Resident Evil 2 is altogether terrific and frustrating
There’s a level of technical proficiency to this remake of Resident Evil 2 that makes dealing with its various frustrations somewhat easier, though the game is so close to excellence that I can’t help but wish the experience was a bit more perfected. It is a phenomenal looking survival horror game that is hamstrung slightly but uncertain voice acting and irritating combat encounters, and then practically obliterated by a late-game section that is more maddening than anything I can think of in recent memory.
Resident Evil 2 sees rookie cop Leon Kennedy and college student Claire Redfield stumbling separately through the Raccoon City Police Department as the city succumbs to a vicious viral outbreak that turns its denizens into zombies. It’s a real treat seeing the new RE Engine from a third person perspective, though there’s a serious disconnect between how great these characters look and how weirdly silly the voice acting is. At no point in Resident Evil 2 did I ever feel like I had a grasp on whether this was intentional or not, as both Leon and Claire speak in bizarrely nonchalant tones and, in one notably peculiar scene, sort of lazily flirt with each other as a newly crashed helicopter threatens to explode behind them. Is it meant to be corny in the way the original games were? I have no idea.
It’s strange how antiquated the structure of Resident Evil 2 feels, though not at all in a bad way. Having only played this and the fantastic Resident Evil 7, I’ve come to really enjoy the series’ object puzzles that turn the survival horror experience into a bit of an adventure game. There’s plenty of that here to an almost comical degree given that the game takes place in a police station, the last place you’d expect the kinds of hidden passageways and statue medallion puzzles that Resident Evil 2 traffics in. Coming across a door you can’t access then finding the key later makes backtracking rewarding and rarely annoying. This is helped by Resident Evil 2’s excellent map, which clearly marks locked doors and the keys they require, as well as permanently marking items in rooms that you missed.
You’ll want to collect as much as possible to successfully do battle against the undead residents of the art-museum-turned-police-station. The game doesn’t make taking out the shambling zombies easy, as they all have a very pronounced sway that requires careful aiming to land a headshot. Frustratingly, the number of headshots it requires to take one out varies dramatically. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and land a critical hit that explodes their head; other times, you might expend an entire magazine before they go down, only for them to get back up and continue shuffling towards you. I don’t mind this sort of uncertainty, really; the game would likely become rather dull and methodical otherwise. But it’s certainly a pain nonetheless.
The standard zombies are the primary opponents of Resident Evil 2, though occasionally Lickers will ambush. These are a terrible enemy, moving too quickly to comfortably engage in the tight hallways, and they take an extraordinary number of shots to take out. One grenade launcher round from Claire will kill one instantly on the standard difficulty, though, giving her an advantage in that regard.
Also available in combat are sub weapons, encompassing throwable like flash bangs and frag grenades as well as combat knives. These can be used independently or “burned” on a zombie when they’ve grappled you, allowing for an escape with no damage taken. Trying to swing a knife or toss a grenade was a bit too cumbersome for my liking, so I preferred to save these for my quick escapes. I would have preferred another option, though, which is a simple melee/curb stomp that Dead Space used so well. I get why the game wants to have a limited supply of ammo and how that plays into its naturally puzzle-focused nature. But I had a hard time getting over my complete inability to take out a zombie if I’m out of ammo and sub weapons. Just let me pistol whip the thing and move on.
Much has been said about Mr. X, the final opponent that gets introduced roughly halfway through the story. He is a hulking, Super Mutant-like figure that stalks Leon/Claire throughout the game once he’s introduced. Initially I was extremely put-off by his existence, since he always seemed to have a lock on my exact location and I didn’t exactly appreciate feeling like the game had a permanent, hidden timer on it. But once I learned the layout of the police station and felt less inclined to slowly creep around it, I found it easy to put a lot of distance between myself and Mr. X, making him virtually a non-issue.
For the most part the combat in Resident Evil 2 is serviceable, though I did find the boss fights to be the antithesis of fun. I’d also say this about a late game section set in a confusingly designed sewer section with monsters that block entire pathways unless you can slip by them with some hit-box magic. If I’m being honest, the boss fights and this sewer section are the sort of things that will give me pause when I consider revisiting this game down the road.
It’s worth getting into the playthrough structure of Resident Evil 2, because it’s a bit misleading. The main story can be played through as either Leon or Claire. Completing this unlocks the “2nd Run” playthrough for the opposite character. Ostensibly this is supposed to show what that character was up to during the events of the main story you just played through, but in reality the 2nd Run is very similar to the 1st, and in ways that don’t make sense. In my Claire 2nd Run, for example, Leon was leaving notes for her, suggesting that he’s further along. Why, then, was I having to complete the same puzzles and fight the same enemies, as if he had never been through these areas? In the end I didn’t feel like I had gotten much of anything out of playing through the 2nd Run.
Resident Evil 2 makes some tremendous strides as a remake, though it can’t shake its legacy as a game from the 20th century. Sometimes its oddities, like the ridiculously labyrinthine and puzzle-heavy police station, are endearing, and it's this unique combination of mostly smart level design and some truly spectacular visuals that make Resident Evil 2 worth trudging through. I just wish it didn’t get in its way so often.