One shotgun shell, five pistol rounds, a single combat knife, and health that’s screaming out for a green herb. There are two zombies, a Licker, and one very aggressive man in a trenchcoat waiting just outside the door of my temporary haven — this might not end well. I have to physically gee myself up to force Leon to leave the room, patiently peering around the corner of the door and praying nothing leaps out and eats my neck off. A scream from a Licker is all I need as I about-turn and return to my corner of peace in this incessant hellhole, quietly muttering panicked swear words under my breath. I’ll get them next time.
This is Resident Evil 2 for 2019: a full-bodied (and empty-bowelled) remake of a stone cold classic that could be viewed as an entirely different game. With the distinction between a remake and a remaster getting blurred for many, Resident Evil 2 should be heralded as one of the finest examples of the former, a re-imagining that contemporises the rough edges that inevitably come with the passage of time. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to the charming but jagged nature of a game that’s over twenty years old with the release of this remake.
The most obvious touchstone for the Resident Evil 2 remake is the GameCube overhaul of the original game, itself still hailed as one of the best remakes across any medium. Many of the same principles have been carried over to this second update — massively overhauled graphics, controls, and modern mechanics — to create a thrilling, satisfyingly complete, and irresistible time for anyone of a morbid disposition. You won’t forget the first time you see a corpse’s diced up face begin to slide down to their chest, that’s for sure.
What’s most immediately striking about Resident Evil 2 is the beautiful brutality of it all, every drop of power the RE Engine has to offer going into some of the most lavish scenes seen this generation with barely even a hiccup in the performance department. In fact, with doors now just being doors, there’s almost no loading to speak of: you can go from the top of the clock tower all the way down to the depths of the sewers without any hitches on a PlayStation 4 Pro. If you thought Resident Evil 7 managed to find beauty in ugliness, Resident Evil 2 blows it out of the water with supremely detailed facial animations, gorgeous rainfall, and some jaw-dropping, erm, dropping jaws.
The viscera in Resident Evil 2 ranges from a simple blood spurt all the way up to a zombie’s arm sliding off with the tendons snapping and decomposing before the appendage finally hits the floor. You’ll feel like some kind of sick maniac as you shoot off limbs just to see what hideousness the engine can conjure up next. Of course, this isn’t just for window dressing: take the arms and legs off of a zombie and they’ll still come crawling at you. They’re certainly persistent, the developers compensating for the more accurate shooting by making their heads apparently filled with bricks — it can take upwards of three headshots to down just a regular zombie on standard difficulty, and even then they’re fond of popping back up and returning to their same old song. Do you spend all of your scarce ammo on just a couple of zombies or do you take away their mobility and run past them?
As someone who’s seen almost every worthwhile zombie movie and played dozens of games featuring the undead, you’d think Resident Evil 2 would leave me a little jaded. Not at all. If anything, it’s re-energised my teenage fear of cannibal cadavers, the rapping of zombies against police station windows and their guttural moans constantly filling me with dread. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Resident Evil 2 manages to make an overexposed monster feel like a genuine horror once again, but it’s a combination of the subtly creeping soundtrack, their affinity for taking damage, and scant resources, among many other things. It’s a genuinely terrifying game, and this is just when considering the “grunts”.
Resi’s stalwart nightmare stalkers make a return here, including the aforementioned Lickers, who tend to scamper around and throw you into a panic as you desperately try to line up a shot, and the unofficially christened Mr. X, who is a Tyrant in a fetching hat who very much wants you dead. It’s the latter who is the most persistent source of terror in the game with any loud noises bound to attract his attention — lighting up zombies with bullets is a surefire way to get the alternative Terminator in your face within seconds. Resident Evil 2’s excellent binaural audio comes into play often with X as he thumps around corridors, letting you know where he is. There’s serious tension when you make a dash for it and escape to another room only to hear that discomforting thud, thud, thud as he hones in on you with doors slamming open and shut along the way. I presumed myself to be safe in a room at one point before he peered his head in and immediately noticed me, which caused my spirit to abruptly leave my body.
It’s almost remarkable that Resident Evil 2 can deliver such high tension with such comparatively low stakes compared to the original game. With no ink ribbons in sight (at least on standard difficulty), frequent autosaving, and an abundance of typewriters, not much progress is lost when you die but it still feels like a knife in the gut each time. It’s a tricky game that balances being a serious challenge at points and also approachable to play regardless of whether or not you grew up with a DualShock in your hands. Things escalate considerably in the latter stages with the game reticent to give you many healing items or ammo at all, so proper planning and storing of vital items for the last two hours is vital.
The biggest concern I had going into Resident Evil 2 was that it would retain some of the frustratingly obtuse puzzles that the series is known almost as widely for as it is its hallways filled with the undead. Thankfully for the potato residing in my skull, the puzzles here do require some chin-stroking, but never enough to make you need to track down some ancient texts. It makes sense to streamline the puzzles in this regard: puzzles in a horror-oriented game tend to drag me right out of proceedings and kill all tension. That’s not to say that they have been completely dumbed down: there are still a fair few that will give you pause for thought.
Backtracking is something that some may feel allergic to after the recent surge in Metroidvanias, but it still makes total sense for Resident Evil and even, arguably, enhances the experience, at least in the scare stakes. Often, you will find yourself venturing back to an area you thought you had cleared of creatures only to find that the game has decided that zombies should start coming through the windows and that a Licker belongs on the ceiling. You can never be too sure of anything when you’re guiding Leon and Claire through the game’s claustrophobic hallways and unsettlingly open environments.
Much was made of the “rejigged” appearance of Resident Evil 2’s main characters before release, though any concerns are eased once you’re playing for more than a few minutes — both of them look fantastic in motion, aided by some great performances from their actors, particularly in regards to Claire. The same, however, cannot be said of the supporting players, who range from sounding like they’re trying too little or too much, the most obvious juxtaposition being between Ada Wong and Annette Birkin. The former sounds like she would rather be anywhere else (though this could just be played off as her being cool and collected) whereas the latter has eaten all the scenery and is now moving on to dessert. There’s also a noticeable dissonance in conversations where the VAs react to each other’s lines like they clearly weren’t in the same room, which makes what should be emotional and pivotal moments (particularly between Ada and Leon) fall completely flat.
That rings partly true for the story too, it ultimately not being the main attraction of the game as a whole. Some of the convolution is pared right back to make for a far more straightforward narrative, but the intricacies of the relationships feel rushed and not that convincing when not much time is spent developing them. If you were to be perhaps overly critical of the overall pattern of play, which is something that goes back to the original game, it could be argued that Resident Evil 2 squanders the opportunity to allow you to go out in the chaos of Raccoon City for long, though this might be something that the R3make will deliver on. Resident Evil has never been as renowned for its weird and sometimes wonderful story as it has its “moments” (think dogs x windows), so this may not be a drawback at all to long-time fans.
Those same Resident Evil devotees will also no doubt appreciate the replayability and depth of content provided here with both Leon and Claire’s stories inviting to play through, as well as their “2nd Runs” remixing the narrative to focus on their divergent paths. As someone who usually doesn’t replay single-player games, I was surprised to find myself on my fourth go-around after spending nine, five, and four hours respectively on other completions. There’s about twenty hours of content here at least, which does not include the 4th Survivor bonus mode or the compulsion to beat your previous scores that you will probably feel. It’s sad that extra content like this is so often gated off with most modern AAA games, so it’s good to see the original spirit of the game not being messed with in the name of a few extra bucks.
Resident Evil 2 is, quite simply, one of the best remakes of all-time. Capcom have nailed their new vision of a classic just like they did back in 2002 by modernising a decades old game to feel like something completely fresh. Whether you want to take a trip down memory lane or are just experiencing the disconcerting decadence of the police station for the first time, Resident Evil 2 is the first essential purchase of 2019.
A faithful remake that does exactly what it needed to do while adding plenty of its own ideas, Resident Evil 2 is now as terrifying in 2019 as it was in 1998.