It’s hard to recommend being a fan of Resident Evil. No franchise has been knocked around and mishandled as much as Capcom’s flagship zombie series. Having suffered a decade long identity crisis since the release of Resident Evil 5, Capcom has never been sure whether they’re making a survival horror game or an action movie. But with the remake of Resident Evil 2, Capcom has carved a path between two distinct design philosophies for the series by merging the fluid controls and over-the-shoulder camera orientation brought in by Resident Evil 4 into the grim, resource-starved fight for survival originally laid out in the 1998 classic. They’ve proven it wasn’t just claustrophobic camera angles and poor character controls that made those original games scary… It was the peril and danger that lurked just inches away from you at all times.
This is Resident Evil 2 as you remember it, but not exactly as it was. Back in familiar Racoon City territory, with it’s grimy late 90’s urban decay, its bleak, zombie-strewn streets, and resource-starved protagonists. You’re gonna need every drop of handgun ammo you can scrounge, every little green herb you can find because none of it lasts. You’ll want to make it all count. Just like classic survival horror, killing things is a double-edged sword – it means one less problem to worry about but at the cost of vital resources, you have to make on-the-fly decisions on what you can spare versus what you may need later on. This delicate balance is maintained throughout the game, occasionally testing even the most hardened of hoarders by springing horrible, shrieking surprises your way ensuring you splurge your carefully collected sack of shotgun shells all over the walls in a frenzied, startled retaliation before finally coming to your senses long enough to line up a decent shot on those frighteningly speedy lickers. This is classic survival-horror era Resident Evil, then. But by removing the camera constraints and making Leon and Claire a little more flexible Capcom challenge the critics of the classic series who used to argue the games were only scary because of the obtuse camera angles and hilariously stilted control schemes. By challenging tradition they redefine it. It wasn’t just the gimmicks that made the original Resident Evil games scary. It was the struggle. The suffering. The constant threat of death and it still works today. It’s brilliant.
The transition isn’t completely successful – in a lot of ways, the constant licking flames of resource management and zombie death occasionally eat into the traditionally fantastic puzzle design of the original games – comparatively, the puzzles in the Resident Evil 1 remake are some of the best ever committed to survival horror. They were much more than fun brain teasers – they gave the aging mansion an air of mysticism that feels oddly missing in this new sequel. Perhaps experience and time are relevant factors – familiarity ebbs away at the mystery, forcing players into auto-pilot when solving puzzles, or perhaps Capcom has simply pumped extra resources elsewhere, like making the tyrant encounters as heart-stopping as possible
Some of the greatest tensions and surprises come with the tyrant, to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to talk about those encounters without spoiling the joy for yourselves. His relentless footsteps become a soundtrack for panic, getting louder and louder, only stopping briefly to open doorways. He marches on inexorably. It’s intimidating beyond belief. This is underpinned too by spectacular attention to detail. A wounded Leon and Claire limp on, exerting, struggling, puffing and panting their way through the corridors of the raccoon city police department. It’s the little details that Capcom has made feel so special and it all comes together during tense escapes, hobbling and bleeding down the winding corridors, hoping and praying that he’ll just leave you the hell alone.
The story has, thankfully, been given much more than just a lick of paint. Following the same beats and patterns albeit with a lot more nuance and care, to the point where there’s a couple of moments scattered throughout that feel genuinely impactful, tugging at your heart in just the right ways. I still remember watching the CGI intro for the PlayStation original through the window of a game shop in the ’90s and thinking “it’ll never get better than that.” Thankfully, in 2019, it has. The characters have a lot more color to their personalities than they used to and even if the story plods it’s way down solid B-movie territory late into the game, the payoffs are, though predictable, still worth seeing through to the end. There are times during both Claire and Leon’s campaign that are surprisingly emotional. Little dashes of pathos here and there to give added depth to a familiar story without outstaying their welcome. Excellent facial animation conveys a lot of drama and emotion than the stilted, uncanny valley CGI cutscenes of the past and the interplay between Claire, Leon and the other supporting characters feel much more natural and organic with voice actors that, shock horror, are actually acting, with Claire’s voice actor Stephanie Panisello putting in a particularly excellent performance.
It may not be as masterfully executed as the excellent Resident Evil 1 remake but Capcom’s new Resident Evil 2 is still no slouch either. It manages to deftly sew two disparate design philosophies together without upsetting fans of either side while going beyond lazily splashing on a new lick of paint, instead filling in the blanks left by time with nuance and colour – all the things that make this new iteration that little bit more human. For a series as mired in creative hell like this, it’s that vital shot of humanity that brings it all back from the dead.