It only took 22 years of soul searching, but Resident Evil has finally found itself. The series has from the beginning shifted in tone, scale, and action that it’s never been entirely clear what Resident Evil should be. Is it a first-person thriller? A campy survival spook out? A cooperative blast ‘em up where T-rexes made of old wet hot dogs and eyeballs are exploded by dudes doing motorcycle flips onto their oozing faces? We may have finally reached the end of these identity crises with the Resident Evil 2 remake, a crystal expression of one of gaming’s distinct personalities.
Dogs through windows; dire militias of suppurating, zombified flora and fauna that seem unstoppable as they mutate into increasingly grotesque shapes; guns and typewriters; these are the trappings of Resident Evil but they’re crust on top of a mantle that’s never stopped shifting. All those surface elements are in 2019’s Resident Evil 2, which finally brings together the idiosyncratic spatial exploration of the original, the soap operatics of its sequels, the style and bodily claustrophobia of Resident Evil 4, the scale of 5 and 6, and the bowel-clenching tension and grotesque gore of 7. All of it is packed inside, coherently executed in a game as sharp as a bespoke suit.
That’s not to say that Resident Evil 2 is built wholesale out of old parts. What’s most impressive about this game is how modern it feels despite borrowing the setting, characters, and basic plot from the Hideki Kamiya-directed 1998 game it’s rebuilding. When rookie cop Leon Scott Kennedy and unflappable biker Claire Redfield roll into zombie-plagued Raccoon City, the presentation of Resident Evil 2 is the first thing that shines. The game not only looks spectacular but evokes its 1998 setting authentically. That authenticity in turn makes its frightening aesthetic touches stand out even more dramatically.
Leon, Claire, and even the bulbous old computer monitors they keep passing in hallways don’t look like actual real human beings surround by actual things. They’re too quixotically beautiful and/or grotesque. Yet they still feel grounded and true, even when they’re gunning down nasty plant monsters in an underground sci-fi lab that looks like it shares an interior designer with the Death Star. Thanks to its sumptuous art direction and internal logic, this feels like a wholly realized, consistent world. Whether you’re creeping through police precinct hallways that are riddled with makeshift barriers or running away from a Weinermobile-sized crocodile in a sewer, Resident Evil 2 looks and feels right. When everything around you is supposed to feel wrong (like ol’ Oscar Meyer croc) the game’s accomplished style shines even brighter. As a result, the process of unfolding each puzzle box setting — which requires figuring out precisely how to get past every locked door and find every obscure MacGuffin before you run out of stuff to keep you alive — takes on a pitch perfect tone mixing heroic edification and genital-withering anxiety.
This is not a horror game or even a survival horror game so much as it is a Resident Evil game — Resident Evil 2 is the Resident Evil game.
While it echoes the best parts of the series, the new version does away with inconveniences that have dogged Resident Evil’s reputation for decades. By shifting back to a third-person perspective, Resident Evil 2 regains the character lost in the shift to first-person in Resident Evil 7. It also doesn’t saddle you with the restrictive controls of classic entries, or the awkward melee combat of last decade’s gluttonous games like Resident Evil 6. Monsters still take a good chunk of time to shake off if they bite you, but you never feel like you’re fighting the game’s camera to survive.
And while there isn’t a huge variety of different encounters — old fashioned zombies are your biggest problem throughout — every one feels specific and memorable. Yeah, it’s just another zombie in that hallway. But every hallway is cramped in a different way, every step deeper into Raccoon City’s underworld forcing you to reconsider your resources and goals. When you hear some creepy bastard shuffling nearby, it comes with a genuine moment of oh-no panic even though they’re creatures so familiar they border on banal. Do I have enough bullets? Should I try to find another way around to that save room? Resident Evil 2’s pacing and challenge reek of polish and refinement.
Idiosyncratic flourishes like using typewriters to save your game return, but you no longer have to carry around extra items to use them. Inventory capacity is limited, but it also steadily increases over the course of exploration throughout the story’s dozen or so hours. (That’s the first run, of course. Like the original Resident Evil 2, finishing one character’s story lets you play a modified version of the campaign with the other character.) The rewritten story feels less Cannon Films trashy and more early James Cameron pulp. New performers playing Leon and Claire may not rise to Linda Hamilton’s heights, but their tale has the killer spectacle and functional pathos of a Terminator 2-era action flick. Which is, after all, the era that birthed Resident Evil 2 — and the sort of media it was trying to evoke — in the first place.
It feels good to hunt for weird chess pieces that unlock sealed office doors while running from long-necked flesh mollusks. Resident Evil 2 is gorgeous and its script is impressively tight — I particularly liked discovering that there’s an actual sewage system design firm making those chess piece locks because they prioritize style and functionality. The remake is a deeply considerate study both of its source material and the series itself, which has come to be almost genre unto itself. This is not a horror game or even a survival horror game so much as it is a Resident Evil game — Resident Evil 2 is the Resident Evil game.
Because of that, Resident Evil 2 can feel overwhelmingly formal. It’s slick and splendid, but also rigid. In excising all the flaws of past entries, Resident Evil 2 loses the unpredictability of the tradition it seemingly codifies. This is a remake, a returning to the series’ roots and, presumably, a commitment to a new path forward. Resident Evil 2 soars as a definitive statement of intent after a decade of re-centering. Beholden to the past as this game is, it’s a promising new beginning. Now that Resident Evil has found itself, it will be exciting to see what kind of gross hot-dog dinosaur it mutates into next.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using code provided by the publisher.
Resident Evil 2 distills one of gaming’s distinct personalities.
Escapist Magazine reviews products based on how well they achieve their overall artistic vision, and what lasting benefit they provide to humanity. Relatively enjoyable products may score low on our scale; conversely products might score high even if they're aren't much fun.