In remaking Resident Evil 2, Capcom could’ve done so much more than what it did with the original back in 1998. It could’ve given concessions to new players who wanted to fight off hundreds of undead monsters without worrying too much about managing ammo or healing herbs. It could’ve introduced new retcons to foreshadow what happens to characters important to later games in the series—like, say, longtime series villain Albert Wesker, who is completely absent here (as he was the first time around). Hell, it could’ve even snuck in some timeline-breaking references to what happens in Resident Evil 4, since that’s probably the game that Resident Evil 2 star Leon Kennedy is most famous for these days. But there are no “What are ya buyin’?” jokes or winking acknowledgements that Leon and his love-at-first-sight crush Ada Wong will meet again (beyond what was already there, at least). Resident Evil 2 rejects those presumably tempting possibilities, and thankfully, it’s all the better for it.
This is RE2 as it was and, arguably, as it always should’ve been. The original game is a horror classic for a reason, and Capcom wisely decided not to screw anything up for the sake of modernizing it. Oh sure, the camera now hangs behind the shoulder of your character, there’s an optional “assisted” mode that automatically aims your reticle at an enemy’s head, and the unnecessarily punishing save system from the old games is gone. (Burn in hell, ink ribbons.) But none of those changes break the spirit of what the original was about. You still have to carry weird keys from one end of the map to the other, you’re still better off dodging past enemies than trying to fight them, and you still have to trudge through that slightly too-long sewer sequence. Rather than changing any of that core stuff, the game puts its foot down and insists that these are the choices that made Resident Evil 2 what it was at the time, and so it all deserves to be here now.
And even with that handful of modern concessions, the game isn’t necessarily any easier than it was. Every tweak has been compensated for in some way: To make up for the fact that you have free control over the camera (the original kept it fixed in a corner), the game world is now much darker and foggier, making it far harder to see what’s coming. To account for being able to freely aim your weapons, the enemies can take much more of a beating than in the original, to the point where you might never put some of the zombies down permanently unless you get a lucky shot that takes their heads completely off. There’s also a new sub-weapon system that allows you to push off an attacking zombie with a knife, but the knives are so fragile that you’re better off blowing a couple rounds in hopes of a headshot than getting a very rare melee kill. The new save system does make the game undeniably easier, but that’s less about making things nicer for new players than it is about fixing something that was very stupid even in 1998.
The plot, meanwhile, is largely unchanged. You play as either Leon Kennedy (a rookie cop who showed up late for his first day) or Claire Redfield (the sister of original Resident Evil hero Chris Redfield) as they get stuck inside a ridiculous police station in the middle of an outbreak of a zombie virus. Both stories are slightly different, and though it breaks the timeline a bit when you try to consider who canonically solved which puzzle or unlocked which door, you still have to play through both in order to get the full story—which mostly just means fighting all of the bosses, though there are some set-ups in one story that get minor pay-offs in the other for those who are paying attention.
The writing could’ve been cleaned up a bit, especially in regards to Leon, who often comes off as a total doofus. At the same time, though, his frequent “Oh shit!” exclamations when you miss a shot or when a zombie gets back up after taking a full clip are the kind of simple-yet-powerful characterization work that more developers need to consider. Claire, on the other hand, is extremely rad all the way through. In a nice illustration of the ways the game’s split narrative creates varied moments, there’s one specific boss fight where Leon’s play-through sees him get literally pushed into taking on his foe; in Claire’s version of the fight, she merely grabs a weapon and jumps in like a badass. If anything, this remake is proof that the character deserved to play a more prominent role in where the Resident Evil series went from here—she and her brother also co-starred in the later Code: Veronica, but she’s been scarce ever since—though it’s not like female characters getting a short shrift is anything new for these games. At least Claire gets a chance to be awesome here.
It’s hard to ignore the Resident Evil legacy when playing a remake like this, but the version that Capcom’s released here still stands as fun on its own merits. It’s still scary to turn around a corner and run into a zombie you weren’t expecting. It’s still very cool to sneak through a room of noise-sensitive Lickers (RE2’s most iconic addition to the monster canon). And it’s still thrilling to become so familiar with the layout of an area that you can plan out how to solve a puzzle without even taking a step. Plus, an unstoppable bastard that was dubbed “Mr. X” in the original game plays a more prominent role here, brilliantly cranking up the tension from the moment he’s introduced—which may be a surprise to veteran players—and helping even some of the more tedious back-and-forth trips through the main police station location feel much more lively and unpredictable. It was a bold move for Capcom to retain as much of the original game as it did (which was most of it), and it speaks to a level of Nintendo-esque confidence in the basic design that the studio hasn’t really displayed in years.
If 2017’s Resident Evil 7 was a return to form for the long-in-the-tooth horror brand, the Resident Evil 2 remake is proof that Capcom never really lost its touch—it only lost its way. The studio took the wrong lessons from the more action-focused Resident Evil 4 and forgot the quiet spookiness that this series used to do so well, resulting in absurdly bombastic installments like the bizarrely misguided (and shockingly racist) Resident Evil 5, which featured—among other ridiculous moments—a final boss fight in a volcano. This new Resident Evil 2 rejects that approach wholeheartedly, ignoring modern hooks like multiplayer modes and more streamlined gameplay loops in favor of a much more important innovation: Actually recognizing the things that made these games good in the first place. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it’s scary, and most of all, it’s still really damn good.