As the Resident Evil series continued to grow, the plot gradually grew more and more complex and the older titles you’d need to play to follow it started to show their age with their hard-to-stomach tank controls. While there would be remakes of the important titles, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles came up with a brilliant, accessible means of helping new and more casual fans catch up on the series history with its arcade light gun shooter set-up.
The Umbrella Chronicles presents itself as the recurring series villain Albert Wesker reviewing the incidents of three previous Resident Evil video games (0, 1, and 3) as part of a small new story about a Russian developed bioweapon known as the Talos Project. Each game’s plot is condensed down into most of its more important moments, avoiding any of the old titles’ puzzle solving in favor of ferrying the player through recognizable locales to shoot down zombies and monsters with the help of the Wii remote. You certainly won’t get the full picture of any of the plots, but there are enough scenes and level introduction texts to ensure that you can follow Rebbecca and Billy’s journey through an Umbrella training facility, Chris and Jill’s unraveling of the mystery behind a cannibalistic virus and the Spencer Mansion, and Jill and Carlos’s attempt to escape Raccoon City after Umbrella’s zombie virus has infected nearly the whole town. While it can’t replace the stories they are based on fully, it’s a good way to get up to speed on the series’s story elements, but at the same time, it makes for wonderful contextualization for the action.
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles is a light gun game much in the style of House of the Dead. The game controls your forward movement, your focus solely on pointing your Wii remote where you wish to shoot, although the game does let you move your vision around a tad to avoid constraining your crosshairs too much. Zombies, infected animals, and all new types of creatures created by the Umbrella Corporation’s experiments with virus-based mutation will crop up as your characters explore the locations, and you and potentially another player just need to shoot what you find dead before they get the chance to kill you. The aiming is precise, just as you’d expect considering you just point your Wii remote exactly where you wish to fire, and you are given a default pistol with any character you play as to ensure you are never out of ammo in any situation. Every enemy has some sort of weakness that makes killing them faster, whether it be the heads of the zombies or the spots on bosses that will do the most damage, the game indicating whether or not you’re pointing at the right spot with a small change in your crosshairs. The weakpoint system doesn’t seem perfect however, the game even keeping track of your headshots and the number sometimes not seeming to match with what looked like the reality. Nonetheless, enemies can be staggered with well placed shots as well and the area around the weak point can often cause a stagger, meaning you can try to shoot them in it properly while they’re recovering.
Since the game retools old Resident Evil stories to match an arcadey shooter set-up, the variety of content is impressive. Sure, the game will set you up against the generic zombies most of the time and try to make their sudden appearance scary, but almost any creature that is about to attack or appear has a tell. Before an enemy crops up from off-screen, there will be an audio cue like a zombie gurgling or the sound of an infected ape’s screeching before they leap into frame. Some enemies will strike very quickly after appearing, but these aural clues mean you can at least be prepared to fire quickly and hopefully avoid some damage. Levels contain health pick-ups on the ground that are immediately used as well as a one-use revival in the form of first aid sprays, and the existence of a mid-level checkpoint usually guarantees that even if your reflexes aren’t too quick, you can stick in there or at least hop back in and push through things after learning what foes you’ll face. Enemies already on screen can appear in crowds but rarely crowd you, often alternating attacks and doing a small animation as a lead-up to their strike so you can react. The need to shake your controller to reload will likely be when these attacks hit you most, but intelligent reloading is a skill to be learned rather than a fault in design.
While you always have your infinite ammo handgun around, the game lets you find and use other weapons with limited ammunition that are better fit for the toughest enemies or most hectic situations. In addition to the rare grenades that serve as quick and effective burst damage, the game has shotguns, machine guns, grenade launchers, and magnums, and the moment after you find one, it is unlocked for future use. You can only choose to bring in one special weapon at the start of the level though and need to find the rest during play, so sadly this often means you’ll probably have to bring something functional with a lot of ammo like the submachine gun or shotgun instead of something flashy like a rocket launcher. Playing more into the limitations of the loadout system is the upgrade system, where how you performed in a level will give you very few points to spend on upgrades for your selection of weapons. The best tactic inevitably becomes putting all your upgrades into the simple, effective guns with reliable ammo replenishment, further alienating the more interesting unlockables. The rating system in general is sort of at fault here, as beating a level will give you a few upgrade points based on a letter grade determined by weakpoints hit, enemies killed, and objects destroyed. That objects destroyed count is an incredibly important factor, in that Umbrella Chronicles does not punish inaccuracy, opening it up to more types of players and co-op between players of varied skill levels. In fact, it encourages you to shoot the environment instead of just trying to make sure every shot is spent killing a zombie. During lulls in action, you can shoot objects in the environment, the destruction counting towards your rating but also helping you find weapons, healing items, and hidden files to learn more about series lore. It also ensures downtime between battles isn’t ever too dull, as you always want to be firing in the hopes of finding something helpful or informative.
The rating system’s low rewards for good performance leads to the loadout and upgrade system issues, but the weapons are great as back-ups and their ammo limited so that you use them only when it’s smart to do so. Some enemies or bosses are much easier to deal with if you’ve got the right weapon in the wings and the ammo to take them down, but a few bosses don’t seem designed with the upgrade system in mind or the possibility of heavy ammunition reserves. A few can go down in seconds if you’re well-equipped, but at the same time some can stick around overly long to the point you’re down to just a slow battle where you can only use your pistol. It makes for an odd balance that at least lands somewhere on rewarding your investment in a weapon at some times but ensuring your accuracy at others. Many boss enemies have strong attacks that can kill you if too many land, but well-placed shots will halt the attack and give you the edge you need to stick in there and keep up the battle. The rating system, despite its low reward rate, does have an advantage, in that once you’re aware of it, it’s not too hard to earn the ratings required to unlock special missions. While the main game follows the events of the old games and introduces a new scenario in Russia that mixes new ideas with a cavalcade of the content across the previous games, there are side missions that will give you looks at the game series never before seen, such as Wesker’s activities in the background or how Rebecca went from the incident at the training facility to meeting Jill and Chris in the Spencer Mansion. These unlockables require you to do well enough on other missions and help flesh out the lead-up to the Russia mission, so they give you an incentive to perform well even if you’ve got your go-to loadout weapon fully upgraded.
While the controls are mostly point and fire, there are a few breakaways from it to shake up the format a little. While not anything too inspired, you can choose your path forward at some points, there are moments where you need to react properly to avoid damage or injure an enemy that’s about to attack you, and if small creatures like leeches latch onto your face, you’ve got a knife you swing around to break them off. Almost all of these small shifts have some obvious lead-up, like a screen flash before the do-or-die moments of needing to avoid an attack with the right input or the tiny creatures not dealing damage until a short bit after they’ve latched onto your face. Straightforward and simple, they don’t really detract from the game or really elevate it, but having an average breakaway to ensure the strong shooting set-ups don’t grow stale seems to add up to a benefit in the end. Umbrella Chronicles definitely focuses in on the action with the horror elements less about unsettling you and more about giving you cool creatures to shoot down, making it easy to enjoy for people who don’t even have an interest in the grander series plotline. It’s a spin-off with a heavy gameplay focus that still gets the important story elements in there so that a casual player can at least track the events of this title well enough.
THE VERDICT: Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles benefits a lot from its ties to the series, even if a light gun arcadey shooter is a departure from survival horror and puzzle solving. The locations and creatures of the old games transition well into the intense atmosphere of gunning down interesting enemies before they can hurt you, and condensing the plots of Resident Evils 0, 1, and 3 and introducing its own story contextualizes the action so its not just a gallery shooter of zombie heads. Enemy variation and weapon variation keep things fresh as you move between levels and stories, and the benefits of destroying the environment mean that even during downtime you are given something to do and unlockables to scour stages for. The loadout and upgrade system is a bit too limiting and thus underutilized, but the levels give you enough guns to keep things interesting and challenging save the few bosses that lean too hard towards going down in seconds or being drawn out affairs. It’s sadly not the perfect example of a light gun game, but the concept allows it to achieve a level games in the genre could aspire to, the kind of story and design approach that gives the player plenty of interesting areas and enemies to do their simple task of shooting with.
And so, I give Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for the Wii…
A GREAT rating. While many light gun games court the casual gamer with basic designs to their shooting targets, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles shows you don’t have to compromise too much to mix accessibility with a plot structure. The reduction of the Resident Evil stories into excuses for zombie encounters and twisted animal attacks actually allows it to be easier to pick up and play but gives you a story to follow for someone looking for more than a casual fling. Reuse of content is sort of inevitable due to the series DNA its pulling on and the genre leading to a glut of encounters that would be hard to fill with enemies otherwise, but there’s still tons of variety to be found, the bosses break it up well, and it doesn’t lose its steam or linger too long on any one level. Umbrella Chronicles does a wonderful job of showing that pointing and shooting can be made more complex and interesting both by some mechanical variation and a strong focus on the design of what you encounter during what would otherwise just be a guided tour of a shooting gallery. Even as a spin-off, Umbrella Chronicles helps add small things to the greater series plot for those following it but doesn’t alienate the player who just jumped into Resident Evil for the first time.
If you are designing an arcade light gun shooter that will hold the player for more than a few minutes, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles is an excellent point of comparison. It had a few things going for it like a preestablished franchise to fast-track the elements that make it great, and while it has room for improvement, it still sits high in the genre and shows how to avoid the pitfalls more repetitive and basic light gun shooters fall into.