REVISITING SURVIVAL HORROR
Horror Month is here! While you may not gleam this little factoid by browsing my author tag, I love horror games. As the dark, chilly month of October rolls around every year, I find myself increasingly eager to play through titles filled with cheap scares, thought-provoking puzzles, and downright terrifying atmosphere. I’m sick like that. Thus, join me for another review — if you dare!
Resident Evil 2 (RE2) did not arrive in stores without some turbulence, as outlined here. The sequel to one of the Sony PlayStation’s earliest successes, gamers were hungry for this next terrifying experience. Exceeding such high expectations seemed impossible, yet Capcom delivered a title that was not only more refined, but also better in every way. So how does it hold up all these years later?
Extraordinarily well! Yes, it has tank controls and static camera angles, but I don’t see that as a negative. After recently tussling with the original Silent Hill’s wonky camera, it’s easy to spot the primary benefit of the classic Resident Evil games: you see exactly what you’re supposed to at all times! What a novel concept.
In regards to plot, RE2 stars Leon S. Kennedy (more famous for another title… the GameBoy Color’s Resident Evil: Gaiden!) and Claire Redfield. Leon is a rookie cop freshly recruited to Raccoon City’s police department, while Claire is the sister to the first game’s male hero, Chris Redfield. As in the original Resident Evil, you choose one of these characters to inhabit for the duration of the game – but this time both characters receive their own unique storyline. The same enemies and locations are shared for the most part, though each experience is unique in key ways. More on that later!
Funneled through Raccoon City’s streets before taking refuge in the local police department (RPD), players are tasked with uncovering the secrets behind the police force’s downfall. This boils down to exploring the museum-esque building and interacting with its plethora of puzzles and (mostly undead) inhabitants, eventually learning of greater conspiracies and ending up in the Umbrella Corporation’s secret labs.
The number of environments are varied, if not terribly original. Venturing outside on the rare occasion always feels intense amid a zombie apocalypse, but the dark halls of the RPD, disgusting sewers, basement level, torture dungeon, trams, and labs all contain horrors of their own. Navigating these areas is made even more exciting due to the often spiteful, closed circuit TV-like camera angles that love to hide surprises just outside your field of view. Sound design also plays a key part, and RE2 features some of my favorite video game music to this very day — though the moans and groans of enemies border on laughable now.
The real meat of the gameplay (as in any classic-style RE) lies in the puzzles. I’ve always said these early titles were puzzlers cleverly disguised as zombie games for casual appeal, and that is certainly the case here. Keys, valves, plugs, gears, and all manner of other items must be located and returned to their rightful place. In most cases, doing so only reveals yet another puzzle blocking progress or keeping an area closed. If backtracking, item fetching, and brain-teasers aren’t your thing, then stay very far away from this one. For me, this type of game is my bread and butter — and they really don’t exist in the modern landscape of gaming.
There are lots of monsters to combat throughout this adventure, more so than the original RE had. Zombies fill the RPD in greater numbers compared to that first game, and also feature more aesthetic variety. Cerberus dogs make their return along with the massive, twitching, venom-spewing spiders which infest the sewers. Skinless mutants with an external brain and long, razor-like tongue — the Lickers — are the signature foes of this entry, making their grand debut. Even today I dread running into them, as their speed, damage-dealing capabilities, and ceiling-crawling tendencies make for intense encounters. And don’t get me started on the tough bosses…
Luckily there is a fairly extensive arsenal of weapons to find and carry. The knife and handgun are your basics, but shotguns, a crossbow, grenade launcher, submachine gun, and more all serve to infuse some action in this otherwise slow, methodical experience. However, the variety doesn’t end there.
Players can choose to begin RE2 as either Leon or Claire, playing through the A Scenario. Throughout this story you will then encounter the other character at key moments, cluing you in on their separate adventure. Upon completing the game, you can load your save file and begin the B Scenario as the other protagonist and finally play that adventure for yourself. What’s more, certain actions performed in the first scenario directly impact the second. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the oddly-named “Character Zapping” mechanic. Think of it as the humble precursor to Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect. This means RE2 has two distinct storylines across four scenarios (known as Claire A/Leon B and Leon A/Claire B respectively) with subtle yet notable differences between them. That’s what we call replayability!
There’s more to it though, as RE2 also contains tons of unlockables. Many of them are special weapons or new costumes unseen during initial gameplay, but there are two additional scenarios to unlock! 4th Survivor introduces us to HUNK (AKA Mr. Death), an Umbrella Security Service operative who awakens in the sewers of Raccoon City. Meanwhile, The Tofu Survivor is an alternate version of 4th Survivor with a wacky twist — you play as a large, sentient chunk of tofu armed only with a knife. Yeah… that’s a sentence I just typed.
The major downside to this game is definitely the graphics, because PlayStation games just don’t age well at all. The pre-rendered backgrounds still look great (if a little blurry) during gameplay, mostly because those areas were basically paintings inserted to trick our eyes into believing they were 3D environments. Unfortunately the actual three dimensional assets, primarily character models, often look like vaguely bipedal masses of misshapen LEGO bricks. And poop. Mostly poop, though later console ports look slightly better. The cinematics, while having aged a little more gracefully, still suffer from janky animations, lifeless characters, and poor lip syncing. The upcoming remake definitely won’t have this problem, though details still remain scarce.
THE VERDICT – 8.7 OUT OF 10
Resident Evil 2 is the best of the RE games released during the 90s, mostly because of how ambitious it was and the amount of effort put into it. Later entries offered new ideas and minor improvements, but this game is such a complete, cohesive package that it ranks amongst the best of that decade. Even now it holds up to scrutiny and, while it isn’t perfect, it’s certainly worth REvisiting. (Get it? I did a thing!)