(Review archived from October 29, 2018)
Part of what I enjoyed the about the first Resident Evil game was how well it was able to fulfill its cinematic aspirations and the degree to which it was an homage to its influences in horror cinema. Particularly in the first half of the game, it really has this great Night of the Living Dead vibe going for it, being what with trapped in a spooky old house as it’s slowly overrun by zombies. Resident Evil 2 builds upon and often enhances this zombie movie atmosphere as projected through the lens of survival horror. Where Resident Evil (1) is a successful homage to Night of the Living Dead (among others), Resident Evil 2 goes full-on zombie apocalypse in much the same way that Dawn of the Dead builds upon the story started in Night of the Living Dead. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Dawn of the Dead is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. So it’s probably no surprise then that Resident Evil 2 was a huge hit with me.
Resident Evil 2 is undoubtedly one of the best survival horror games to have appeared on PlayStation. I wouldn’t even argue if someone were to call it the best survival horror game on that system – no small boast considering that Survival Horror was one of the key genres upon which the entire PlayStation brand was built on in those days. This was a highly anticipated sequel that somehow managed to live up to the hype that it had generated.
The setting is executed incredibly well, and it’s worth noting that this game mostly pre-dates the notion of ‘zombie-apocalypse-as-genre’ setting by several years. Resident Evil 2 was not so much ‘following a trend’ in this regard as it was laying the groundwork. And yet, playing it for the first time in 2018 when ‘the zombie apocalypse’ is so firmly embedded in our cultural lexicon, the story and setting in this RE2 still manages to somehow feel fresh and interesting. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that it’s so straightforwardly earnest in its approach. It’s not trying to be ‘subversive’ or to incorporate ‘layers of nuance’. No this is a straight forward zombie apocalypse in which your only mission is to survive. The intent is stated directly from the outset, “You have once again entered the world of survival horror. … Don’t run out of bullets, bitch.*” And then Resident Evil proceeds to build upon that intent and completely knock it out of the park,.
* Additional text mine.
So yes, Raccoon City is being overrun with zombies, and much like in RE1, your first decision will be to pick a protagonist with whom to tackle this vexing issue. Here your choices are rookie cop Leon Kennedy or plucky civilian Claire Redfield who happens to be the sister of Chris Redfield from the first game. Each character has noteworthy strengths and weaknesses (Leon ultimately gets a better weapon load-out, Claire can … uh … pick locks). In this outing though each character has their own dedicated disc. In fact it really is pretty remarkable how much content Capcom squeezed into RE2. Essentially you’re looking at four campaigns worth of material here as both Claire and Leon have A and B campaigns, which play out differently depending on who you choose from the outset. And that doesn’t even touch on the bonus and challenge campaigns available after beating the game. If you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck replay value, Resident Evil 2 is the gift that keeps on giving.
In terms of gameplay, we’re talking about the “Golden Age of Survival Horror”. This part either gels with you or it doesn’t, and I suspect that it may boil down to whether you lived through the “Golden Age of Survival Horror” or not (or whether you’re just a diehard and well rounded retro-gamer). All the usual suspects are here. We have (gorgeous) pre-rendered backdrops, and cinematic fixed camera angles. We have ‘tank controls’ and combat that is occasionally hindered by those fixed camera angles. We have tight management of resources which cause one to constantly question whether to risk running through a crowd of zombies or whether to stand and fight. For my part, all of this feels almost like second nature; this is the “World of Survival Horror” after all. But I’m always curious how comfortable this play style is for younger gamers, particularly for those with no exposure to retro gaming through the early days of 3D gameplay.
Despite its age, this game still looks surprisingly good. I tend to enjoy when pre-rendered backdrops are executed well, and they are executed particularly well in Resident Evil 2. There’s no mistaking that the character and creature models hail from the early days of polygonal graphics, but some nice textures serve to make them slightly easier on the eyes. Sound design maintains the same level of excellence, and while the music is mostly ambient it does a great job at conveying the mood of the game. Finally it needs to be said that the voice acting here is pretty well done for the time of release. I mean … they’re not going to win any awards or anything … but the acting is in a whole different league than that found in the first game.
Resident Evil 2 is one of, if not the best horror experience to be had on PlayStation, and it’s easy to see why it’s hailed as being such a masterwork. This is how it’s done folks. One can only hope that the upcoming remake maintains the same level of quality as this source material. In retrospect, October has been an incredible month in that it afforded me the opportunity to play two legendary survival horror sequels almost back-to-back. All hail the Ancient Eldritch Gods of horror gaming.