When it comes to survival horror, two series come to mind as the ones that set the modern precedent – Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Whereas Silent Hill had more of an allegorical purpose, Resident Evil is very straightforward – zombies.
Resident Evil 2 takes place a few months after the first game, and follows Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield in the ruins of zombie-infested Raccoon City. Leon is a police officer, arriving at Raccoon City for his first day on the job, and Claire is looking for her brother Chris, who was one of the protagonists of the first game.
To some extent, knowledge of the first game is not necessary. The first game follows Chris, Jill, and co. as they explore a mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City, and they discover the zombies and the connection to the Umbrella Corporation. The opening video of RE2 touches upon all of the important details, but none of them are too crucial to the story of RE2. Resident Evil 3, on the other hand, requires knowledge of both, as it concludes the Raccoon City trilogy.
The story itself is nothing spectacular – it’s a typical zombie apocalypse type deal, with nothing that particularly sets it apart. The first half, centered in the Raccoon City Police Department, is a thriller/horror combination that works well as the characters explore the area and try to figure out what’s going on. The second half is more sci-fi/horror, focusing on the cause of the outbreak among other things. The second half is a bit less interesting because, as lame as slow-walking zombies may seem, they aren’t as silly as plant monsters and a giant moth.
The coolest part of the story is definitely the split between the A and B routes. In the intro cutscene, Leon and Claire meet, but are quickly forced apart by bad luck and failing to check for backseat drivers. Leon is forced to go one way, and Claire the other. This makes the characters reach the police station by different routes, and then changes how the story progresses for them.
To start off, you need to finish the A route as either Leon or Claire, and once you’ve completed that you unlock the B route for the other character. These routes overlap, with story events lining up fairly neatly, although some of the puzzles need to be done in both. One cool thing about the split is a part where you can choose between increased backpack space or an SMG – whichever one you leave will be available for the other character in the B route.
The A route is easily the better of the two, taking advantage of many scares more effectively, and generally causing you to dread what might be ahead. As two examples – the first appearance of the licker in the A route is far more dramatic, whereas it’s just sitting in a room that you walk into in the B route. Secondly, every time you open a door, there will be a quick cutscene that shows it open – only the A route took advantage of this for one situation. The B route was definitely the more challenging of the two though.
The gameplay is a generally negative experience for plenty of reasons – worst is the combination of fixed camera angles and tank controls. For those unfamiliar with the term, “tank controls” means that you use the Up button to move forward, the Down button to back up, the Left button to rotate to the left, and the Right button to rotate to the right. I died about eight times at the very beginning because it took a while to get familiar with character movement. Dodging enemies can also be a hassle, as your perspective changes frequently, screwing up your understanding of the depth of the area, as well as making aiming your character while running a pain in the rear.
Imagine the below image is an example of a room in the game. Whenever you walk through the red portion of the room, the camera is positioned at the red circle and faces in the direction the arrow points, and the same goes for the other areas and their respective camera location. Now imagine having to walk back and forth in this room as you need to accomplish some task, having the camera angle constantly changing depending on where you’re standing. Now imagine there are zombies in there, but you’re not always quite sure where. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?
For the most part, the fixed camera angles don’t even help with tension or anything. You can always hear zombies making a ton of noise, and the angle changes far too much, which really takes you out of the characters’ shoes – it’s distracting to know that that you can’t see what the character would be able to. The slight lag as the camera angle switches is also a bit annoying.
In the police station, which is the main location for the game, there is also plenty of backtracking as you have to find keys, figure out where they go, find other items, find out where to use them, and then finally find things that will help you proceed with the story. This just feels like wasting time – what could efficiently be done very quickly will likely take much longer simply because you won’t know exactly where to go. While there are some fresh things thrown in during all of this meandering, they’re mostly just jump-scares in an attempt to keep you on your toes.
And lastly, the inventory system. You get eight slots to start, but one of these will be taken up by the handgun, and another by the excess handgun ammo. Now if you have a second weapon, that’s a third slot, and its ammo will probably be a fourth. And if you want to stay safe, you’ll need a healing item or two on hand as well. Now imagine that you run into a point of the story where you need to juggle five key items – you don’t quite know where you need them, you just know that you do. Add in the weapons that take up two slots and Claire’s grenade launcher with three types of ammo that are all stored separately, and this is an absolute nightmare that simply forces you to run back and forth between the crate to dump crap off, pick it up again, and hope you’re not forced to backtrack just to get a key item you didn’t think you needed right away.
Fortunately, once you’re done dealing with the stress of the annoying controls and obnoxiously limited inventory, you can let loose and take advantage of the best part of the game – the “Arrange mode.” Along with swapping the locations of most items, this also gives you the SMG, but with one anomaly – you have unlimited ammo. More games need an OP mode like this, where you beat the game once, then you get to play again and absolutely wreck everything with no effort. You don’t even really need to aim – you just start firing and wait for things to walk up to you.
Visually, this looks laughably bad by today’s standards, but for a 17-year old PlayStation game it’s pretty good. Well, besides the CG cutscenes, where everyone’s eyes look hollow and everything just looks plain goofy. Besides that, the colors aren’t too monotonous, you can normally make out important items in the environment pretty easily, and everything is lit adequately. The last point is a bit of an odd one to bring up for a horror game, but this game helps to prove that you don’t need to have everything pitch-black to still pull off a dark and oppressive atmosphere effectively.
The music was very good at setting the mood, but the shifts to silence were even better at upping the apprehension factor. When you open a door and everything is dead silent (pun intended), you’ll think that something’s about to happen, and you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to react to whatever happens… even if nothing ends up happening. On the other end of the spectrum, the voice-acting is pretty bad. Like hearing the same exact clip of Claire shouting “Sherry!” about ten times in the B route. I found myself wishing the characters would just keep their mouths shut at many points.
For all my complaining about the gameplay, I still really enjoyed the game. The atmosphere was excellent, the music (and lack thereof) was almost always perfect, and the last bit of dialogue was a perfect way to end a game.
“No. I have to find my brother.”
“You’re right. This is just the beginning.”
+ Overlapping character routes
+ Arrange mode for maximum badassitude
+ Great use of music
+ Good atmosphere
+ Zombies twitch after you kill them
+ Claire has a nice ponytail
± Lackluster voice-acting and sound effects
± Cliche zombie apocalypse-ish story
± Second half’s focus on sci-fi/horror over thriller/horror
− Fixed camera angles and tank controls
− Lots of backtracking
Price – $3 (US) for the PS1 classic on the PSN
Play time – About 10 hours (for Leon A + Claire B)
Recommendation – If you’re interested in old-school survival horror, this would be a great starting point as long as you have the patience to die a few times as you get used to the controls. Secondary recommendation – never watch the movies.
With the recent release of the HD remaster of the remake of the first Resident Evil, I’d really like to see this game get a similar treatment – it would solve most of the problems, give the game a modern touch, and hopefully let the developers improve upon things the second time around. Like some of the puzzles.