You never know quite what you're going to get with Resident Evil anymore. After all, Capcom's flagship franchise has cultivated so many clangers over the years that it's lucky to be held in such high esteem. Of course, a lot of that goodwill stems from the series' various smash hits: an unforgettable night in the Spencer Mansion, a romp on the streets of Raccoon City, and a certain sprint through a strange Spanish settlement. Resident Evil: Revelations, a Nintendo 3DS release later ported to the PlayStation 3, never quite hit any of those highs – but its oceanic setting and emphasis on familiar faces made it a firm favourite among fans. And based on the evidence of this first episode, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 will be received with similar reverence.

We should stress: this is a weird game. Divided up into four different episodes for seemingly no real reason at all, it's a challenging one for us to review. We've decided to appraise each instalment individually like a Telltale title, but we'll also be providing a wrap up when the extended retail release rolls around in late March. Which version should you buy? Well, it very much depends on whether you can wait for the physical offering, or want to get started now. With new episodes out every week, you're not going to be waiting long for the next instalment – but in a way, that teensy delay will leave you impatiently pondering why you can't play the whole thing now.

And part of that frustration will branch from the fact that the game's bloody good – surprisingly so. In many ways, this feels like a megamix of everything that makes the survival horror series great: claustrophobic combat, camp dialogue, eerie atmosphere, moreish reward loop. Throughout the inaugural episode's two hour running time, you'll commandeer four characters: seasoned star Claire Redfield, new recruit Moira Burton, doting dad Barry Burton, and creepy kid Natalia Korda. Each character's paired off – Claire with Moira; Barry with Natalia – forming the asymmetric co-op dynamic that's defined the series since Resident Evil 5. The twist here is that it actually works really rather well.

The first half of the campaign sees the all-female double act attempting to escape from an island penitentiary. Plot exposition is light, but it seems that you're being puppeteered by some form of crazed dictatorial diva – expect nonsensical twists and turns over the course of the narrative. More interesting is the way that the two heroes play off each other: Claire, unsurprisingly, can handle herself well with a weapon, while Moira helps out with a flashlight. You can switch between the two characters on the fly – or play in local co-op; online is yet to be implemented – in order to exploit both of their strengths.

And this is where it gets interesting: you can use Moira's flashlight to stun a foe, and then switch straight over to the fresher faced Redfield to pump a few shotgun shells into your rotten adversary's decaying flesh. The former can also search for hidden items, and has a crowbar with which she can open locked doors. Micromanaging the duo is actually surprisingly good fun, and it eradicates all of the AI issues that have plagued the property in the past. The co-op dynamic isn't quite as fun in Barry's half of the campaign, but using Natalia's sixth sense to scout out enemies and look for weak points is still an interesting idea, and it brings some variety to the third-person fun.

Not that the shooting's bad – far from it. Weapons handle nicely, and the introduction of Resident Evil 3's dodge mechanic makes close-quarters combat more manageable than ever before. You'll rarely ever be overwhelmed in these opening encounters, but again, it's comboing each character's unique abilities that brings the excitement. Weapon upgrades add to the fun, which can be collected around the map and augmented at workbenches. There's also a skill tree designed to add replay value, which allows you to invest harvested BP into upgraded abilities, skills, and such. With medals, time attack options, and a tricky invisible mode, there's plenty of reason to replay each chapter.

And this is also the name of the game in Raid Mode, a kind of arcade shooting gallery with a standalone progression system. Again, there's no online multiplayer here yet – another reason to feel riled by the release's strange delivery model – but it's still fun in single player. This will essentially see you picking a character and embarking on missions, which will earn you loot, gold, and experience. This can all be used to purchase fresh weapons, add passive and active abilities, and even augment your firearms with buffs. Daily Missions provide a reason to return every day, while the dozens of objectives included with the initial episode should keep you well occupied.

Future instalments will, of course, add extra items, environments, and enemies to the mix, but this first batch of content is great. One shootout, for instance, takes place in a claustrophobic, undercover market, while another occurs on some extremely familiar urban streets. Artistically, the arenas are really well conceived – it's just a shame that the title isn't technologically great. It's running at 60 frames-per-second – albeit with frequent drops – but the textures and lighting are disappointing across the board. We suppose that the budget price should have been a giveaway, but this does look dated on the PlayStation 4.

Conclusion

Bizarre business model and tatty presentation aside, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 - Episode One: Penal Colony is a surprisingly enjoyable affair. The campaign introduces some interesting asymmetrical play, and the camp storytelling and cleverly uncovered cliff hanger will leave you yearning for more. Meanwhile, there's ample content in the arcade-inspired Raid Mode to keep you occupied until the next instalment's promised content drop. It's hardly a revelatory release thus far – but this could yet be great.