Retro Review: Resident Evil 2
Available on PlayStation, DreamCast, GameCube, Nintendo 64 and PC. Reviewed on PlayStation.
Some games have the ability to outlast their generation, becoming timeless and pleasantly nostalgic. What usually signifies this for a game is honest and well thought out gameplay; there’s a difference between a title that is trying to pass itself off on gimmicks or the poor imitation of another game’s success, and a piece of interactive art that demonstrates a passion and desire in the creation of compelling games. Resident Evil 2 is more than just a hallmark of survival horror; it’s a game that should forever be remembered as a title with something to prove. With authentic survival mechanics, strategically placed scares, an excellent soundtrack, and an approach to playing a main story mode that still stands out as unique even amongst modern games, Resident Evil 2 ought to be in everyone’s game library.
From the very beginning of the game, Resident Evil 2 contains with it an essence of professional quality. The opening text detailing the relationship between Claire and Leon is perhaps one of the subtlest yet intense moments before you actually gain control of the game. Artfully, it establishes a connected fate between Leon and Claire (something that sadly does not extend beyond this game) as well as the promise that this will be a terrifying journey. This connection between two previous strangers extends to more than just the thematic nature of the game, it manifests in the structure of the multiple ways to experience the game: with different story modes for two different characters.
Giving you two separate characters to play as is genius. Whether it’s Leon on his chaotic and unexpected first day on the police force, or Claire in her desperate search for her brother, the duality of the separate stories succeeds in its ability to create a similar yet different experience. On top of that, playing as the alternate character after you’ve completed the story with one, unlocks a B Scenario—further extending the “replay” value we seem to be so sought after these days (and consistent plays through the game unlocks other scenarios.) These two different characters offer a versatile and unique way to live through the experience of the game. The different events that happen in each character’s respective version of the game uniquely separate the experience while tying it together and again is something that we rarely see today. And it all is told through classic survival horror gameplay.
The feel and structure of the game is based on the premise of survival in a world ravaged by out of control biological experimentation. Your survival through this nightmare hinges entirely on your utilization of the resources you come across. Even the simple mechanic of saving your game is connected with the need to make critical decisions regarding the use of items. You don’t respawn at a checkpoint some five minutes from where you died. If you haven’t saved in an hour, then you’ll be set back an hour in your progress. There’s consequence for dying and not utilizing your items appropriately. It’s a shock to the system for the modern gamer. It’s a challenge however, and if you’re willing to rise to the occasion, this will an exciting departure from today’s “easier” titles.
Not all the aspects of a late ‘90s game are desirable however. One of the most immediate things I had to get used to when playing this title again was that the character doesn’t move in the direction you move the analog stick but instead regards “up” as forward and “down” as backwards. To run to the left, you have to face left, and then press up. This is something that takes a little getting used to and can possibly get you killed the first few times. The aiming is also a little clunky—even with the auto mode turned on. In some survival horror games it is understandable why certain characters might not be the most proficient with a firearm, but in Resident Evil 2, the clunky aiming doesn’t seem to fit into such a theme—especially considering that Leon would at least be trained in the use of firearms. But most of these issues are minor and are adaptable once you get used it it. And considering the story and presentation the game is placed in, it’s certainly worth it.
While early Resident Evil titles do carry a sort of campy aspect to the story—William Birkin saying no one will ever take away his “precious G-Virus” is certainly going to cause an eye roll or two, as well as Leon saying “Oh boy” when he first comes across a Licker—there’s some genuine mystery in the game. Whether it’s in the plot or the gameplay itself, unraveling the mysteries of the Umbrella Corporation and the Raccoon City Police Department while working your way through the various puzzles presented in the game all help to create an imploring ambiance. And like any good horror film, the use of music to help create a feeling of either fear or safety was something that was considerably ahead of its time back in 1998. And of course, the presentation wouldn’t be complete if the game itself wasn’t scary.
When I sat down to play this game again after 12-13 years of having not touched it, I expected the “horror” element of this title to be quite weak. Playing it as an 11 year old is certainly different than playing it in my mid-twenties. And while the game doesn’t seem as scary as it did back then, there were still plenty of things that were unsettling. The sound of Lickers’ breathing is one of them. What’s interesting about this is that the audio files are of considerably lesser quality, and while 12 years ago I wouldn’t have thought much of that, hearing the lower bit rate in the audio file adds an interesting layer of fear. In many ways, the aging of this game has actually added to the bizarre nature of the events in the game–even the low quality of the wind sound effects take on a more disturbing quality given the nature of their timbre.
If you never had the pleasure of playing Resident Evil 2 in the past, this is a title that will take you back to the early and arguably more focused days of survival horror. Though some aspects of the game might take a little getting used to (being taken back to the menu screen after dying is certainly a wake-up call!) it’s worth it to experience this mysterious and frightening journey. If you haven’t touched the game in years, do yourself a favor and secure a copy from eBay or a digital version on the PlayStation Network. For me, sitting down and playing this game from beginning to end reminded me of the very things that attracted me to gaming in the first place: imaginative and thoughtful game design alongside a thoughtful and diligent approach to creating a memorable and intense atmosphere.