Last time I wrote one of these articles, it was about the colourful Spyro 2, a magical game that stood out in a time when the weather and the other games I played were all rather dark. This time, however, I’m picking out one of those specific gloomy games – Dino Crisis!
I hadn’t played much in the way of horror games back then. If I think back, probably the two main games that had made me feel isolated and afraid were Silent Hill (understandably), and Metroid 2 (perhaps less so). Resident Evil was that series that people always banged on about whenever the subject of Silent Hill was raised, but not one that I’d played myself. I remember distinctly how disgusted I was when a games magazine was fishing around for its “most scary” gaming moment, and suggested that zombies breaking through a shop window was far more frightening than anything in Silent Hill.
Around this time, advertising for a certain other game started popping up, along with preview articles excitedly proclaiming the next big thing in horror. Dino Crisis, the previews claimed, would revolutionise horror. Full 3D environments! Dinosaurs chasing you between rooms! Er… your character can bleed!
Well, my nose was still out of joint after the shop-window-zombie snub, so despite my love of dinosaurs, I hoped the game would fail. And fail it did, for I remember that devastatingly-low 8/10 in one of my magazines. I sneered at Capcom’s failure, holding to Silent Hill as my champion of horror.
So I was ready to forget about Dino Crisis and move on with my life, until I stumbled across the demo on the Official PlayStation Magazine’s Demo Disc 51. The demo gave you access to three small sections of the main game, displaying an example of its tension-building and story in the first, some puzzle-solving in the second, and a T-Rex battle in the third.
Despite my previous hostility, the game grabbed my attention. It was a moody season, and Dino Crisis complemented it perfectly, with its dark clouds, shadowed corridors, and ominous music. I played the demo through several times, fell in love with the laboratory, and then settled down to wait for Christmas and hope that Santa Claus would favour me.
As it turned out, he did, and I finally got to sit down and tackle the full game. In those days, I saw no shame in switching to Easy before even starting, something I pretty much didn’t register that I’d done despite the constant reminders on save data and game completion. I ended up playing the game through well over ten times, but it was only in the PS3 era that I realised I’d never played the game on Normal, and actually tackled the game as it was intended.
Dino Crisis tells the story of special agent Regina, who’s accompanied by Rick, Gail, and Cooper, who gets eaten far from the rest of the team before the opening cutscene has even ended, and is subsequently forgotten by all of them. I think they mention him roughly twice, and there’s never any particular drive in them to track him down. They’ve come to this mysterious island laboratory to repatriate Doctor Kirk, a brilliant scientist who was presumed dead in an accident three years ago.
However, the lab is mysteriously empty of guards, and there are signs of fights with some sort of angry animal. In a twist that nobody saw coming, it turns out that there are dinosaurs on Ibis Island, and they’ve eaten almost everyone. The team set up in a computer room, where Rick focuses on occasionally unlocking parts of the facility, while Regina is tasked with doing everything else. Gail pops off by himself, but he never unlocks anything and kills approximately one dinosaur throughout the story.
The main focus of the game is unlocking all of the rooms of the facility while not being eaten by dinosaurs. Since many of the dinosaurs have a habit of respawning, it becomes a process of deciding whether you’ll get bitten more by running past the dinosaurs, or by standing and fighting. On Normal mode, at least, ammo isn’t the most plentiful, though I did end my latest playthrough with quite a lot spare, so I probably overcompensated a fair bit.
There are a couple of other mechanics to help you out. Certain parts of the facility have laser fences that you can activate or deactivate when you wish, which allows you to cordon off dinosaurs into small areas where they are restricted from nibbling on your arms and legs. I don’t think I particularly bothered with these on Easy, but on Normal I found myself trying to lure dinosaurs behind these fences, often getting munched in the process.
In fact, I was particularly pleased with myself in one section where I lured a raptor from Room A into Corridor B, which had its own raptor already, and then captured them both behind a laser fence. I stopped to admire my handiwork, and then took a picture of my new pets.
I was most disgruntled, therefore, when I popped through that door you can see in the screenshot, only for one of the raptors to burst in after me. And just when I’d put that dinosaur down, the other one followed! So the fences aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, sadly.
One of the criticisms levelled at Dino Crisis is that it’s a very grey game, set in one location that consists of similar, clinical rooms. I can’t particularly argue with this – the walls are grey, the floors are grey, the sky is grey, the dinosaurs are black and mud-green or brown, and most characters are wearing grey too. But I’d played Metal Gear Solid earlier that year, so I was quite immune to any negative effects this might have had on me. I liked the facility quite a bit, and often tried to find excuses for writing abandoned facilities into any book ideas I was dreaming up at the time.
Another complaint about Dino Crisis was its lack of enemy variety. I think there’s about five different types in all, with a roughly equal divide between velociraptors in the first half, and those wretched therizinosaurs in the second (I’ll leave the debate about paleontological accuracy to another time). But suffice it to say that the limited number of dinosaur breeds didn’t wildly bother me.
The game’s not very long, you see – in my playthrough for this article, it took me just under five hours, and that included leaving Regina standing idle while I had dinner, and also a part of the game where I wasted time searching for the Planning Disc, only to realise that I had it all along. I’m too used to games auto-using key items these days, and I confess I didn’t entirely pay attention to what Rick was telling me in the cutscene just before…
In any case, the complaint about lack of variety is invalid, because for every breed of dinosaur, there’s about ten keys you need to find to unlock other parts of the facility. The other focus of the game is very much about searching for these items, and there’s quite a few of them.
Along with the keys, there are also a handful of puzzles, with doors amusingly locked by logic puzzles, with the way to solve them usually written in a document a few feet away. I like to imagine a bunch of angry scientists waiting at a door while the guy at the front struggles to work out which letters to exclude from a code.
In survival horror games, I have a habit of stockpiling ammunition, expecting climactic boss fights to eat up every single explosive I have. This is something I picked up later from Resident Evil games, since Dino Crisis does not have this problem. You can avoid most fights, even if you’ll get bitten a few times on the way, while boss encounters are perhaps the least bullet-intensive in the genre. In most of these set pieces, you just need to shoot the tyrannosaur about four or five times at the right moment, and then he’ll clear off (or you can escape). In one of the biggest, and most dramatic, encounters, all you have to do is run in a circle around a central object and not get bitten. You never need to fire a shot, despite the grenade bullets you pick up just before hinting at that!
It might not sound like I love Dino Crisis particularly much, but that would be far from the truth. I enjoy Dino Crisis’s quirks, and its brief runtime meant that I would cheerfully play the entire game on one day, and then give it another full playthrough on the next. Certainly, I was never a particularly efficient player, but I was still dedicated to it.
It’s worth mentioning the soundtrack as a deciding part in my fanaticism for Dino Crisis. While probably not the sort of things you’d put on during a car journey (at least not in company), the game has some great atmospheric pieces, and the save room theme, like so many Resident Evil ones, brings back fond memories of safe havens where you’re not at risk of being eaten.
Regina’s also an important factor. She’s a master of understatements, and pretty much every time she jokes, she gets told that she’s not funny. She doesn’t get lumbered with tedious romantic subplots either – she’s treated as a member of the team, and despite her easygoing attitude to the death around her, she keeps focused on her mission. If you’re after character growth or development, you’ll probably be disappointed, as the emphasis in Dino Crisis is mostly on problem-solving, which complements the game’s design.
Just how much of an impact Dino Crisis had on me was made clear in a later puzzle in the game, where you have to work out a password by the sound of the beeps on a recording. I remembered the exact sound without even bothering to listen to the recording, even after probably eight or so years.
I’m not necessarily going to do an article about the sequel – Dino Crisis 2 didn’t have anywhere near the impact on me that the first did. For whatever reason, I never really took to the locations in the second game, even if they were more varied than the first’s solitary lab, and the change in pace from panic horror to shooting everything everywhere didn’t interest me. It was a bit like my dislike for Aliens compared to Alien (controversial!).
As for Dino Crisis 3, I own a copy for the original Xbox, but I’ve never played it. I’ve heard it’s got basically nothing to do with any of the other games, but that’s not why I didn’t play it – my error was instead in impulse-buying it for my Xbox 360, assuming that it would be backwards-compatible, only to learn that not all games worked in that way. Bah!
How to summarise Dino Crisis to finish off? Gloomy lab, grumpy dinos, amusing characters, and five or so hours of key-collecting. And I love it!
So, er, let’s have a rebooted series, shall we?
Update: I decided to write some stuff about Dino Crisis 2 after all. Have a look here!