Review: Resident Evil 2 (2019)

Resident Evil 2 Review

Few proper survival horror titles have graced the Resident Evil series since Resident Evil 2 released twenty-one years ago and created for itself a legacy as one of the best, if not simply the best survival horror game ever made. The franchise ebbed and flowed from one genre to the next over the last two decades, and only recently did Capcom reintegrate much of what fans fell in love with. Resident Evil 7 did an incredible job of replicating the classic survival horror gameplay the series was known for, but it merely dabbled with the core genre elements.

Resident Evil 7 felt like survival horror, which was more than enough to please me. Resident Evil 2 (2019) — an all-new remake based on the legendary 1998 game — quite simply is survival horror. Resident Evil 2 has us relive the events that established Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield as fan-favorite characters and reintroduces a style of survival horror game design that has not been replicated this well in over a decade.

Taking us back to the series’ earliest years, the game opens with Leon and Claire in the year 1998 as they independently arrive in the dark outskirts of Raccoon City — a midwestern town practically owned by the pharmaceutical giant, Umbrella. A violent and horrifying encounter with what can only be described as the living dead leaves them stranded within the city limits, with their only safety being the ornate and labyrinthine Racoon City police department. Once inside, the true horror is revealed: neither of them is safe from the zombies, and a variety of vicious monsters and twisted malformations of nature have taken over the building.

With order fallen to chaos, it’s up to our heroes to escape and uncover the mystery behind this nightmare — if they can survive long enough that is. This tale is almost as old as the series itself and has been retold a number of times, but now the stage is set for a new and even more terrifying take on the classic to unfold.

Resident Evil 2 manages to be a terrifying horror game in its own right — setting us in a gorey and a delightfully sinister world — and it accomplishes something so unexpected that I hadn’t fully realized how long it’s been since I last experienced it. Without simply mimicking specific gameplay mechanics (RE7) or falling back on nostalgic elements (Revelations), RE2 is a near-perfect rendition of a classic PlayStation or PlayStation 2-era survival horror game. This goes beyond inventory management, a focus on horror, or a return to involved puzzle design; RE2 succeeds in balancing all of the parts that we love about the genre carefully on top of each other like a giant Jenga tower. Each element leans on and informs the other, and the perfect recreation of this old style feels so effortless it’s any wonder what has taken contemporary AAA games so long to attempt this.

A rush of exhilarating panic unfelt since the golden age of the survival horror genre is Resident Evil 2’s bread and butter as you weigh the risk vs. reward of every action and push forward into unexplored territory. Being well-stocked on health items vs. keeping slots open for puzzle pieces, for example. The anxiety of rushing to a safe room to deposit unneeded items, only to lose half your health to a crawling zombie that bit your foot and lead you into the clawing grasp of another. Stumbling in the dark, clutching your side as you finally make it to the sweet release of a safe room — or fall to the sudden and deadly arrival of a previously unseen monster lurking just outside the door.

The almost chemical rush that comes from a survival horror game — that sense of panic and dread but a need to keep pushing forward sits at the heart of Resident Evil 2. I can’t do this sensation justice in text, but I can confidently say that this game is indeed every bit a survival horror game as the original RE2 was. It may even be more impactful to the genre as it adopts modern ideals and design practices that make situations more complex and nerve-wracking. These hardcore genre elements are further emphasized with the series’ most competent control schemes to date.

Despite many a fan fear, Resident Evil 2 in no way feels like a hampered experience due to the shift from the fixed camera perspective of yore. Instead, this new version feels improved by the extra fluidity of 3rd person movement and aiming. As an old school lover of tank controls and fixed camera angles, I genuinely think this game benefits from the over the shoulder perspective and ends up scarier as a result. Free aiming to strategically dismember zombies, then the resulting panic that ensues when they sway away from the reticle, forcing you to readjust on the fly while retreating, creates a sense of fear unlike any I’ve felt in this kind of game before. Dead Space would be the most obvious reference point, but its Necromorphs have such a set-in-stone process to kill them: legs, arms, head — dead.

In comparison, the more complex and seemingly random health count to RE2’s undead makes each zombie almost a puzzle of their own. No more “just a couple rounds in the head” or “this weapon kills them in one shot” strategies. This game very much takes advantage of your assumptions regarding combat and will punish you accordingly if you take it lightly.

While there are no new enemies like the previous REmake, every enemy taken from the original has been so thoroughly retooled and recrafted so that they offer an entirely new experience — while somehow retaining what made them great in the first place. Capcom’s “back to the drawing board” methodology covers every enemy, mixing what we already know with entirely new ideas that elicit terror and panic in ways that the original game couldn’t accomplish. A direct example of this is the classic (though personally speaking immensely dull) zombie dogs. Series fans no doubt share memories of circling and nudging around these hounds, taking advantage of their clunkiness to run to safety untouched. Now, these beasts have become deadly and agile, intelligently leaping over obstacles and scurrying underneath others — attacking from all sides. The iconic lickers have become a trying and anxiety-inducing beast in a way they have never been before, with environments tailored to have you face them or attempt to quietly avoid them.

Past Resident Evil games, including the original RE2, have dabbled with the idea of using the licker’s lack of sight as a gameplay mechanic, but not until now has this been executed so effectively, for absolute breath-holding tension. As they listen intently for new prey and move around tight halls which their bodies easily fit the width of, each encounter makes for delicious tension. The unwavering Mr. X has also been given a new lease on life, as Capcom has upgraded him from an occasional jump scare that required simply exiting a room to rid yourself of him, to a Nemesis-lite. Mr. X actively follows you from room to room (slowly, but never faltering), making him a constant threat to listen for as his giant footfalls reverberate across whole floors of the RPD station. It may be difficult to source his direction at times through traditional speakers, but wearing headphones with the excellently crafted 3D binaural audio setting turned on allows for hair-raising dread as he moves from one ear to the next — from floor to floor, room to room.

Take all of these new and improved threats, which have each become a unique challenge for even seasoned survival horror fans, and place them all together. The sheer panic caused by Mr. X’s pursuit, which could lead you into a swarm of lickers, or caught off guard by a surviving zombie, or even a pack of hungry dogs! The best — or worst — case, facing several all in one area. Each of these monstrosities feeds into an oppressive challenge the series hasn’t been host to since pre-PlayStation 2. Furthermore, fold in the difficulties of inventory management and the RPD station’s obtuse (yet better contextualized) riddles.

Even more surprises await returning fans; there are no new enemies (and sadly one or two have been cut — sorry crow fans), but that doesn’t mean that new and unexpected interpretations of old ones aren’t lurking in the shadows. A boss monster that only appeared once, for instance, has been upgraded into an entire enemy type that comes in packs that are eager to rip into you. On top of that, one of my very favorite creatures in the remake is effectively a replacement of one of my least favorites from the original — but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

This sense of old and new permeates every fiber of Resident Evil 2, as the entirely new RPD station becomes a more challenging and Metroidvania-esque puzzle in and of itself. While much of the building is at the very least recognizable to some degree, new and unexpected twists push it further than even the original REmake did in 2002. You may come across items you fondly remember from the classic RE2, only to discover they have an entirely different use now, or that the puzzle itself is wildly different from before. Room to room you’ll find yourself nodding and going “oh yeah, this”… until an unexpectedly new element throws you for a loop.

The balance of completely fresh with the almost scientific use of well-placed nostalgia wraps you into RE2 whether you’re a returning veteran or a newcomer itching to see what all the fuss was about. Indeed, the 2002 REmake may be the closest comparison, although, this game pushes the envelope much farther than that game ever did. I repeatedly found myself excited to see new things, while simultaneously (and deeply) appreciating a nod or return of something familiar. One late-game puzzle (that I won’t spoil) actually made me so nostalgic that I kind of forgot to play for a few seconds, so overwhelmed by seeing something so objectively stupid but no less integral to that section of the game, revisited so precisely. Far more often than not, I recommend that you don’t assume something is missing because it isn’t where it used to be. It’s here alright, in some form, you just might have to wait.

These classic moments, locales, and enemies are all given new life thanks to the simply incredible RE Engine. While its debut game (RE7) was easily one of the best looking games in the series, RE2 blows past it with some of the most impressive visuals I’ve ever seen in any video game. Each element — from the textures, models to the lighting — is incredible to behold, richly detailed and contextualized with a realistic grit reminiscent of the original REmake. A lived-in and practical feel enriches the atmosphere, from Leon’s more functional RPD uniform to the way paperwork and coffee cups are strewn across a table. RE Engine pushes some astounding detail with every aspect and keeping your eyes front and center at all times just with the sheer beauty of everything. It’s more than just “photo-realistic,” as the thought put into why and how a thing should look and work unifies the game’s presentation. That said, there are some noticeably rough textures, largely in the sewer portion, that seem like they could have used a little more polish. But these elements are so out of the way and obviously not meant to be scrutinized that I can’t really complain. RE2 is still very much one of the best looking games of this console generation.

When focusing on what’s entirely new, I came away quite surprised by how well written RE2 is. As much as I love Resident Evil, it has never been known for its writing. Characters, no matter how beloved, have often come off as two dimensional or lacking in real human characteristics. Any attempts at personality have become lost in mistranslation or come off inappropriately comical. Resident Evil 2 entirely rejects these quirks, settling in on surprisingly real-feeling heroes and villains who have a depth that RE has never dived into before. Characters who had little or no impact in the original game now come with a tangible, human weight to them, rounding out Raccoon City not as a fun playground filled with zombies — but as a graveyard filled with tragedy and genuine despair. This will be the first time I think anyone anywhere has ever put these words in this order, but this Resident Evil got me choked up on multiple occasions. Not full blown Walking Dead/Life Is Strange joy sucking mind you, but subtle and emotional moments with characters who have been elevated by new attention never afforded to them before.

As someone who lives and breathes this world, especially the story of the Raccoon City outbreak, many characters who have been a part of me since childhood have now been given a spark of humanity that they never had before — and it’s devastating. That isn’t, of course, to say that RE2 doesn’t know when to cut you some slack, as deliberate 90s movie cheese will pop up on occasion to relieve not just your stress, but the characters’ as well.

No aspect of this game overstays its welcome (cough RE6) or cuts it too short (cough RE7), with the flow focused on your desire for exploration rather than just pushing forward to the end. As the Baker mansion became mostly empty and smaller with return visits, the RPD remains dangerous and rife with new reasons to return to previously explored areas. Clever use of boarding up windows (replacing the shutter system of the original game) can help direct the path of danger perhaps, but there will always be some vulnerable place the dead can find to seep in through. This matched with your limited inventory space (despite incrementally upgrading your slots two at a time) makes for a consistent feeling of tension without starting to drift off into feeling too overpowered and the danger subsiding (a problem that the original Resident Evil 2 suffered from in its last hour or two). As your strength increases, so do the threats and challenges around you. Even with multiple new gameplay gimmicks, from REmake’s defense items and RE7’s ammo crafting to an all-new temporary health boost when using a Red and Blue Herb combo, the challenge never lets up. You can, of course, lower the difficulty (which will introduce health regeneration and light auto-aim) if it becomes too much, or boost it up (doubling every enemy’s damage output and forcing the use of ink ribbons for saving) depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for.

As a Resident Evil fan, there’s so much to pour over with this game gleefully. From the core game itself to the inclusion of The 4th/Tofu Survivor modes, to the delightful original music/sound swap (which requires the Deluxe Edition, and I’d recommend the swap for a replay), and the countless little details and surprises that act as direct fan-service, it’s hard to fit it all into a review. For newcomers, the game is no less impressive or stunning, as it stands on its own merits with aplomb. Suffice to say, if I haven’t somehow made myself clear throughout this review — Resident Evil 2 is a modern masterpiece of survival horror, a healthy serving of a classic genre we haven’t had a real taste of in over a decade. The awe I continued to feel as I played over and over and over again, making new excuses to revisit it for this review, cannot be expressed enough.

Packed with nostalgia, new challenges, complex and deep gameplay that doesn’t just adapt but embodies the genre it’s inhabiting, and a AAA presentation that blows every previous RE out of the water — yes, even REmake — I feel confident in this assessment: As it was in 1998, so to shall it be in 2019. Resident Evil 2 is the best Resident Evil game ever made, full stop.

10 out of 10 stars (10 / 10)

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A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher for Steam. It is also available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

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