It’s hard to touch the original Resident Evil games. I know, I know – “tank controls,” “fixed camera,” “limited saves,” so on, so forth. The laundry list of modern umbrages with the legacy entries is endless, and to a degree, I get it. Times have changed, and consequently so have our standards. To me, however, those things served to add to an atmosphere of dread and tension. The fact that controlling your character was an art demanding mastery, and that the camera deliberately obscured things from the player, and that you couldn’t just save your game every five seconds… all those things are what helped make the old Resident Evil games truly tense and horrifying experiences. The jump scares and creepy noises and macabre subject matter helped, don’t get me wrong, but the lack of agency players were given really made the experience what it was. Having played 2002’s Resident Evil this month, I was reminded how far survival horror has fallen as a genre, and how much further it would have to go to get back to its former glory.
But at long last, that gritty and gruesome glory has been reclaimed, and ironically, it’s been done by another remake in the same franchise. Resident Evil 2, the long-gestating remake of the series’ arguably most popular game, has arrived at a time when survival horror is on its deathbed. Rare and exceptional glimmers of hope like The Evil Within 2, Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 have all performed varying degrees of “okay” in terms of commercial reception, with almost every single one of those critiqued for the very things that I felt made them good – limited inventory, unkillable enemies, easy deaths, et cetera. VR has swept in and dumbed down the genre to nothing but linear jump scare simulators and edgy, “mind-bending” plot twists that fail to impress.
So where does Resident Evil 2 go, at that rate? Does it hew close to the originals, does it take the action shooter route of the later entries, or does it try to simplify itself for the sake of accessibility and cheap scares? Well, yes, kind of – to all of those. Because with this game, Capcom has not only tapped into the franchise’s DNA and found out what people love about the series as a whole, but they’ve taken samples from every successful horror game made in the past decade or so and alchemized them into a beautifully horrific homunculus. Resident Evil 2 is a horror title that is quite literally for everybody, in that it takes inspiration from past entries, but also manages to eke out the best parts of hits like Outlast and unsung gems like the aforementioned Evil Within 2, synthesizing them into the well-balanced blend of action-horror that the franchise has always personified. And it’s good. So very good.
The basic narrative beats of Resident Evil 2 are intact. Leon Kennedy’s a rookie cop who spends his first day on the job fighting for his life against an undead horde and unraveling a corporate bioweapons conspiracy. Claire Redfield’s a college student who comes to Raccoon City in search of her brother, Chris, only to find aforementioned undead horde and a little girl in need of protection. Both protagonists’ narrative arcs weave into the overarching plot, which centers on a family tragically torn apart by personal hubris, unchecked capitalism, and government corruption at the highest levels.
Everything in the narrative is done better here than it could ever have been on its original platforms, thanks to some expert cutscene direction, stellar voice acting, and a great deal more clarification as to what’s happening. Because of this dramatic overhaul in how the story is handled, Resident Evil 2 ends up ranking pretty highly when it comes to the best narratives in the series, standing neck-and-neck with the small-scale tragedy of Resident Evil 7 and the bonkers conspiracy romp in Resident Evil 4. Even though I knew how it was going to play out, the way the game unraveled the two-decade-old yarn never stopped surprising me – especially on my Second Run playthrough.
Of course, the story’s not all that’s been changed here. Everything about the way Resident Evil 2 handles has been dramatically overhauled. While, yeah, I’m a staunch and diehard defender of fixed camera angles, it would be a risky decision to try and do that again with AAA money in 2019. So instead, Resident Evil 2 does the next best thing – it apes the best-controlling games in the franchise, Resident Evil 4 and Revelations 2. The combat is a blend of these two games, in that it takes the basic third-person, over-the-shoulder handling of Revelations 2, but keeps the 2005 classic’s lack of auto-aim and commitment to precise targeting. This means that the game feels and flows like a remarkably polished contemporary shooter, but contains none of the fripperies or cheats found in, say, Uncharted or Tomb Raider. The player’s focus will be centered squarely on pulling off each and every shot successfully, not in doing wild stunts or sliding behind cover. The thrills in Resident Evil 2 come in incapacitating an enemy just long enough to get away, or pulling off that perfect headshot, or having just enough ammo left to barely survive a major encounter.
The gunplay is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quality-of-life adjustments. Resident Evil 2‘s map informs players when they’ve done everything in a room, meaning they’re never left running in circles. Items in the inventory are marked with a tiny check when they’re ready to be tossed. Inventory space can be added to with diligent and careful searching/puzzle-solving. Deliberately obtuse puzzles are now more fun, as there’s no need to load into each area or juggle a thousand items. In fact, it’s entirely possible to do everything you need to in this game without ever storing an item, which is how I completed my initial playthrough. Every single improvement to the core Resident Evil experience in this game serves to highlight everything that’s always worked about this franchise, while doing away with the more divisive elements.
And then there’s Mr. X. Capcom’s answer to Alien: Isolation‘s Xenomorph or Outlast‘s ominous penis men, Mr. X is a dapper hulking entity that will stalk the player through every inch of the game’s main centerpiece – the Raccoon City Police Department. Solving a puzzle? Surrounded by zombies? Being chased by a licker? Tough. This absolute motherfucker will show up and completely wreck your shit like nobody’s business. You can’t kill him. You can’t injure him. Your only answer is to turn tail and run, and hope and pray and beg that you won’t get grabbed by the face and yeeted into oblivion. During Leon and Claire’s stay in the police station, they can hear him stalking the hallways, opening doors, and shoving zombies out of the way in his dogged pursuit of them. He almost always shows up at the worst possible time, guaranteed, and even after you’re out of the police station for good, don’t think for one second that you’re completely safe.
Which, Mr. X or no, you never would be. Because unless you’re well-versed in how these games operate, Resident Evil 2 is a merciless, fickle beast to conquer. Zombies routinely corner the player when they’re low on ammo. Lickers spring from the ceiling and tackle Leon and Claire with ease. Plant-based monstrosities will grab you and kill you in one hit. No, it doesn’t matter that you just healed. Try again, sweaty. I’m fortunate enough to have played the franchise pretty religiously and understand the basics of how to not wind up totally screwed every five seconds, but even then, this game’s a stiff challenge – constantly demanding that player wisely ration their ammo, avoid confrontations, and try to hurry up in general. Everything here is designed to keep players hanging on by the skin of their teeth, without ever feeling too unfair or cheap for the sake of being cheap. It’s the rare perfectly balanced game, in that Leon and Claire never feel too overpowered or completely bereft of options.
This lies at the heart of what makes Resident Evil 2 so great, I think. This is a game that feels deliberate in every facet of its design. There’s not a single extraneous item, meaningless puzzle, inconsequential bit of lore to collect – everything is connected in a way that games almost never are. With AAA game design now focusing squarely on providing a game as a service and not as an actual game, it’s refreshing for Capcom to pivot in the total opposite direction. The plot informs the gameplay, which informs the level design, which circles back around and informs the plot, and so on and so forth. There’s simultaneously a satisfying loop to the progression and gameplay that’s so finely polished that you’re not even aware that you’re in a loop for your first few playthroughs. It’s a master-class of game design, one which deserves to sit with other mechanical marvels like Silent Hill 2, Nier: Automata or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Resident Evil 2 is, truly, a masterpiece. It’s not only damning proof that abandoning the tightly-designed thrillhouses of yesteryear was a step back for the genre, but a brilliant example of how to take all the trappings of survival horror and modernize them for a new audience. After years of trying and stumbling to regain its balance, horror gaming finally has a shining beacon to help guide it into a new age of relevance and prosperity.
All it took was a little chasing from Mr. X.
- This is possibly the most beautiful game to use the RE Engine yet, which is saying a lot after the stunning Monster Hunter World.
- I found it a bit easier to start as Claire, then go into Leon for the Second Run playthrough. Claire has access to blatantly better weaponry. Both stories are definitely worth experiencing, though, as there are some really cool changes in perspective that I won’t give away.
- This is likely my new favorite survival horror title of all time, besting perennial go-to’s like Silent Hill 3, Alien: Isolation and Rule of Rose in most departments.