Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot spoilers for Dino Crisis and strong dinosaur references
Motivated by my recent nostalgic ramblings about games with fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds, I decided to give something new, but of the same era and style a go, so I leapt on to eBay to pick up a copy of Capcom’s 1999 PS1 release, Dino Crisis … and now owe everyone an apology because Dino Crisis doesn’t have pre-rendered backgrounds, it takes place in 3D environment… so, sorry everyone… I was wrong… It is however a game that follows the Resident Evil style of gameplay remarkably closely which is unsurprising being directed by Shinji Mikami, produced by Capcom at a time that the early Resident Evil games were at their peak, and even mentions Resident Evil on the boxart. At the time I was aware of it mainly through playing a short (and seemingly mis-remembered) demo, although given that there were two sequels, it must had had at least a fair following and reception. From my own point of view it strummed all the right nostalgic chords that I had hoped for when I got the urge to revisit a “Resident Evil” game; so much that I played it through to completion which is more than I can say for some retro games I’ve tried to turn my hand to.
Before I get on to how it plays, the plot of Dino Crisis is worth turning over because it’s one of the weirder elements of the game. The player takes control of Regina, a plucky vividly-red-headed protagonist who is part of a small government rescue team charged with the recovery of a scientist, Dr. Kirk, who was presumed killed in a government research facility some years earlier. Dr. Kirk had been working on a new energy source, the third energy, when the incident had occurred and now, on an island in a different country, a spy with the agency has reported that he is once again secretly working in the same field. Regina, her commander Gail, and tech expert Rick are now tasked with picking their way through the mysterious abandoned government research facility to find Kirk. The twist (and I barely feel like this is a spoiler) is that Gail has been secretly charged with collecting Dr. Kirk’s research in order for it to be weaponised by the government, all to Regina’s surprise… the only thing I found surprising was that Regina was shocked by this ‘revelation’; she works for a government agency who had specific interest in this research and has sent a special unit to recover one man (for seemingly no good reason) so I’m not sure what she was expecting. The game doesn’t even give the player a moral choice moment of being able to destroy the data for the good of mankind so the entire shock twist is largely forgotten in the closing stages of the game. Kirk himself, who is roughly painted as a “human life is expandable if it furthers my research” type antagonist, is largely compliant when confronted. He gives up his ID card, allows Regina to scan his fingerprints, and generally behaves when captured; presumably the player is supposed to see him as ‘misunderstood’ and the lesser evil compared to Regina’s own government, but given that he has many deaths on his hands from failed energy experiments it’s a confusing message.
Oh, and there are dinosaurs. It transpires that the third energy experiments cause a specific region of space to switch with that in the same region but in a different time, although this seems to be limited to the creatures (in this case a T-Rex, small platoon of velociraptors, and a few other species) who happened to be standing around on that spot 65 million years ago. The minor details of why it was only the dinosaurs who took this time leap, or how the facility seems to be untouched with the space-time shift are never addressed.
Unsurprisingly the game plays like Resident Evil with the zombies switched out for dinosaurs, it’s the same survival horror in a different setting. The action takes place from a semi-fixed camera perspective with the locations rendered realtime in 3D unlike Raccoon city. The player doesn’t have direct control of the camera however and it cinematically flicks between fixed viewpoints, or pans & tracks the player along pre-programmed paths. It’s a technique that Capcom would stick with through games like Code: Veronica and Devil May Cry. The cold clinical government facility setting with metal panels and concrete rooms attempts to mask the limitations of the 3D environments and for me it lacks the charm and detail of its pre-rendered predecessors. The wall and floor textures also suffer from the slight flickering and uncertain jiggling characteristic of games at that time and I get the impression that even the character models have had their polygon count slashed to accommodate what would have been a pretty adventurous engine for the PS1.
Given the era, movement is by the much maligned ‘tank’ control system where ‘up’ always moves Regina forward, and ‘left’ & ‘right’ cause her to pivot on the spot. I’d by lying if I said that I didn’t feel right at home with it, quickly learning how to slide neatly past dinos in the narrow corridors, but I have complete sympathy for anyone attempting to play games in this style that didn’t grow up with them. Any control difficulties would be compounded by the need to master them quickly; like most survival horror titles there are times when ammo is scarce so being able to nimbly maneuver Regina around is essential. When I did have ammo, I found combat to be an even more frustrating experience than movement with infuriatingly slow fire rates from most weapons meaning that taking out a single dinosaur is an epic undertaking. Luckily the game limitations seem to dictate that any one room can only have two dinosaurs (except the really small dinos) and unlike zombies they don’t grab you as you slide past them; it turned out that I became so used to exploring the facility without engaging in combat that by the end of the game I was carrying a small army’s worth of ammunition. This is especially true if the player makes good use of the laser shutters which can be switched on and off in many of the corridors which can be used to effectively trap enemies.
Luckily Dino Crisis does have some redeeming features; the trademark exploration, backtracking, door opening, investigation, and puzzle solving from the Resident Evil universe made the transition. Most of the puzzles are relatively straight forward, but do require the player to be paying attention to documents and clues along the way. In one sequence the player needs to find the correct staff ID number and obtain a fingerprint scan of the correct deceased employee in order to manufacture a counterfeit ID card, the neat thing is that Regina can collect the fingerprints of any of the bodies littering the facility so needs to find an ingenious way to identify the correct staff member. Items, both heath & ammo, can be found in colour coded boxes around the facility which are (in true RE fashion) mystically linked; Red to Red (ammo), Green to Green (Health), and Yellow to Yellow (erm… both?). Each box has a cost requirement to open, and I enjoyed weighing up my current situation each time to work out if I needed health or if I should wait for a possible red box that might be just around the corner. There are also several branching sections where the player is offered a choice between taking the course of action suggested by Gail, or the perpetually insubordinate Rick. Gail tended to opt for a more confrontational solution whereas Rick’s option generally involved more puzzle solving. In hindsight these were relatively short sections, but did serve to give the game some variety and dampen (if only slightly) the sensation of being on rails for most of the game. It’s also been a long time since I played a game with a notepad next to me as inexplicably Regina can’t pick up documents and can only read them ‘in-situ’; call me a blustering old fool, but I did relish making scrappy notes of combinations, instructions, codes… and what turned out to be useless trivia at every possible juncture, so I’m listing this archaic mechanic as a plus point.
Sadly the tension and horror aspects of the game never seem to ramp up to anything. There were numerous sequences where I was sure that dinosaurs should jump in through windows, or I would get locked into a room with terrifying consequences that didn’t happen. Despite some early promising sequences, most of the ‘jump scares’ were limited to a dino suddenly crashing the party and managing to burst in through a door… which was unexpected if only because the door in question usually needed a swipe card, or push button entry… Likewise the ‘boss’ encounters with the T-Rex were initially impressive but soon because expected and formulaic with the final showdown being an anticlimax.
Once again I was left feeling that I would have enjoyed it much more had I played it at the time of release. It’s not a bad game, and despite the technical limitations is perfectly playable now… I’d even go as far as to recommend it, but only on the condition that you, like me, are looking for a nostalgic journey to recreate that Resident Evil vibe.
Do you have any fond memories of Dino Crisis? Let me know in the Comments!