Editor’s Note: The Backlog is a recurring feature in which I try to play through the huge pile of video games I’ve amassed and then write about them. For the rest of 2015, I’ll be focusing particular attention on games for the original Sony PlayStation, which debuted in North America 20 years ago this September. And of course, I’ve been playing Halloween-themed games for the month of October. Today, we close out the season with a big one: Resident Evil 2. – Z.H.
Capcom‘s Resident Evil series was one of the defining video game franchises of the original PlayStation. It was, in its way, the perfect encapsulation of the dominant trends in console games during the era: combining the lifelike prerendered backgrounds, cinematic cutscenes, and spoken dialogue made possible by the CD format with the dark themes and extreme violence that came into vogue as the adult video-gaming audience expanded and the medium’s content restrictions loosened. For many people, the first two Resident Evil games almost singlehandedly marked the transition from the fourth to the fifth console generation. Not for me, though; I never played the original Resident Evil until a few years ago, and I didn’t play its sequel until just now.
There’s a simple reason why I didn’t play these milestone games when they first came out: I was too chicken. Until fairly recently–around the time when I realized my own subconscious was capable of producing far more terror than any work of fiction–I wouldn’t even watch horror films; so, as you might imagine, the idea of effectively participating in one through a video game sounded like way too much stress for me to bear. Of course, when I finally did work up the courage to try the Wii version of Resident Evil 4, I learned what any hardened survival horror veteran could have already told me: the Resident Evil games aren’t really all that scary. But at their best, they are a lot of fun: interactive B-movies that filter the mood and aesthetic of classic zombie flicks through a sieve of video-game ridiculousness.
In most ways, Resident Evil 2 does represent the series at its best. Director Kamiya Hideki–now known as the head of Platinum Games, the creator of (among others) the Devil May Cry series, and the owner of the games industry’s most irreverent Twitter account–refined the formula established by series creator Mikami Shinji for the first game, resulting in an overall familiar but more polished experience; as one of two protagonists, you’re tasked with exploring forbidding environments and solving simple environmental puzzles, with biologically mutated dangers lurking around every corner, and only a limited supply of resources to protect yourself. While the original Resident Evil took place almost entirely in a deserted mansion, the sequel expands to a larger and more diverse range of environments: including the city streets in the wake of a zombie outbreak, a sinister police station, and the underground laboratories where the virus that created the games’ various monsters was formulated. If these environments don’t always lend themselves as obviously to the games’ aesthetic sensibilities–as many critics have pointed out, it makes some sense to be opening hidden doors by placing gems in statues in a Gothic mansion, not so much in a suburban police department–then that only adds to RE2‘s bizarre, unnerving nightmare logic.
Like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before it, RE2 also oddly benefits from the technical shortcomings of its hammy voice acting. While there are no truly classic lines, like the original’s “Jill Sandwich” or “master of unlocking,” the game’s cutscenes are a kind of anti-master-class in pre-Metal Gear Solid video game acting: a series of wooden exchanges between bargain-bin Canadian and British actors who seem to be–and almost certainly are–reciting their lines by rote and without any sense of context (see the video clip above). Of the two protagonists, Leon Kennedy in particular is just an irredeemable goober: a rookie police officer who manages to bumble his way into a massive conspiracy and a doomed romance with a femme fatale while trying and failing to protect every woman who crosses his path. This sounds like harsh criticism, I know, but honestly, voice actor Paul Haddad is perfect for the role: his Leon’s rapid-fire shifts between incessant whining and completely unearned bravado are hilarious, lending some much-needed ironic distance to the game’s hamfisted drama (spoiler alert, I guess). Frankly, it’s an aspect of Resident Evil that is sorely missed: the games’ narratives haven’t gotten any less ridiculous since 1998 (quite the opposite, in fact), but without the clumsy voice acting that helped define their style, they no longer feel like they’re in on the joke.
So, okay, Resident Evil 2 is a great game, and its reputation as a series highlight is well-deserved. Why, then, am I coming away from it feeling a little underwhelmed? The reason, I think, is that the game’s ambitions ultimately overstep its capabilities. It’s all well and good that Kamiya created a slicker, more action-oriented take on Resident Evil, but chained as it is to the first game’s sluggish controls and wildly inaccurate aiming, it’s often just frustrating. In fact, I have a confession to make: while I completed “Scenario A” for Claire and got to the final boss of Leon’s “Scenario B” (more on that later), I’m not sure if I’ll ever actually “finish” the game: the boss is just too fast for me, especially as I managed to make it to the end without any extra healing items. I understand that the tension of resource management and struggling against limitations is the name of the game for survival horror, but when the shit hits the fan and you’re faced with the prospect of replaying hours’ worth of progress to reach a winnable state, it’s hard to feel like it’s worth the effort.
Less subjectively, RE2‘s so-called “Zapping System” also leaves much to be desired. I already mentioned that I’d completed Claire’s “Scenario A,” but reached a roadblock in Leon’s “Scenario B”; that’s because in Resident Evil 2, rather than just giving the player the choice of two alternate characters, the game requires you to play through both characters’ parallel storylines to see the full ending. On paper, this is a unique and fascinating idea, as it means that things you do as Claire will affect Leon’s progress, and vice versa; but in practice, more often than not it just feels half-assed. Claire and Leon take different routes, face (some) different challenges, and even encounter different characters; once or twice in the game, one will take an item that the other is then unable to pick up. But there are also way too many instances where they’re solving the same puzzles or even fighting the same boss fights, in a way that just doesn’t make sense if we’re expected to believe they’re moving through the story simultaneously. Again, it’s a great idea, but at its current level of execution, it doesn’t really work.
I recognize, of course, that my middling response to Resident Evil 2 probably would have been different if I’d played it when it was released 17 years ago. These days, it’s topped in pretty much every way by the aforementioned RE4: smoother controls, a single, longer narrative pathway, and a Leon who is, if not not a goober, at least a goober of a different kind. But hey, I guess that’s just my loss. And, with Capcom’s recent announcement of a current-gen remake, maybe I’ll get something closer to the experience I apparently missed in 1998. Yeah, I know; the series’ recent track record suggests that probably won’t be the case. But even if RE2 never wows me like it did so many others, at least it’s still around for those who want to take a look: shambling ever forward through history, in its grisly but charming state of undeath.
Resident Evil 2 is available on PS3, PSP, and PS Vita (where I played it) as a PSone Classic; as luck would have it, it also just happens to be on sale this week on the PlayStation Store. You can follow my progress on the backlog here.