Credit where it’s due, Dino Crisis is still a pretty damn solid game in all the places that counts, earning the stripes that place it on the mantel piece with other survival horror greats. Yet overcoming the Vaseline smeared nostalgia, you have to wonder why it remains largely forgotten.
While greeted with moderate success upon release, its muted traction with audiences was rather telling, as it’s accolades were little more than a perfunctory footnote. Blame could be placed on its release on the tail-end of the Playstation’s lifespan in late 1999, the time when hype around the PS2’s release was still hot in the air. Personally, I would hazard a guess that in-part, the blame could be placed on falling victim to its own praise.
Critics ceremoniously penned Dino Crisis as “Resident Evil but with dinosaurs”, half-realizing a seemingly innocuous tagline carried some hefty backhanded sentiments. At a glance, it writes off a lot of Dino Crisis’ unique features by lumping it in with all the other derivative survival horrors and try hards. Considering its presentation and the Resi clone a la mode that clustered the market at the time, the response was understandable. The promise of the same lived-in formula of tank controls and fixed camera angles may have been one to many for some, and felt Dino Crisis was nothing more than a palette cleanser to tide them over while greener pastures were forming on the horizon.
The plot doesn’t put it in good graces either, the crux of which revolving around a rather cut and dry espionage plot with four agents (one being the player character Regina) tasked to apprehend a scientist, previously presumed dead, from a top secret facility on a remote island. The plot only tangentially manages to justify why dinosaurs are in the mix feeling like a non-sequitur just for the novelty itself; like an Ian Fleming novel shoehorned with dinosaurs.
Yet like most things Capcom, story has never really been the yardstick in which their games are measured, as plaudits land chiefly in the execution of its gameplay.
Indeed Shinji Mikami’s signature survival horror formula returns in spades with Dino Crisis, to the point of being a blatant throwback of its zombie-infested forebear. Yet for those who did not dismiss the game out of hand, were greeted with a unique survival experience that was more than just Resident Evil with a fresh lick of paint.
Surprisingly Dino Crisis gets a lot of mileage from the prehistoric creature feature, especially taking a lot of care with their overall design right down to the mosaic mesh of their reptilian scales and expressive facial animations denoting there carnivorous nature. These cosmetic flourishes however aren’t the only aspect of the dinosaur’s design, where Ai interaction with the environment and Regina’s presence caters to the idea of a relentless predator, as opposed to an incidental enemy like the zombies in other horror instalments.
Dinosaurs will either prowl their respective room, stand dormant, or even if you’re really lucky doze off in a corner giving Regina ample time to quietly creep past them. They have keen senses that don’t need direct line of sight and will hone in on Regina’s location if they hear her or even smell blood if Regina has not staunched a bleeding wound with Haemostats.
Dinosaurs are also not tethered and tied to occupy one space and if they spot Regina changing rooms may also give chase, following her into the next room. The idea of a stalking villain can throw players off-kilter and create an immense amount of tension and paranoid anticipation, reminiscent to the Scissor-Man in the Clock Tower series. It can more often than not take some players out of their element.
Dinosaurs are also fairly resilient as well, where a basic raptor can take upwards to five shots of even a shotgun to dispatch, requiring the player to more often than not negotiate when to stand their ground or simply run.
This isn’t aided by the fact that resources are not really a big clutch either, as ammo, medial packs and haemostats is few and far between. In the Resident Evil instalments, players are given a lot of leeway on quite a surplus of ammo, with enough to eke out victories without having to resort to outright fleeing. In Dino Crisis, such reserves are very low. In fact munitions around the base near the end segments of the game are practically non-existent. Blowing through ammo in reckless abandon can often or not put the player in quite a bind in the later stretches, almost to the point of being neigh-impossible to complete.
While you do get emergency boxes that compartmentalize extra reserves and even have ammo/med kits pre-stocked, these boxes can only be accessed by plugs which are also hard to come by. Players will have to negotiate which boxes they wish to use and can barely, if ever, open all boxes up in any given play through.
There’s more of a focus on rolling with the punches as opposed to being enabled to outright plough through dinosaurs with overstocked and overpowered weapons, something more closer to what a survival experience should feel like. A nice change to its predecessor, whose frequent bevy of slow reanimated corpses seemed to deliberately take up screen real estate as a means of being nothing more than chuckle-worthy shotgun fodder.
However Dino Crisis does have some glaring foibles which can be quite a put off. The music (while including a few memorable ditties), is something that’s not exactly recounted on with fond memory. Some of what you could call orchestral stings accompanying dramatic set pieces, are not exactly easy on the ears and in places becomes a discordant mess of electronic trumpets, drums and piano scales inharmoniously clashing together as if fighting for room to squeeze through your speakers.
The puzzles can also be quite slog to go through, some of which are fairly involved and require a good ten to twenty minutes of trial and error to go through. This is only worsened by the fact that quite a few puzzles are repeated twice sometimes thrice throughout the game, breaking the action far too often.
The convoluted plot also requires some suspension of disbelief, as the story is something that even goes out of its way to out-ham the bio-weapon shtick in Resident Evil. I won’t go into spoiler territory but let’s just say its concluding denouement will leave some invested players feeling like they got the short end of the stick.
This culmination of ongoing pressure from item management, constant stalking from dinosaurs and messy musical interludes during combat maybe too overwhelming for some, and can be off-putting to players who have a shoot first, think later philosophy. Out of all of Capcom’s survival horror instalments, Dino Crisis is probably the most inaccessible, with the more bloody-minded of players looking back on Resident Evil’s more easy-going and accessible approach to horror with wistful longing; largely because Dino Crisis doesn’t really focus all that much on horror at all.
This goes fill circle to Why Dino Crisis’s infamous tagline is quite misleading. Dino Crisis’s violence is pretty clinical for the most part, bordering on being way too sterile, taking a good few sheepish steps away from the gore. This is a far cry to the polygonal viscera of its zombie predecessor, a series which lavishes in its own corpse-ridden, blood-caked and entrails-laden excess. It’s the restraint from the indulgent gore-fest that causes the game to lose a bit of bite and trails away from the focus on horror in favour of being a pure survival game.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as the survival elements are as tight as a drum; just this remould may not resonate with horror fans as much as Resident Evil does, mainly because when it comes to violence and horror with Resident Evil, the gloves are completely off.
While following in the footsteps of Capcom’s critical darling, Dino Crisis nicely evolved the formula and took survival horror in a direction, closer to a truly imagined fight for survival scenario, only to leave a few sparse horror elements knocking on its door. Its inaccessibility coupled with a few intrusive design choices may be bugbear for some, however the overall game mechanics are tight enough to enthral the hardcore gamer and fans of 90s survival horror games alike.