Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Resident Evil HD Remaster

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Resident Evil HD Remaster
The 2002 remake of the first Resident Evil, one of the best games in the series, brought into HD with a new aspect ratio, more diverse difficulties, and a friendlier control scheme for newcomers.

The 2002 Resident Evil's strict adherence to its PlayStation source material immediately drew you in. Walking into that two story entrance hall, players saw the same staircase, pillars, marble floor, and ornate rugs that defined many people's first 32-bit gaming experience, now brought into fantastic High (for the time) Resolution. This was the Spencer Mansion, only prettier. More importantly: this was the Spencer Mansion just as you remembered it. Everything looked exactly the same… but for the ornate door cut out of the wall mural on the first floor landing and the metal gate beneath the stairs barring off the ominous depths below. The existence of these doors, both new, both locked, were enough to thrill: if this much was changed in the entrance hall alone, what else had they done?

It's almost absurd, this rerelease, a remaster of a remake, a third generation handed-down version of the same game. If the 2002 edition was the REmake, does that make this the ReREmake? While we tend to think of this endless parade of budget-recouping remakes and remasters as a recent trend, CAPCOM released in 1997 its Director's Cut of a game that came out in 1996. With its constant, console generation-spanning reissues, Resident Evil has always been ahead of the money-grubbing curve. Though some of those PlayStation-era reissues came with extra play options, most notably Director's Cut's Arrange Mode and Resident Evil 2's Extreme Battle, the seed from which the modern Mercenaries minigame sprung, Resident Evil HD Remaster is more in line with contemporary AAA rereleases: buffed up graphics and a few minor features for garnish. There's leaderboards for speed run competition (sure to be hacked and cheated into irrelevance any minute now), a couple new outfits, and a revised control scheme. If you've still got your Gamecube or Wii plugged in, the only major draw here is the graphical spit polish.

Barring a chunky texture here and there, Resident Evil could pass for modern. It's a good looking game; always was, still is. The prerendered backgrounds hold their own and the character models are nicely detailed, with only their blemish-free, porcelain faces really hinting at just how old they are. With some minor concessions of cropping, panning, and scanning, the ports brings its video into 16:9. It's not a perfect conversion, but the original aspect ratio is still available. If you can bear playing a 2015 game in 4:3, you can experience Resident Evil without compromise. This feels like how you remember it: a game that looked amazing for its time, and continues to look amazing today. It's not until you're forced to watch the Standard Definition CG cutscenes scrolling behind the ending credits--low res, untouched--that your nostalgia breaks. That they're able to trick you into thinking it always looked this good is testament not only to the quality of the port, but proof that art design endures longer than brute force processing power. The aesthetic holds up better than the pure polygons. As you trek through creaky-floored bungalows, rusty laboratories, and, especially, the mansion itself, the game's always got something new just around the corner. Usually, it's something you don't want to see. Creepy caves filled with flickering candles, the wind banging an open window against its frames in a darkened room, the game is a nonstop lineup of mostly static environments animated just enough to make you uneasy.

Only a couple years before the series reshaped itself to prioritize action and ammo drops, suplexes and evil monks, the REmake clung to its adventure game roots, preserving in crystal the pinnacle of survival horror ideals right before Resident Evil 4 changed the landscape completely. If you're looking for over-the-shoulder third person action you'll be disappointed. Navigation is cumbersome, shooting doubly so, and there's never enough bullets to go around anyway, so it's better just to avoid fighting whenever you can.

We're so deep in this post-Resident Evil 4 world that we forget survival horror's enemies used to be more puzzle piece than target practice. The fear of a rotting dog shattering through a nearby window was just as much about the ammo calculation as it was the jump scare: should I kill this thing? Will I be backtracking through this room often enough that I won't be wasting bullets or should I just leave it be and hope I never come back? They may have eased off the onerous controls, just like they cropped everything into 16:9 to ensure it looks palatable to modern audiences, but the core of what made this one of the best survival horror games of all time is still here. It's difficult, it's fraught with tension along every vector: ammo, health, time, space. It doesn't offer a lot of help, but it's constructed such that you don't really need it. If you poke around long enough, you'll find the door that key belongs to. If you fiddle with enough books, and crests, and medallions, and serums, you'll find all the holes where they fit: carved reliefs in gothic walls, usually, opening doors beyond into dank caverns and imposing cryostasis rooms.

There's two characters on offer, Chris and Jill. Though they play through the same story, more or less, their differences are more than skin deep. Since inventory management is such a prime concern, Jill's eight item slots seem like an obvious choice against Chris's six. But Chris is more durable, so he wastes less space on healing items. However, a lack of a durability hardly bears mentioning when Jill's better weaponry can explode or incinerate anything before it gets too close. That being said, Jill, with her unexciting stun gun, will never know the sublime satisfaction of sticking a flash grenade between the gnashing teeth of a hungry zombie and stepping back to watch the fireworks. Then again, Chris's alternate costume, inexplicably inspired by early-00s Brad Pitt vehicle The Mexican, has nothing on the Jill Valentine stock model, whose jaunty beret lends a certain sophistication and special forces elegance to the whole zombie hunting affair.

If tank controls were keeping you away from Resident Evil, you'll appreciate the modern, sensical movement. If you prefer the encumbrance of slow turning and holding down a button to run, they left that intact too. There's also a control scheme that lets you a auto-run with the push of a button, like Fatal Frame, which veterans might prefer. But a big part of survival horror's tension comes from inconvenience, and controls are about the only concession they make. Playing through this requires more patience than just about any current game. It's frustrating when you feel like a restrictive camera angle is there just to make you waste your limited ammo on a charging enemy you can't see. By the same token, there's pride to be had in recognizing audio cues and using them to plan your attack, eliminating threats before they even enter your line of sight. Tight inventory space often forces you to slog through a stretch of monster-packed rooms (and back) just to free up room for a new key item, but each time the gentle chords of the save room piano wind up, you breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that, at least for the moment, you're safe. Either way, whether these things amplify the air of unease or whether it's just Stockholm syndrome, backtracking and mean-spirited enemy placement are the name of the game. Pinning down which inconveniences amplify the mood and which are plain annoying is tough; really they're both part of the same whole. To play survival horror is to simultaneously adore and loathe everything wrong with it.

The REmake wasn't a new game, but a reformulated one. It was about surprising us using something familiar. All the same pieces, differently arranged: the sword key doesn't open what you think it does, that tiger statue doesn't get you a magnum. They flipped the scares too, keeping you on your toes by sending the dogs through the window the second time you went through the room. After more than eight years with the series, even big bruisers like the Nemesis had become routine. So they toughened everything up, forcing you through gauntlets of the most durable zombies the series had ever seen, then, a couple hours later, resurrecting the ones you'd killed as Crimson Heads--screaming, dashing whirlwinds of fangs and claws. No matter how many overpowered defensive items like daggers and head-exploding grenades they gave you, the game often felt unfair.

But so did every Resident Evil your first time through. Somewhere along the line, three or four hours into the game, things start to click. You get a feel for how many bullets knocks a zombie down. You realize you don't have to kill everything, especially now that you've figured out which side of a monster makes for easier jukes. Resident Evil games are the kind you sink your teeth into, the kind that make you count your bullets and hesitate on the healing button, because your health EKG still reads Caution, not Danger, and this might be the last green herb you see for a long time. These games are made for mastery and this one, especially, is great for speed runs. With a mansion set up to play to your expectations just so it can confound them, building an understanding of what's new and why they changed it rewards you with routes that slice not just seconds, but minutes off of your time. 2002's Resident Evil is much longer than 1996's, but both can be beaten in under two hours, provided proper practice and proficiency. And if speed runs aren't of interest, there's a clutch of new modes that go beyond difficulty levels. One Dangerous Zombie sends a grenade-strapped, unkillable foe to stalk you through the mansion. Real Survival takes away your auto aim and restricts your access to storage space. Invisible Enemy does exactly what it says, to expectedly calamitous results.

Resident Evil is difficult, so you savor popping an acid grenade into a dangerous enemy and killing it in one hit. That's part of what makes it so satisfying. But more gratifying is finding the last door the armor key opens or figuring out how to use the graveyard shortcut to maximal efficiency, for better speed runs to unlock bigger items. This isn't just a scary thrill ride, it's a gigantic puzzle box for you to turn over, pick apart, and solve. Compared to modern big-budget games, which trend towards extremes of one-and-done linearity or copy-pasted open worlds, the mansion is a place you can learn and know. Really, there's no option but to do so, because the whole game is set up to make you scoure every inch of it. Though the game seems necessarily restrained, confined to a single building for more than half its play time, successive plays quickly show the cracks in its linearity, how you can go here first and grab a shotgun before the game strictly thinks you should have it, and how you can use that shotgun to make cannon fodder out of crowds of zombies, who were once so scary, when you had only a pistol in hand. Resident Evil encourages you to push against its limitations even as it's setting them. Once you've gotten a feel for things, you can throw caution to the wind, skip the shotgun entirely, skip the red herb you though you absolutely needed to survive, skip whole rooms, whole areas, and whole boss fights, even.

Despite its punitive difficulty and lack of autosave, what's most impressive about Resident Evil is how it values the player's time. You might be forced to ferry keys back and forth across three stories of plush carpet, rotting wallpaper, and zombie slobber, but you're never asked to grab ten bear pelts. That's the beauty of prerendered backgrounds, isn't it? They couldn't just wing it, scrawl a bunch of procedurally-generated rocks across a personality-free landscape, fill it with fetch quests, and call it a day. Good or bad, every inch of Resident Evil is unique unto itself. Every room is its own puzzle to crack; bring a lighter into a dark dining room so you can see the musical score on the bookshelf, take the musical score to the bar so you can play the piano and get the golden crest, swap the golden crest with the wooden one so the secret passage doesn't lock behind you and entomb you, forever, beneath the rock.

Nothing is generic here. There is no rote, bland content only there to pad for time. Every feature of every place in this game is something you haven't seen anywhere else, maybe it's something you haven't seen in any other game before or since. If there's an herb there, that's the only place that herb will ever be. If there's a rolling boulder trap, it's not a minor inconvenience you can take on the face, suffer -10 HP, and keep on trucking, you either find a way to dive out of its path or it squashes you right back to the Game Over screen. What's best about Resident Evil, for all its burdensome controls and obfuscating camera angles, is that it's never arbitrary; nothing in this game is randomly allocated. If there's a zombie in that hallway, they put him there for a reason. If something's in your way, it's because the game has carefully crafted a route around it, you just haven't seen it yet.

Overall : A
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : A

+ A perfectly preserved survival horror classic
Not many substantial new features

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