. The episodes are divided into two parts, a Claire part and a Barry part. In the game, Barry is tracking Claire’s whereabouts so he visits the same locations in each episode that she does. Sometimes he’ll take a route around an area that Claire has visited and come upon a new location, but about 50% of the time, he’ll walk through the exact same area.
The thing is I don’t feel like either of these facts are actual issues for the game. While the graphics aren’t cutting edge, they have a visual design that succeeds in creating the right atmosphere for the game. And while Barry walks through many of the same areas as Claire, the developers manage to freshen the experience by introducing a completely different set of enemies for Barry to fight. Barry tends to fight less zombie-ish enemies who are more reminiscent of those found in the original Revelations. The puzzles (which are somewhat infrequent) are also different between the two characters. The game is a testament to how low budget doesn’t mean low quality if put in the right hands, and that a creative design team can expertly compensate for the limitations they are working under.
Thinking more widely, Revelations 2 falls in-line with a broader current trend of mid-size games that are filling in the space between the previously established dichotomy of $60 and $15 releases. These are games that tend to be more experimental (or at least not a standard shooter) like an indie-game, but also possess greater production values than what you might get from a very small team working on a ramen-noodle budget. This price range has picked up a lot of momentum in the last year and has become an unusual meeting place between smaller independent studios and gargantuan third party publishers. We’re seeing independent teams (often facilitated by crowdfunding) producing titles such as Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2, and Cities: Skylines, but also mainstay publishers such as Capcom and Bethesda are producing titles that fall in-line with this approach to releases. Even Nintendo, which is usually so stubborn to take on new business approaches, has recently released mid-sized titles such as Captain Toad and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse.
Ultimately, this trend is almost certainly good for the variety of games that are being released. It seems that in the last generation of console hardware a huge amount of variety was lost in the release lineup, with most the big budget releases turning into a sea of shooter games with the occasional driving game thrown in. Nowadays, these “AAA” releases are thinning out, with fewer of them coming out each year. Some believe that the decline in the number of these big budget games is a result developers unskilled with the latest console hardware needing more time to complete projects. There is probably some truth to this, but I also think the high standards of these “AAA” titles in terms of size and features requires budgets and staff sizes that mean that not as many of them can be greenlit. Now, the sub-$60 price point gives these developers a little more room to breathe as the expectations from customers are not as high. These games don’t need to be as flushed with side missions, collectibles, multiplayer modes, DLC, etc., and the designers can take more risks since they don’t need to appeal to the lowest common denominator consumer to sell millions of copies. (That said, Revelations 2 does have a lot of these aspects, just not to the degree of something like Far Cry 4.)
On the other hand, last generation indie developers filled in the gap for the lost creativity, but their limited budgets and manpower put limits on what they were able to achieve. Part of this was due to the fact that $15 seemed to be the limit on what customers were willing to pay for indie releases, and projects were budgeted accordingly. Most people don’t remember this, but when Shadow Complex was first shown off Epic was adamant that the game would not release for under $20, but it eventually debuted at the $15 price point. This is only speculation on my part, but I suspect that Microsoft talked them out of the $20 price by showing them sales of games such as Puzzle Quest: Galactrix and the Penny Arcade adventure game which launched at $20 and were known to have sold quite poorly because they were considered overpriced.
The strict expectations that indie games be so lowed price seems to have eased recently. I have a few theories as to why attitudes have changed, but I really don’t feel confident in any of the explanations I’ve considered. Optimistically, I would like to think that the increasing quality and value in indie games hasn’t gone unappreciated by game buyers, and they are consequently more open to considering higher priced games. Whatever the the reasons may be, I think it is probably a positive thing that prices can now be more variable. Of course, the shrewd budget-focused side of myself would prefer all games to be sold at cutthroat pricing, but I can appreciate that higher prices may afford designers more leeway in expanding into more sophisticated or ambitious games. Divinity OS, for instance, is a massively complex and content-filled RPG that I doubt would have been made if Larian expected to sell it at an introductory price of $15.
All said, I definitely think the move to more variable pricing of games will help broaden the creative horizons of gaming. My only concern is that we’re likely to see a fair few development groups get burned on overpricing their games. While some games may be worth $30 (or more), not all games are. It’s important for a developer to be objective when assessing the monetary value expected from their work. I think a lot of bitter scorn has reached the news lately from the lips of indie game developers who are unhappy that their work hasn’t sold as well as they would like, in some cases because the game was considered to be priced too high. Tied in with this is that a lot of hatred toward Steam sales has started to bubble up. While guilt tends to be cast on “consumer entitlement,” I think its important to remember that gaming is a competitive industry, and gamers can’t be expected to buy and play every game that comes out (especially with so many games being released to digital storefronts like Steam) and will naturally be discerning about the value proposition each game poses. That isn’t “entitlement,” thats just how a competitive market works.