Survival horror is pretty much dead. Silent Hill has been spun off into a Gauntlet-type dungeon hack, Fatal Frame‘s nowhere to be found, and the Resident Evil series mutated into a Call of Duty/Gears of War action clone in a weird cyclical cannibalistic situation – Resident Evil 4 spawned Gears of War which spawned Resident Evil 5 and, well, the rest of this generation. Ironic, I guess, that it didn’t … survive. Resident Evil is very much a product of its time, when pre-rendered graphics and static camera angles were the height of sophistication. And c’mon, how long could monsters jumping out of windows stay scary? Things are different now.
So when I replayed Resident Evil 2 recently on the PlayStation Vita, I was pleased to see how well it held up after nearly 15 years, and how possible it is to trace Resident Evil‘s transformation into an action series back to this title. Beyond a few jump scares it’s almost a straight-up shooter with only a few puzzles sprinkled on top. The game’s packed with ammo and weaponry despite the rudimentary aiming system — you hold R1 to aim, swivel in one spot to select a target and mash away on the X button. However, the ammo increase comes with a rise in enemy count. There are many more zombies per screen and they take more shots to put down, so it’s still possible to get overrun. You’re also limited to a set number of items to carry at once. Spatial memory plays an important part, too, knowing which rooms connect to where and where you need to find and use specific items. Exploration and discovery are key factors in Resident Evil 2.
So I think I’ll just spout out what I love about it.
Raccoon City, before it blew up, remains one of the best settings in video games. I love the way it’s introduced, too. Depending on which disc you pop in (or boot up on post-PS1 systems), either Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield, you watch them drive into town to find it deserted. The CGI intro movie’s dated now (artifacting and blobby shadows!) but keep in mind it was state-of-the-art for the time! A well-done CG intro was an accolade back then, as each new game tried to one-up the last with a new show of technical superiority. RE2′s set the stage with perfect, moody music, creative angles, and editing. The moment Claire opens the diner door to find Leon standing there, gun drawn, was iconic enough to reappear in the CG movie Degeneration. Not that a reenactment in a dopey movie means greatness, but it does show that first meeting between the two heroes left a lasting impact on players.
The voice acting gets a bad rap, which I always found unfair. I figured Resident Evil 2 to have one of the better voice casts in video games. It’s Saturday morning goofiness, sure, but it works! For me anyway. Jubilee from the ’90s X-Men cartoon voices Claire Redfield for crying out loud, and she did a good enough job to come back for CODE: Veronica and the Degeneration movie, which must make her the only consistent voice actor in the series. Most other characters were recast between games, like Leon. I always liked RE2‘s wimpier version of him more than his replacement in RE4. He sounds like such a doofus, which fits well since no one in the damn game ever listens to him, no matter how much authority he tries to assert — at one point late in the game, he actually asks aloud to himself “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?” Poor guy. He’s still a doofus in RE4, albeit with a gruffer replacement voice, which I suppose makes him an even bigger doofus given it still feels as if he’s always at the butt-end of some joke. I think it’s that vulnerable, doofy-yet-capable quality that’s made him such a popular character.
RE2‘s conspiracy plot holds up, perhaps better than before. Revealed in short, infrequent cutscenes and well-written little notes sprinkled throughout the game — a secretary’s diary, a police report, a memo from a sewage plant manager — the story that unravels cuts through a few American fears, mainly the corrupt practices of big corporations, the dubious actions of authorities sworn to protect us, and the fragile bond of the nuclear family.
In one night, Leon and Claire find out that the all-American Raccoon City (seen through the always-entertaining lens of the Japanese — a Taxago gas sign is a favorite Easter egg) has been bought by Umbrella Pharmaceuticals to be a testing ground for their bizarre genetic experiments, and that the threat behind the outbreak is the obsessed patriarch of a scattered family. That father, Umbrella scientist William Birkin, injects himself with his own creation, mutates into a monster then seeks out to impregnate his own daughter to propagate a new species of monsters. Perhaps scarier (on a more it-could-really-happen level) is the still-human chief of Raccoon City Police, an insane sadist who shoots his own men and abducts the mayor’s daughter for, ah, purposes.
That’s one hell of a night. It also includes Umbrella spies, sleazy journalists (sigh), unlockable scenarios if you beat the game under certain conditions, a gas mask-wearing merc named Hunk, and a hunk of tofu named … Tofu.
Let’s go back to the father of the Birkin family, William. The guy injects himself with his own creation, the G-Virus (superior to the first game’s zombie-creating T-Virus), and rapidly and grotesquely mutates into a hulking behemoth of muscle, bone, and bulbous eyeballs. Each time you encounter him, he undergoes a new mutation, looking less and less human. By the end of the game, the guy is a multi-limbed mass of teeth and sinew and one of, or rather, several of the best monster designs I’ve seen in a game. Pyramid Head from Silent Hill always gets a lot of love. I always thought it was unfair Birkin got left in the cold.
The game as a whole is incredibly well-designed — visually (Claire’s pink jacket!) and mechanically. It flows so effortlessly, from the burning wreckage of the beginning, through the city, to the ridiculous police precinct where you need to rearrange statues to find red gems to shove in half a suit of armor to grab keys and Unicorn Medals and African animal Legos… or something. Yes, it’s silly but well-designed silliness . From room to room, the scenery refreshes every few minutes to keep the adventure from getting stale. The pre-rendered CG backgrounds stand the test of time. The lab, infested with enormous plant roots and vegetation in some parts, is a real standout.
There are a lot of other little things to mention. I love how Sherry Birkin, William’s wayward daughter, hugs her knees when Claire gets too far from her. Her Japanese school girl outfit is so wonderfully out of place. Claire and Sherry’s relationship clearly mirrors Ripley’s and Newt’s from Aliens, too. In fact, you can find a lot of Aliens in RE2 if you look hard enough, right down to chest-bursting impregnation creatures, self-destruct countdowns, last-minute rescues, and a bigger-than-any-before monster that attacks the evacuation vehicle right at the end when you think everything’s safe. It may sound a little unjust to call RE2 an Aliens copycat since that movie influenced the entire video game medium, but the James Cameron influence continues further with Resident Evil 2‘s B-side scenario.
After you beat the game once as one character, you can replay it as another character in a whole new scenario in something Capcom called “the Zapping System.” The setting’s the same, but some events, characters, items and monsters get rearranged. There’s also the important addition of a brand new monster, Mr. X, a bald Terminator-like mutant in a trench coat that follows you around the whole game. He bashes through walls, grabs you by the neck and keeps you on your toes just when you think you have the game all figured out. It’s a blast, and the endgame for Leon’s and Claire’s B scenario has one of the all-time best pay-offs. It involves a vat of molten lead (hello, Terminator 2), a Tyrant, a last-minute rocket launcher rescue, and that aforementioned “Queen Alien returns one last time” moment. Of course, all these moments and motifs have been repeated to varying success throughout the series’ long life. Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 basically grew out of Mr. X, and Resident Evil 6 spawned a new Follower as well, the Ustanak.
The series never had a soundtrack as good as this one either. The score nails the feeling of desperation and malaise that Resident Evil signifies. The sinister “Police Station” theme is probably the best example of this, though supposedly calm, soothing tracks like the “Save Room” theme and “Leon and Claire” also carry an undercurrent of unease. Listening to those, you get the sense that even though you’re safe now, you know the respite is only temporary and you have to leave eventually to face the horror outside. Then you have the various boss themes that combine various motifs heard throughout the score and build layer by layer with each new encounter. In the final battles, a synthesized opera voice similar to the one used in fellow horror classic Parasite Eve appears to add an extra level of drama and tension. The sound effects add plenty of that, too. When you enter a room and hear the throaty moan of a Licker, well, hope you got ammo left.
As far as pure content goes, RE2 got the series started with a few standards. In addition to the Zapping System that allows four possible scenarios (I prefer to go Claire A/Leon B myself), the Dual Shock edition of the game (the most complete version of RE2, and the only one available on PSN) features an unlockable mode called Extreme Battle, a precursor to the Mercenaries mini-game later introduced in Resident Evil 3. Chris Redfield and Ada Wong show up as playable characters in that time-attack diversion. RE2 is also a perfect game for speed running since the game grades you based on time spent playing, the number of saves you make and the amount of healing items used, among other invisible factors. Perfecting a run-through can be extremely satisfying, and better times unlock secret weapons, costumes, and events (helicopter pilot Brad Vickers from RE1 can make a cameo) to keep the game fresh.
Even after so many play-throughs over the years, it remains a tense, effective game. I still jump, my heart still races, and though I remember where every monster and item can be found, that doesn’t take away from the experience to this day. Scrapped and remade several times throughout development, the team headed by series creator Shinji Mikami and directed by future Bayonetta creator Hideki Kamiya strove for survival horror perfection. They very nearly found it in Resident Evil 2.