Resident Evil 2 Remake (PS4) retrospective

2022-05-27  Gaming

My journey through the Resident Evil universe continued this month as I picked up 2019’s Resident Evil 2 Remake on PlayStation 4. There were a lot of these on the shelf at my local preowned video game shop, which I thought was an ominous sign, but I’m pleased to report that Capcom have done a sterling job of extracting the best bits from the 1998 original and bringing them into the 21st century in a very slick package.

Before we get started, you might be wondering - is a long article about a three year-old remake of a 24 year-old game really a true retrospective? The label isn’t super important to me, but it’s certainly too late in the day to call this a review, and enough of the soul of the original Resident Evil 2 has been retained to give this piece a retro vibe. If you can think of a better name, let me know. Seriously, I spent way too much time thinking about this.

Welcome to Raccoon City

Having recently completed the first game, that was my natural comparison point going in, and some big differences were immediately clear. First, this is a full remake, and it shows. The graphics are up there with the best modern games and we get full cinematic cut scenes that don’t just look like PS2 models with HD textures applied. The flip side of this is that the first game’s gorgeous static backgrounds are gone – but hey, you can’t have everything.

Instead of static cameras, we now look over the main characters’ shoulders in third person, and oh the things we see from this new perspective. The increased graphical fidelity makes much more gore possible this time out, and the game revels in it, with close-ups of bodies being ripped apart and bits of zombies’ faces being blown off as you shoot them. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this could be the most violent video game I’ve ever played in terms of the detail and volume of blood and guts on display.

I remarked that Resident Evil felt like a puzzle game in horror dressing, but its sequel strays further towards the scary end of the spectrum, combining both jump scares and psychological horror. Much of the game is spent exploring dark areas with a torch, dreading whatever might be lurking around the next corner. Hidden zombies will startle you, not least because grabs are harder to avoid, but some of the game’s most effective mechanics - which we’ll cover later - are the ones that build a quiet and persistent sense of dread.

New places and new faces

Resident Evil 2 gives you the choice of playing as pretty boy police rookie Leon Kennedy (who I chose), or Claire Redfield, younger sister of Chris from the first game. This once again gives you two campaigns that are broadly similar with some different story content. The voice acting is a definite step up from the previous game, but it still has some awkward moments - for example, telling a guy to “hang in there” as the bottom half of his body is ripped off, or the famous delivery of the “horrible things I’ve seen” line.

The game lacks the original’s unity of place, but has a similar overall structure that has you exploring areas, solving puzzles, and unlocking new rooms to progress, with the occasional boss peppered in. Things start with a semi-tutorial at a petrol station before you move to the police station, which is a substitute for the first game’s mansion. You’ll spend the bulk of the game retracing your steps there before the later game descends into the sewer and the Umbrella lab. It all culminates in an epic final chase with fire and enemies on all sides as you race to escape the self-destructing facility.

While we’re covering the story, Ada Wong is a character worth mentioning. She pops up fairly early on and tells you she’s with the FBI, and is a big presence from there on in - you even play a small gameplay segment as her. She’s consistently cold to Leon, begrudgingly cooperating with him to kill zombies, but then she suddenly kisses him and can’t bear to shoot him when she’s revealed to be a traitor. I’m really not skipping over too much there, either. The sudden changes in their relationship are just plain jarring.

Fights with freaks

As usual, you encounter a variety of enemies along the way, ranging from standard zombies to more agile variants that crawl the ceilings, plant mutants, dogs, and so on. I found even the regular zombies more challenging than in the first game, taking quite a few bullets to down and even then sometimes getting back up or crawling towards me. The move to full 3D means we now get free aim, which adds to the frantic nature of encounters as you line up your shots, and means the terror comes from your own skill and not panic about whether the auto-aim will do what you’re hoping for.

This also applies to bosses, who are scarier and more difficult to beat than in Resident Evil. You’ll quickly become well acquainted with the G-virus mutant Birkin, who you’ll fight no fewer than three times over the course of the game. These are generally satisfying battles as you target the orange eyes on his ever-strengthening body. The exception is the Type 2 fight, which traps you with the boss on a tiny platform. No matter what you do, he must be defeated with a swinging shipping container, which takes an age to arrive after you press the button and kills you instantly if you get in the way.

If Type 2 is the low point for Resident Evil 2’s bosses, Mr X is certainly the peak. After a certain point, this unkillable brute roams the police station, drawn to the noise you make by running, shooting zombies, or bursting through doors. When I first encountered him I ran, and it was downright terrifying as it slowly dawned on me that the thudding I was hearing was the sound of his footsteps as he tracked me down. Trying to fly through puzzles while he got closer and closer, aware that he could smash into the room at any moment, is one of those gaming memories that will stay with me forever.

The icing on the cake

All this comes wrapped up in a package that includes exactly the quality of life improvements I was longing for when playing through Resident Evil HD Remaster. One huge change is the ability to drop items anywhere, which reduces the pain of limited inventory space when you come across a critical item with no slots remaining. Typewriters return as the save mechanism, but you no longer need to collect and spend ribbon, which means you’re not punished for changing your mind about your loadout after you save.

From these additions to the beautiful graphics, the detailed 3D environments to the plentiful journals and notes that litter the areas and provide additional backstory, it’s clear that this remake of the second game in the series was put together by people who really cared about what they were making. This even shows in the implementation of features that might seem like gimmicks in lesser titles - for example, the use of the DualShock 4’s built-in speaker for certain actions like unlocking doors is a nice touch.

Resident Evil 2 Remake is a glossy and carefully constructed game that has earnt a place in my list of favourites. The story and acting can be cheesy, and if hardcore Resident Evil fans’ accounts are to be believed then it’s not entirely consistent with canon, but it’s a well-made rollercoaster ride of a game that you should play just for the experience itself. The tone of the series has certainly shifted towards action-horror here, and it will be intriguing to see where it goes next if and when I pick up the sequel.

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