Survive like it’s 1998: A review of Resident Evil 2 Remake

Image owned by Capcom and from Den of Geek

 

Have you ever experienced nostalgia for something you were never part of? That’s the feeling I get from a lot of video games from the mid to late 90s especially on the PlayStation One. While I did play with my mom Command and Conquer: Red Alert and Sim City 2000 and 3000, the bulk of iconic pioneering video games were out of my grasp and more importantly out of my age range. I was between 4 and 6 around that time. I probably didn’t even know what a PlayStation was. And yet, when retroactively experiencing the original three PS1 Resident Evils along with the original Silent Hill several years back on the PS3, I have a strange affinity for the early 3D visuals and atmosphere, especially in the soundtracks and beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds which made these games look more real than they could at the time.

Video games age faster than any other art form I know and so the practicality of remaking a pre-existing game from the ground up is more appealing than with a film. The remake of the first Resident Evil from 1996, initially as a Nintendo Gamecube exclusive is for many the gold standard on how to completely recreate and if need be, reimagine an earlier experience. It didn’t hurt that series creator Shinji Mikami didn’t feel that the PS1 was capable of really nailing the feel for the survival horror scenario he had envisioned originally. If the first groundbreaking game could pull off the “remake” process, why not the second, Resident Evil 2, from 1998? Some still consider it the best game in the series twenty years later, especially for the series’ formula of horror, puzzles, strategizing and item management. It’s been in demand for a long time and it is finally here. Was it worth the wait?

For those who can’t easily look up the plot synopsis of a two decade old game, it goes as such: a viral outbreak has been unleashed on the unassuming American metropolis of Raccoon City. Yes, Raccoon City ( Well, if we can have a big city called Buffalo…). You play as two young survivors stuck in the city, Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop on his first day on the job and Claire Redfield, a college student searching for her missing brother, Chris, a protagonist of the first game. Shortly, after meeting up, they are then separated and depending on who you choose to play, make their way to survival at the Raccoon Police Department Station. Of course, it is no safe there than outside.

There are a certain number of differences Leon and Claire’s scenarios bring to the table aside from their unique reactions to plot points and characters. They have separate suites of weapons and items and they can go to parts of the station that the other can’t. The big difference however is their narrative arc relating to a certain character that only appears in their distinct play-through. Leon comes across and works alongside a supposed FBI agent called Ada Wong, a fan favorite Chinese American super spy as well as on again, off again love interest for Leon in the franchise. For Claire, it’s little Sherry Birkin, an adorable yet wise beyond her years elementary student trying to hide out from the assortment of monsters involving zombies, undead dogs and her own father, William, who is the head scientist for the Pharmaceutical company that started the whole mess in the first place, Umbrella.

Leon and Claire can also come across other survivors like Sherry’s mother, Annette, a fellow Umbrella scientist alongside William, Marvin Branagh, a wounded yet noble police officer and Robert Kendo, a despairing gun shop owner with a much different fate in store for him than his comically dark one from the original.A stand out example is Brian Irons, the corrupt police chief of Raccoon City who is in collaboration with Umbrella and is arguably the most evil figure in the game. While William Birkin’s slow yet horrid devolution into a monster is scary, it comes off as tragic. Irons is a psychopath and implied stalker/rapist whose only in it for himself and you will be cheering when he, like in the original, gets his comeuppance, that is if you’re not recoiling from his gruesome method of demise.

Resident Evil 2 is not shy about making the results of dying from any given foe truly graphic. You think dying from the hordes of zombies is bad? Well, you’re right but encounters from enemies like the infamous “lickers”, skinless monstrosities that have long, sharp tongues that can impale you with extreme prejudice are just the tip of the iceberg. All of the enemies, even the zombies in their own way, are intelligent, enough so that even on repeat play-throughs it is vital you do not become overconfident. They will knock you off your high horse and if you’re more squeamish than me, make you scream in the process. Whether it’s the zombies that suddenly lunge and get you front or behind, or how insanely fast the lickers can move against you, the game makes it hard for you to ever be at ease, as a good Resident Evil title should.

None are scarier or demand your focus like Mr. X. Essentially the Terminator of the Resident Evil series, he, along with the first game’s Tyrant and the Third’s Nemesis, is a huge, gray colored, humanoid pain train that WILL NOT STOP, EVER, UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD. Well, that’s not really true. Mr. X does not follow you into the save rooms, which act as small havens to save the game, sort out your supplies and enjoy the beautiful ambient music.While some moments are scripted, Mr. X feels more like an actual presence than in the original. In certain sections of the game, Mr. X will go on patrol and his loud thumping foot steps immediately make you consider what you are doing at the moment. Sometimes,  he doesn’t show up at all in a section of your trek through the station and beyond, sometimes he does. All you can do up until the end is either run or hope the weapon you have at hand is strong enough to put him down.. for like two minutes.

Resident Evil is at its best when it not only comes to making you afraid for your survival but also for its enjoyable framing of puzzles within a confined space. The first game, original and remake, had a mansion in the deep, dark woods. The second has three main areas: the police station, the sewers and the Umbrella underground lab. The mix of joy and trepidation in exploring and understanding deeply how the areas work when it comes to puzzle solving and traversal is one of the great highlights of the series. It’s amplified that these detailed, secret laden areas are full of threats that want to make your ass grass. Sometimes, it’s not the weapons and healing equipment you have that will save your life, it’s your understanding of where to go and when. It was true in 1998 and it is no less true in 2019.

If you beat Leon and Claire’s scenarios the first time, you have not really beaten the game at all. New “Second run” scenarios unlock for both in which you get to see the perspective, slightly altered for the other protagonist. To put it another way, imagine you play as Leon for the first go-around, Claire is still experiencing her own quasi-separate adventure. Switching to the “second run” for Claire instead of Leon is how it is supposed to work. You get to see perspectives and learn things about the narrative that one protagonist alone couldn’t.

Yes, that does mean largely repeating the same puzzles, encounters and moments again, but there is a silver lining that goes against the sense of repetition. Repeating these scenarios creates better understanding of how to play the game even better. There is incentive to do even better from unlocking new modes, weapons, items, costumes, concept art and character models. Resident Evil 2 Remake makes the absolute most out of a narrative layout which isn’t really that long. Just one of the four base scenarios can take, uninterrupted half a day. It gets even shorter the better you become. The game tracks your time playing and awards you a score based on how long you took. The brevity of an average Resident Evil game is not an act of laziness or like in the original years, hardware limitation. Actually the last part is likely true. The game wants you to finish as quickly as you can and rewards you for making a fast yet efficient race to the finish line.Of course, on your first run throughs, you should take it slower and easier so you don’t get trampled.

For series purists, the hardcore mode of difficulty is meant to really test you. Infinite saves, auto or manual are gone in favor of manually saving at a typewriter with a limited number of “ink ribbons.” The enemies are tougher and you, of course, are weaker.Even tactics to get past your foes like disabling their limbs with bullets and knives can be a crutch for so long until you run out or break your blade faster than usual.

As intended, Resident Evil 2 Remake is a survival horror masterclass in appealing to both the old fans and new ones. I’m in the middle as I have played the original RE2 and know what the classic experience is like. Yet, the graphics are not the only thing properly retooled for a modern era. The over the shoulder camera that the fourth Resident Evil helped popularize helps both appeal to a modern audience while helping focus on creative new ways to survive your stay in Raccoon City. Even the voice acting has largely been overhauled to make what was once a campy, groan inducing B-movie cast feel more real and human. There are still some moments when the infamous camp factor returns perhaps as callback, perhaps not, but it’s somewhat comforting that even a remake of an old Resident Evil can manage to make you empathize with your outbreak survivors rather than roll your eyes at them.

If you want something old and something new, with little to any negative disparity, then the denizens of Raccoon City will welcome you with open arms. Just..keep your distance.

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