My history with the Resident Evil franchise is minimal, to say the least. In all honesty, its extent is limited to a few of the most humbling hours of my life spent playing RE VII: Biohazard with a friend in VR, and a couple of additional hours desperately trying to negotiate with the single Joy-Con control scheme of RE Revelations 2 on the Switch.
I could blame my lack of experience with one of gaming’s most iconic franchises on any number of factors, not the least of which is that I wasn’t quite yet one year old when the original title released in March of 1996. The reality, though, is far less flattering given that I’ve revisited dozens of games from that era, and enjoyed almost all of them greatly. The problem I had with Resident Evil wasn’t a lack of initiative; it was a lack of spine.
Yes, the sad truth is that I am a complete and total horror wimp. With movies, I can almost always distance myself enough from the characters on screen to enjoy the tension for what it is (or have a good laugh since bad horror is typically stellar comedy). In the case of games, however, I become an absolute, shameful mess. Cheap jumpscares elicit actual shouts of fear, being chased spikes my anxiety like nothing else, and every skittering noise or flickering light certainly must be a sign of my impending, gruesome death.
This being the case, I honestly couldn’t tell you why I chose this game, of all games, to purchase and review. I could have waited for Far Cry: New Dawn. I could have discussed my impressions of the Anthem demo or attempted to understand why so many people love battle royale games by jumping headfirst into Apex Legends. I could have done any or all of these things, but after completing Leon’s story in just over eight supremely stressful hours, I’m thrilled I didn’t.
Resident Evil 2 is, obviously, a remake of the 1998 classic that bears the same name. Given that I never played the original version, it would be a waste of time for me to attempt to detail every single change or update Capcom made, but based on my limited knowledge the difference is significant. The team has replaced fixed camera angles with a more modern over-the-shoulder view, brought the character models and environments into 2019, and adjusted the infamously stilted voice acting. The result is a game that somehow manages to feel and look completely at home on a current-gen console while preserving and even highlighting the phenomenal design principals implemented over a decade ago.
Leon’s story (and to some extent the plot as a whole) is simple: The Umbrella Corporation – a massive pharmaceutical company – was experimenting with genetic mutation and bio weapons in Racoon City, and accidentally caused a massive zombie outbreak. Two individuals, police officer Leon Kennedy and civilian Claire Redfield, meet one another as the undead tear through a convenience store in the game’s opening minutes and flee to the city’s police station seeking refuge. Motivation and some individual story beats differ depending on which character you choose to play as, but the larger narrative and setting are identical.
From the moment your character sets foot in the Racoon City Police Department, the game settles into a brilliantly tense rhythm that is preserved throughout the full playtime. Leon/Claire is tasked with exploring the sprawling compound, collecting resources, solving puzzles, and avoiding zombies. It’s a fairly straightforward loop, but its simplicity makes it all the more effective.
First things first: Both ammo and health items are rare, and once you pick them up they don’t respawn, meaning that each shot you fire and every hit you take have potentially disastrous consequences. You can craft additional ammunition for each of your weapons as well as first aid powders by combining the correct ingredients, but these are similarly rare.
The stress caused by the sparse supplies is only exacerbated by how limited the player’s inventory space is. You begin the game with just a few available slots, and those are quickly gobbled up by weapons, ammo, and key items required to solve puzzles. I’m consistently frustrated by the way that many modern games handle inventory management (Dragon Age Inquisition, Assassin’s Creed Origins/Odyssey, Destiny, anything by Bethesda, etc.), and weight/item limitations are usually high up on my list of grievances.
Yet somehow, RE 2 manages to take that same element and turn it into yet another exceptional heightening of tension. You’re not only concerned that you’ll run out of bullets, but that if you find the ever-elusive crank handle you’ve been searching for, you’ll also have run out of room to carry it, meaning you’ll have to sacrifice vital supplies or risk backtracking through two floors jam-packed with very hungry zombies. In a sense, Capcom turned inventory space into another resource to be monitored, conserved, and worried about.
On the topic of zombies, Resident Evil 2 does a remarkable job of making them far more threatening than your run-of-the-mill shambling corpses. To begin with, permanently killing a normal zombie takes a potentially irresponsible number of bullets, so I usually opted to pop them in the head a few times to knock them down, then run like a bat out of hell to get away. This is a double-edged sword, though, since so much of the game requires backtracking through old areas to access new ones, and my plan left more than a few enemies in my way at inopportune moments.
Eventually, other enemy types are introduced, and some are far more vexing than others. The most famous example of this is The Tyrant, otherwise known as Mr. X. This hulking, trenchcoat-clad gentleman will pursue you endlessly through about half of the game, and can only be knocked down briefly, but never killed. The decision to include this thoroughly unpleasant fellow was made, I assume, for one of two reasons.
Possibility #1: Capcom didn’t want players getting too comfortable once they learned the layout of the map, and the omnipresent threat of an unkillable and decidedly angry behemoth lurking behind every corner was just what the doctor ordered.
Possibility #2: Capcom wanted to hurt me.
Like I said before, I’m a baby. To take it one step further, I’m a baby with a very real fear of being chased, which is explicitly what The Tyrant is meant to do. On top of conserving ammo and health and inventory space. On top of dodging regular zombies, zombie dogs, aggressive sludge monsters with eyes in their shoulders, and plant creatures that can kill you in one hit. It’s a lot to stay on top of at any one moment, but that’s precisely what makes RE 2 so impactful.
I’ve said for years that good horror starts with disempowering the protagonist. This is what makes titles like Outlast and Amnesia effective; you have no way to fight, only to hide. This is the idea on which Alien Isolation was based. This is even the concept behind recent films like A Quiet Place. Take away something vital that makes your audience feel safe (or at least safer), and then exploit its absence. The alternative looks a great deal more like Dead Rising, a game built around the macabre joy of running a lawnmower through a sea of easy targets.
This constant sense of dread defines Resident Evil 2, and it works. I never approached a situation for which I felt 100% prepared, but nothing ever felt impossible, just suitably challenging.
There are one or two moments where the gameplay betrays its age, but they are infrequent and minor. For instance, the design of some of the boss fight arenas felt very PS1-era, but I’m honestly not sure I can criticize that too much since they’re still intense and enjoyable. By and large, the voice acting is solid, but it can’t compare to some of the other high-profile releases of the past few months. Again, though, this feels like a minor complaint, as does my feeling that the story definitely feels scaled for 1998 rather than 2019.
I may still be a baby when it comes to horror games, but the fundamental success of Resident Evil 2‘s core gameplay and how it feeds the atmosphere was compelling enough to not only get me through a full playthrough, but to excite me for my next time through the gauntlet. Who knows, maybe I’ll branch out and try more of the genre, expand my horizons, and drop my infantile attitude towards being spooked. In the meantime, even if you’re like me, Resident Evil 2 is not to be missed. If I can do it, anyone can.