Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

It’s hard to imagine a better example of a sequel done right than the original Resident Evil 2. The 1998 horror classic took everything that worked about the groundbreaking original and improved on it. It looked better, played better, had bigger and better locations, and further explored storytelling through different character perspectives.

I loved it deeply, and still do.

Resident Evil 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and this remake was designed explicitly for people like me. It’s a welcome return for those that remember every back alley of Racoon City, every abandoned hall of the police station, and every computer terminal in Umbrella’s underground lab. As a remake, as an embodiment of the original with updated visuals and modern mechanics, it’s a triumphant success. On just about every level it succeeds in modernizing one of the horror greats, and the developers clearly went to great lengths to preserve the beating heart of the original...almost to a fault.

It’s so fiercely loyal to the original that it might be off putting for gamers who aren’t as familiar with 90s video game horror. This is old school Resident Evil for better or worse, before it embraced action over horror and set pieces over puzzles. The gameplay is simple compared to most modern AAA titles, despite the numerous updates. While I find this immensely charming, and representative of genuine love for the source material, others might find these older systems clunky and archaic.

It’s a well-made, highly polished, beautiful game with or without the rose colored tint of nostalgia, but there’s no question this is a remake designed for those who loved the original, and isn’t terribly interested in impressing those who haven’t.

Classic gameplay

Resident Evil was a scarcity simulator before it went full Michael Bay with the fifth and sixth entries. This remake embraces the classic gameplay mechanics. As you navigate the freshly diseased Racoon City as either Claire or Leon, you’re constantly at war with your own inventory. Ammo is scarce, as is inventory space, though you can find items that increase the amount you can carry. This mechanic ensures that every time you set off to explore the labyrinthian environments you’re forced to make difficult choices.

Should I bring the grenade launcher with flame rounds, or prioritize more healing items for the upcoming boss battle? Will I need this giant gear to fix the clock tower, or should I grab more gunpowder to make submachine gun ammo?

Every typewriter save point and storage box is a strategy session, a small safe space in an otherwise overwhelmingly hostile environment. There isn’t enough ammo to kill everything, and that means being quick on your feet is critical. Knowing when to use weapons and healing is the real trick to mastering the older Resident Evil titles, and that’s the case here as well. It’s the part of Resident Evil that has always been the most compelling, more so than the story, or the copious gore.

This is survival horror with an emphasis on survival, and it’s great. That fundamental gameplay mechanic hasn’t been updated, because it wasn’t broken, and has aged gracefully.

Control yourself

What has changed, thankfully, are the controls.

They’ve been mercifully updated, going with the Resident Evil 4 route of over-the-shoulder camera, as opposed to the absolutely horrific tank controls of the original, or the first-person gameplay of Resident Evil 7. Leon and Claire are still fairly slow, and movement can become claustrophobic in the tight hallways, especially when you’re trying to avoid some of the more massive monsters.

One casualty of the perspective change is the diminishment of satisfying headshots. Obviously this new style of gameplay means aiming is easier, and if every zombie went down with one headshot, the game would be very easy indeed. Instead, even the zombies you encounter early on can take five or six handgun rounds to the head before they go down permanently. It feels a little counterintuitive to everything we’ve encountered in zombie games, and combat feels a little less impactful because of the bullet sponge feel of some of the enemies.

Early Resident Evil titles were also known for their esoteric puzzles, and that’s been preserved here as well, if dialed down a bit. Most of the puzzles are simply “find this key for this slot,” but the way the environments slowly unlock as you progress is plenty of motivation to continue exploration. The real challenge is navigating the environment and managing your inventory; figuring out what plug goes where is child’s play by comparison.

There are three difficulty settings, with the hardest mode being closest to the original experience. In that mode everything hits harder, and you can only save with ink ribbons, meaning you have to carefully ration your saves. The other two settings allow you to save any time you come across a typewriter which is a welcome change, especially when you’re first learning the layout of the environments.

The story

Resident Evil 2 tells almost the exact same story as the original, for better and worse. Almost every major plot point is preserved, and some of the dialogue is identical, though delivered by different voice actors. Resident Evil has always had an over-the-top, unapologetically hammy story, and Resident Evil 2 is a huge part of the origin of that stylistic choice.

The narrative is straightforward, and for the most part pretty dumb. Leon and Claire, here younger than we’ve ever seen them, are simple noble archetypes with very little backstory or character traits other than bravery. Gone is the sarcastic, humorous edge that made Leon so endearing in Resident Evil 4, replaced with a young cop who is a little too earnest and noble for his own good.

As with the original, there are two separate campaigns that overlap depending on whether you choose to play as Leon or Claire. You need to play both to get the full story, and it’s absolutely worth it, despite some repetition. Claire’s campaign is the strongest of the two, due in no small part to one of the most creatively implemented and well executed stealth sequences I’ve seen in years.

If you’ve played the original, you’ll know exactly what to expect here, with a few welcome surprises. If you haven’t, know that you’re getting a ridiculous tale from 1998, told with the best graphics modern technology can offer.

Incredible spaces

Resident Evil 2 looks flat out incredible.

The RE Engine is capable of creating some of the most eerily convincing environments I’ve ever seen, and here it’s used to great effect to bring Racoon City’s iconic locales to life. The attention to detail excels throughout, from the crumbling hallways of the derelict police station to the the sterile white halls of the underground lab. It’s difficult to overstate how impactful this was for me, seeing these environments I spent so much time exploring as a child made almost photorealistic. Graphics aren’t everything of course, but the amount of care taken here is a strong case for how important visuals can be, especially in horror.

The character models are a little glassy-eyed and waxy at times, and the motion captured animations are hit or miss, but overall, Resident Evil 2 looks thoroughly awesome.

It’s a very clear example of how far games have come in 20 years.

Old soul

I’d love to hear the opinion of someone who hadn’t played the original, or any Resident Evil game, jumping straight into this entry.

On the one hand, it’s a beautiful, highly polished experience with some truly fascinating creature design, tense moments, and solid, if straightforward, gameplay. On the other hand, the ridiculous story, somewhat obtuse puzzles, and relatively archaic gameplay systems might turn some people off. After all, this is a game with a twenty year old skeleton, and occasionally you can see those aged bones through the beautiful new skin.

Still though, this is what everyone hopes for when they talk about a remake of their favorite game; a retelling of the original that takes full advantage of modern technology. Even the worst relics of its time have a softened edge here, as they’re clearly representative of the original experience, and the legacy the developers wanted to preserve.

As a game separate from its legacy however, it might not stand quite so tall.

That said, I absolutely recommend Resident Evil 2 to anyone who has wanted to get into the long running series. This is the classic Resident Evil experience preserved in fancy new amber. It’s immensely compelling horror, and a beautiful look back into the history of the franchise, and horror games as a whole.

Resident Evil 2 was special. Special for all its bizarre eccentricities, for its b-movie story, for its brilliant design. This remake takes everything that made Resident Evil 2 so great, and upgrades it visually and mechanically. It’s as close to a perfect remake as we’ve ever seen.

Whether it stands as a modern title without the benefit of history is a question I can’t answer, but I can say I absolutely loved returning to Racoon City after all these years, and look forward to getting lost there again.