The first two Resident Evil games were formative experiences for young me. It’s hard to wave off that nagging pang of nostalgia, but at the same time there’s a reason for that. At the time, there were very few games like Resident Evil and especially Resident Evil 2. As someone who was really just starting to become aware of horror as a concept, Resident Evil 2’s sense of scale and place, its bizarre tonal shifting, and of course desperate pacing and challenge were masterful. In the years since, Resident Evil has gone through several changes as its place in modern gaming has often proven uncertain. With this new Resident Evil 2, a remake that doesn’t bother with a dopey subtitle, the team at Capcom has opted to disregard most of the bells and whistles of the past several years. With the throbbing, fleshy core of Resident Evil 2 exposed, this new version seeks to add to that core with modern sensibilities, but only just so.
The Ultimate Fan Fiction
If you’re familiar with the original Resident Evil 2, there are few surprises here in a broad sense. Leon Kennedy is a Rookie cop, headed to Raccoon City for his first day on the job. Claire Redfield is looking for her brother Chris, one of the heroes of the first game. The two meet roughly around the same time they discover the city is in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Leon and Claire are separated in the mayhem, both making their way through the most bizarrely labyrinthine police station in America. While there are significant changes to the story in a granular sense, with more character moments, new sequences, and a higher quality ceiling in the writing and VO, the overall story hasn’t changed much. It’s less “different,” and more, well, “more.”
What has changed a lot is the experience of playing Resident Evil 2. Obviously, we haven’t gone so far back we’re dealing with tank controls here. What Capcom settled on feels like a more polished version of the Revelations games, which had already stepped back from the (in my opinion totally fine) excess of the previous generation’s iterations. It’s the third-person movement and gunplay any current Resident Evil fan will be familiar with, a rock-solid frame rate, but little beyond the basics. You won’t be roundhouse-kicking zombies in the face here, but you do get the classic 180-degree turn, and a few consumable subweapons that can get you out of a pinch. It’s back to basics in a lot of ways, but those basics are silky smooth, so getting around is a breeze.
And that only reinforces the real star of the show here, which is the overall design and sense of place throughout the entirety of Resident Evil 2. It gets predictably wackier as the story reaches its climactic arc, but the police station and its adjacent environments are designed with such a meticulously designed set of pathways, shortcuts, and barriers that the “classic” Resident Evil gameplay loop has morphed into something like a Metroidvania. This is most immediately felt in the map, which is full to bursting with quality of life features. Everything is labeled as you encounter it, from locked doors to items. Furthermore, rooms actually change color once you’ve “cleared” them. The map is one piece of the overall puzzle, but one that completes the picture in a big way.
While you’re doing the usual MacGuffin chasing for most of the experience, collecting keys and objects and finding their doors/sockets/etc, there’s such a comfortable loop, the sense of physicality is so smooth, that this is the most weirdly “flow” state-inducing Resident Evil yet. It feels so good and natural to move through that the game has to try really hard to remind you it’s a horror game. It’s almost relaxing until Mr. X appears behind you and lariats your ass into the pavement.
The Greatest Guts in Gaming
Resident Evil 2 tries hard, and it succeeds. There are twists and upgrades to things you may or may not remember from the original title (reader, if you have not played Resident Evil 2 before, I am thoroughly jealous of your experience) that can make even the most jaded and desensitized horror gamer (hi) gripping their controller with anxiety. From zombies that will surprise you over and over, to literal hour (or more)-long stretches of consistent dread thanks to a certain large, hat-wearing man, Resident Evil 2 finds plenty of ways to mess with your head beyond jump scares. That includes new twists or uses for other familiar baddies you might not expect. Add to that some of the most impressive, Romero/Savini/Nicotero-style gore I’ve ever seen in a video game, and you have the definitive horror experience of 2019 right out of the gate.
Speaking of experience, Resident Evil 2 is, historically, a challenging game. Much of the classic Resident Evil challenge comes from a few sources. Generally, you deal with a shortage of resources such as ammo and healing items, shortage of inventory space as well, low damage threshold, and struggling with the controls. The last one is mostly a non-issue here, although Leon and Claire are deliberately outmaneuvered at times in old school Capcom fashion. However, where these other points manifest and how the developers chose to deal with them in 2019 speaks a lot to how video games have changed over time. At a top level, there are difficulty options available that make specific, interesting structural changes to Resident Evil 2.
The “easy” mode, labeled as “Assisted,” is Capcom’s way of ensuring almost anyone can complete the story. Enemies are weaker of course, but curiously there’s also (limited) health regeneration and aim assist. It’s weird to see that stuff in a Resident Evil game, especially one that’s a take on the original trilogy, but it works here. With a few exceptions, there is also a relative ammo surplus, ensuring you generally won’t struggle for ammo on Assisted mode unless a specific sequence calls for it. Effectively, what this does is (mostly) remove the more “video game-y” challenges of Resident Evil 2 from the equation and allows the story and vibe to take point. It still isn’t easy, but it’s an appreciable leg up.
On the other hand, the harder (Hardcore) difficulty almost acts like a big ol’ thumbs up to the hardcore side of Resident Evil 2 fandom. Not only are the enemies tougher, but this mode entirely removes the autosave function, and even brings the dreaded ink ribbons back into the fold. For context, the original Resident Evil games had finite saving, requiring players to find a consumable ink ribbon to use on typewriters to save. The ending even graded you based on both speed and the number of saves. So while Resident Evil 2 is largely full of modern video game convention, you can totally relish in those older elements for some good, self-imposed challenge. That’s just cool.
Holding all this together is, once again, Capcom’s RE Engine. Talking about engines in a review is tricky since outside understanding of them is still a work in progress, but either way, Resident Evil 2 is an impressive piece of software. While it’s no showcase of AAA excess like other big genre games of the past year, what we do get here is a consistent, smooth gameplay experience that is bolstered by some super solid visuals and excellent lighting. While there are certainly some cut corners here or there, the atmosphere and tone hide them well, along with some excellent facial animation that helps sell the (obligatory) corny dialogue. Resident Evil 2 also makes some seriously spooky use of binaural audio techniques that reminded me of playing Corpse Party in bed with headphones in so many years ago, which means high marks in my book.
I’ve done a lot of gushing here, but Resident Evil 2 is the perfect sort of game for gushing. Much like the legendary REmake, this new version of a storied classic was lovingly crafted by people who not only have a collectively sharp eye for what makes an excellent video game today, but also possess a deep understanding of why the original Resident Evil 2 is worth revisiting and what made it a game celebrated to this day. This isn’t just an old Resident Evil molded into the new Resident Evil formula. It’s a new take on Resident Evil 2 that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to “modernize” or “fix” the original. It’s more of an expensive, ludicrously polished tribute than a remake in the semantic sense, a project that has been in demand for years and quietly pursued for just as long. I’m glad it worked out so well.
Resident Evil 2 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.