Capcom’s 2019 Resident Evil 2 remake is a tremendous feat. It manages to fuse together all the nostalgia of a genre-defining game with all the lessons learned from the attempts—successful or not—at doing it again. Some of it is obvious: keep the setting and update the controls. That alone would have been a win for most folks.
The real triumph, however, is based on a much more nuanced notion; it wants to give the player at all times a sense of contrast. Horror, of course, is based entirely on this concept by framing it as expectations. Things seem calm and quiet and then WHAM the door is slammed shut. Or the camera peers over the shoulder of a character trepidatiously looking through a window, moving slower and slower—almost to a crawl—and then nothing happens.
At its core, horror is this experience repeated. (Just as is drama and comedy, just to varying ends.) But good horror adds meaning to these moments through awareness or commentary or grand psychological theory. Or it understands how to educate a knowing audience only to bring it right back around to the elementary. It calls to mind the fact that seasons rock–paper–scissors players know that newcomers tend to start with rock as a subconscious association with strength, so they start with paper, but a pro facing off against a pro leaves everything open again. The knowledge itself conjures expectations, too.
This is where Resident Evil 2 showcases its knowledge. It has plenty of jump scares and ominous hallways and plodding dread, yes, but it constructs its entire premise around this idea of contrasting expectations. The setting is a police station, which for some only ever engenders a sense of anxiety and/or disdain for myriad reasons. But for a zombie outbreak, it should be a reasonable haven from the shambling nightmare. It’s fortified, it’s stocked with weapons and ammunition, and it’s equipped for a variety of communication mediums.
Sticking you in there, then, with your assumptions and a bevy of undead is a masterful juxtaposition. Just as it is establishing the station as a former art museum designed by a mad genius of an architect with a penchant for puzzles. It’s a fun justification for why a building like this would even exist outside of Richard Garriott’s dreams, but it also imbues the exploration with a sense of ambiguous unknown. Art is interpreted and something to be ruminated on over time, an experience at complete odds with running from and slashing at groaning, bloodied zombies.
By retaining this seemingly archaic puzzles from an era long gone, there’s an inherent incongruity. The game has been updated to control like a modern game, which is to say pleasantly. The tank controls are gone and now you are in full agency of your own demise, which is a sharp contrast with all the old, 90s-tinged memories you have of trying to suss out what the hell all these pendants are for. It feels a bit like the nod of 2016’s Doom to all the colored keys you had to once and must again collect but with an experiential texture.
The controls themselves, however, are also rife with this fascinating contrariety. For so long, shooters have been nudged along in the realm of consoles with auto-aim. (The original notoriously so what with its fixed camera angles.) But the complete extrication of this nicety removes a certain comfort that even resource scarcity could never erase, that shooting your enemies, so long as you have the means, is a good idea. You have beat back the idea so long infused into game design that you can shoot the problems away. (PC gamers, I guess, can just skip ahead.)
Though the game also has no problems with just poking around with your memories of the original. Doors no longer silo off your arenas. The first time, in fact, that you close a door on a zombie only to have it bust it down is alarming on many levels, least of all an existential one. This is supposed to be Resident Evil 2! I should be safe here!
That, I suppose, is the grand crux of the Resident Evil franchise. The fantasy of safety crashing into a violent reality, which is the horror experience distilled down to a single thesis statement. And in the case of the Resident Evil 2 remake, it is taken to a masterful level.