By: Kyle Grubb
After finishing the Remaster of the original Resident Evil, I immediately jumped into the sequel for the original PlayStation. At some point I had bought it digitally on my PS3 but still had never really played it, and so there really seemed to be no time like the present. Thus, our next review:
As I mentioned in my review of the first Resident Evil, this game was actually my first experience with the franchise. I was young, maybe 9, when I played it for the first time on the N64. I had rented it from Blockbuster. My father, bless his soul, trusted my judgment enough to let me do so. Thanks a lot, Dad. I put that game in, feeling mature enough to handle some zombies chasing after me. Little did I know that zombies were the worst of my problems.
I never got farther than that first Licker hallway. I was a poor, silly child, and that thing impaled me through the face with its tongue. The very next day, the game was returned to Blockbuster and I never thought twice about playing it again. That image of the face impalement definitely recurred in my dreams quite a few times over the next few weeks. I had sworn off the franchise forever. Or at least until the fourth one came around.
Now that I’ve played the original, though, and loved it, I can’t help but want to explore the rest of the series. Immediately after finishing Resident Evil, I booted up my digital copy of RE 2 and got to work.
Resident Evil 2 was released on the original PlayStation back in early 1998, and then was systematically ported to almost every other relevant platform available at the time. Occurring two months after the Mansion Incident in the original game, the sequel puts player in control of new protagonists Leon Kennedy, a rookie police officer, and Claire Redfield, the sister of Chris from the first game, as they attempt to escape Raccoon City after another outbreak occurs. After escaping to a nearby police station, the duo slowly begins to uncover the truth of what Umbrella Inc. has been up to over the last few months in secret, and how another, deadlier strain of virus must be kept out of their hands at all costs.
This sequel was widely considered to be an improvement over its predecessor, and in many ways I can see why. The story is a marked improvement over the first game, with more fleshed out characters and a better sense of pacing. It also was the game that created the physical cues for observing character health. In the original version of the first game, the only way to get any idea of the health of you character was to go into your menu, but from here on out the characters would hold themselves differently or move slower depending on how hurt they were. The most marked improvement, though, is the incorporation of the two main characters. Whereas the original Resident Evil presented almost an identical game for each character, Resident Evil 2 turns both into a single experience where you can try to imagine both campaigns occurring simultaneously. After you beat whichever character’s campaign you started with, it unlocks the B campaign for the other character. By loading up the same save, you begin playing as the other protagonist through a differently composed campaign that has been affected by things you did as the first character. For instance, grabbing a certain item as Leon would then make Claire unable to grab it in her B scenario. In addition, there is a new, recurring boss that threads his way throughout. Beating the B campaign unlocks the true ending to the game. While there are some discrepancies with the system, such as both characters supposedly having to solve the same puzzles somehow, in the end it makes the game feel a bit fuller. It helps you imagine that all this other stuff was going along behind the scenes during your first play through, and thus makes the second campaign feel like a reward, a peek behind the curtain. It also just succeeds in extending your play time, because each individual scenario is shorter than the original game. In the end, with four scenarios to go through and a couple hidden campaigns unlocked with higher rankings, there’s a fair amount of bang for your buck.
The story of Resident Evil 2 is probably one of the most improved parts of the original game. Whereas both Jill and Chris felt very flat in the first game, and no main character really was given much motivation for their actions, most of the main cast of 2 has much more depth. Both Leon and Claire are more interesting characters, and the game uses its plot to help expand on their personalities. That isn’t to say that they’re amazingly deep characters, but it is still a marked improvement. Some of the supporting characters you come across throughout your journey, particularly series semi-regular Ada Wong, are memorable additions to the cast and help give context to much of what is occurring around you. The ending is exciting if a bit rushed, and while the game is easier than the original, it still offers up moments of challenge, particularly in the special scenarios.
Tone, one of the original’s greatest successes, is where this game falls behind. The mansion in Resident Evil was interesting, full of secret rooms and dangerous discoveries. It was designed as such, as referenced in a few of the optional memos, and it worked in universe. You could totally understand why that mansion was filled with puzzles, locked by a million different keys, and full of so many mysteries. The Raccoon City Police Department, on the other hand, is just a really weird place. Despite it supposedly being a place of employment, it contains just as many puzzles and secrets as the mansion did. There is honestly no explanation for why the building is like this, and it really is immersion breaking when you’re moving around giant statues onto specific pressure plates so a statue will drop a gem. Who designed this? Why is there a giant chained up statue in an upstairs room that has an item locked inside of it that must be unlocked by a pair of gems? You’d think the police officers working in the city would be mighty confused at their place of employment. There is no explanation, and it just feels wrong. The sounds design is still great, though, and the voice acting and writing is markedly better than the first game. If not for the odd setting, the tone would be perfectly upheld. When you progress from the Police Station things begin to improve. Unfortunately the station is still the primary setting of the game, and you spend at least half of each campaign within its walls.
The graphics, considering both the console and the time it came out, are great. The character models are detailed enough, and, unlike some other 3D games that came out for the PlayStation, you never have to question what is happening onscreen. Just like the original game, the backgrounds are pre-rendered and the camera angles are pre-set. This controls your experience and heightens the tension just like the original, but can feel a bit cheap if you’re caught by something waiting right past where you can see. Zombies in this game are much more plentiful, which makes sense considering the setting, and this leads the game to having a much action-y feel to it than the first. In general, the game really does come off feeling like a Hollywood zombie movie. That isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it gives the game a very different feeling to it than the first.
While it isn’t fair to judge the game this way, it is important to note something obvious: if, like me, you’re coming into this game after playing the recent Remaster of the original Resident Evil, you must understand that you’re taking steps backwards in a good many ways. The original PS1 version of RE2 obviously is not, exactly, a pretty game by modern standards. The graphics and sound do show their age. Also, some of the more modern conventions were not adopted yet. To manually reload your gun, you have to go into the menu. This was frustrating at first, but you get pretty used to it. In addition, you are stuck with the tank controls. This didn’t bother me at all, but for some people this could be a huge minus. Lastly, the only way to access the map is to travel through the menu. While this isn’t a huge negative, I really was spoiled by the instant map button in the Remaster. If you keep in mind, though, the time this game was released, it’s pretty easy to forgive these little annoyances. It’s really hard to fault a game on something its sequels improved on.
Resident Evil 2 is a great game. There’s no way around that. I can easily understand why series faithful call it the best of the series, or at the least the old, pre-4 days. It has a fun, quick story, entertaining characters, a more action-packed feel, and a cohesive vision. It uses the same mechanics that made the original so great and uses them in interesting new ways. It never feels stale, as if it was riding on the success of its original. The one major mistake it makes is its setting. The Police Station just feels so disconnected from the real world that it constantly pulled me out of the experience whenever I needed to solve a ridiculous puzzle that had no place being in that location. This issue with the setting does impact the overall tone of the game, though it does improve for the second half of the campaign. The A and B scenario system is a brilliant idea, and makes both characters feel relevant and co-existent. You can imagine, with a few leaps of faith, that both characters are truly doing something simultaneously. It makes the game feel more cohesive.
Though time has definitely magnified Resident Evil 2’s flaws, it also goes to show just how far strong game design can take a game. This game borrows heavily from its predecessor, but is unafraid to go its own way and tell its own tale. It’s a classic example of a successful sequel: it uses its heritage to strengthen it, not hold it down. It’s hard to ask for more from a game than that. If any game in the series is worthy of a remake after the original, it’s definitely this one.