Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster


Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster
Resident Evil's last gasp for traditional survival horror, Zero hasn't stood the test of time as well as last year's HD Remaster of the Resident Evil remake, but it still bears weight as a cultural artifact.

Resident Evil Zero, a prequel featuring Resident Evil 1's ultra-wimp, Rebecca Chambers, places the eighteen-year-old rookie medic in her own grueling, eight-to-ten hour, zombie-shotgunning adventure. Backing her up is Billy Coen, a convict on the run for a crime he didn't commit, with the requisite stony disposition masking his heart of gold. Zero lumped one more never-before-seen archvillain into the mix-- a Resident Evil standard by this point--yet another retconned founder of the evil Umbrella Corporation, this one with a yen for bio-engineered leech people. The game starts on a passenger train in motion, and it gets a solid hour out of this novel environment, sending you up and down floors, and even to the slippery roof of a train car in a torrential rainstorm, before derailing right onto the doorstep of the usual spooky mansion/clandestine laboratory combo these games always end up in, as if to ask, “why mess with success?” Oh well, shooting zombie train conductors was nice while it lasted.

Based on the technology of the Gamecube's Resident Evil remake, Zero came out in the same year, 2002. With identical art style and aesthetic sensibilities, Zero continues the impressive graphical standards set by last year's Resident Evil HD Remaster, expanding the original game's 4:3 pre-rendered backgrounds into 16:9 so seamlessly you'd think they were made that way in the first place. It's a great looking game that upscales wonderfully. Though its source material is nearly fifteen years old, this HD remaster looks more modern than many games a decade younger, proof that good craftsmanship will trump raw processing power anytime.

Sort of a last hurrah for tradition before Resident Evil 4 broke the mold, Zero keeps the basic gameplay the same as it was back in 1996--limited ammo, lots of enemies, and a constant lack of inventory space--even as it stretches at its self-imposed bonds, adding as many mix-ups and innovations as it can without deviating from survival horror standards. Now you've got two controllable characters. Rebecca and Billy explore in tandem and you can swap between them with a push of a button—the “Zapping system," in a charming bit of idiosyncratic Japanese game design nomenclature. And, finally, they let you do what just about everyone who's ever played a Resident Evil wanted: drop items anywhere you want. What a relief! Never again would players have to backtrack to a storage box just because they happened upon an essential key or crest without a free space in their inventory.

But that convenience comes with a cost: Rebecca and Billy only have six inventory slots each, nearly everything stronger than a handgun takes up double the space, and the usual interconnected network of storage boxes is nowhere to be found. You can drop items anywhere you like, but if it turns out you left something crucial in some random, far-off corner of the map, there's no alternative but to truck all the way back and get it. This is especially painful in the face of the Hookshot, a real albatross of a macguffin, a two-slot space hog that's only needed in about four rooms, but those four rooms are scattered far and wide across the entire game map, start to finish. Playing this game for the first time, either you develop a psychic instinct for dropping bulky items in central hub rooms or you resign yourself to some of the most painful backtracking in the series, trudging through already cleared areas repopulated with much scarier monsters, wasting health, ammo, and time to recover some gewgaw you had no reason to think you'd ever need again.

Even in a series where the back door to a small town police station requires four separate, handcrafted chess pieces to unlock, Zero is remarkable in its level of artifice. The Zapping system is mostly used to solve timing puzzles where you push a button with one character before swapping to the other to hurry through a now-open gate. The inconvenient back and forth between Billy to move a crate, then to Rebecca to flip a switch, then back to Billy to move another crate, adds an additional layer of drudgery to the already insufferable box puzzles—the hallmark, and nadir, of Resident Evil's time-wasting ethos. Constantly separating Billy and Rebecca for arbitrary reasons and forcing them to ferry keys back and forth via conspicuously placed dumbwaiters just to justify its partner-swapping conceit, Zero's experimental adjustments to Resident Evil's timeworn mechanics come off as innovations in search of a purpose.

Likewise, the new, highly mobile enemy types overstep the constraints of the game's tank controls, leading to infuriating moments where groups of super-fast, high-damage monsters, like the leech zombies, or a pack of virus-infected monkeys, stun lock you by clawing at your ankles, draining half of your health while you struggle to ready your weapon or escape through the safety of a loading screen. Like with last year's HD remaster, Zero comes with an optional, modernized control scheme that mitigates some of these issues, but, too often, the balance is off kilter in a way analog movement can't fix. Early bosses range from boring (an aimlessly wandering giant centipede) to luck-based (a giant bat whose erratic movements waste your precious grenades) before you get to the meaty, end-game tyrant encounters you actually want. What's more, your AI-controlled partner, whether it's Becky or Billy, is dumb as bricks. They run when you want them to shoot, they shoot when you want them to run, so your best option is to set the AI to Idle, or never give them a gun in the first place, so they can't screw with your careful resource management by lobbing acid rounds at easily evaded giant spiders. Really, outside of a few boss fights, there's no reason to treat your AI companion as anything other than a pack mule. Survival horror is as esoteric as games get, but Zero bears the burden of its genre especially awkwardly, in ways even the most committed fans wouldn't bother apologizing for.

At the same time, these things become something to fight back against and, once overcome, you wear your triumph as a badge of pride. When the odds are stacked against you, short-circuiting an irritating difficulty spike brings the satisfying endorphin rush of conquering something that seemed, by all measures, made to be unconquerable. Where today's mainstream games tend to prioritize convenience over struggle, the push and pull between frustration and triumph is mostly lost. If your success is assured, if enemy encounters are less brick walls and more speed bumps, then there's no differential to gauge the efficacy of your effort. With the odds stacked against you, Resident Evil Zero gives you space to measure your success. Coming out of an enemy-packed corridor, low on ammo and badly scathed, the tension rushes out of you in a metered breath, and you exult in your self-manufactured victory… until you check the status screen and see both characters' health flashing on Danger. With no healing items in sight, the dread of “what's next?” surges in to fill the vacuum left by your vanished spurt of confidence.

When this game sings, it really sings. With some of the narrowest margins for error in the series, Zero is primed for polish and refinement on replays. Resources are scarce to a fault, and most hallways are too narrow, and enemy placements too malicious, to allow for the easy jukes that characterize REmake speed runs; you have to great creative. The Zapping system, frustrating for a first-time player, shines in the hands of a veteran. If you know there's danger ahead, you can leave your AI partner on standby near a door, run into a danger zone with a pack of enemies hot on your tail, grab the talisman or crest waiting at the end, then swap characters and exit the room with a gusty sigh of relief. The thrill of success that exemplifies high-level Resident Evil play is in full form here. It's almost impossible to rate this game without bias, because so much of what makes it fun requires the post-hoc knowledge of having played it two or three times. For a contemporary comparison, Zero rewards prior knowledge like a Souls game does; as your mastery grows over subsequent plays, it becomes difficult to remember how uncompromising the game felt to fresh eyes. The feeling of doing everything right allays issues with difficulty and balance, minor quibbles lost beneath the hot-streak vibe of forcing every ounce of use out of the tools they've granted you, expertly chaining through tight encounters like a scripted performance: the sublime satisfaction of knowing exactly when to ditch the miserable Hookshot and when to pick it back up, or where to station Rebecca, primed four rooms away, ready to deploy a puzzle piece with perfect timing.

Resident Evil Zero is crafted for successive plays, and materially rewards your growing mastery. Aside from the usual costume unlocks and S-Rank-bequeathed rocket launchers, a clear save opens an enormous side mode, Leech Hunter. Like a super sized version of Resident Evil 2's 4th Survivor, Leech Hunter grants you a gigantic ammo cache and sets you on a hunt-and-peck quest for treasure tokens in an enemy-crammed remix of the main game. Requiring several hours to clear, even a modest showing at Leech Hunter provides a bevy of prizes that let you run riot through the main game, dispatching scores of monsters at your leisure with an infinite-ammo hunting rifle and wasting troublesome bosses with a single shot from your new hand cannon. This remaster's major addition is Wesker Mode, which lets you go hog wild in the role of the Resident Evil's preeminent velvety-voiced antagonist/heart throb, whose head-exploding eye beams and super-speed sprints will probably evolve some pretty interesting speed run tactics, if nothing else.

Though Zero hardly rates in the Top Five of Resident Evil canon, even if you limit the scope to only the particularly old-school games of the bunch, it still holds a specific cultural weight. As the last scion of traditional survival horror before the series went full-on action, it's worth playing just to immerse yourself in that time, almost fifteen years ago, when Resident Evil deployed its last ditch effort against modernization. In hindsight, these obtuse mechanics and burdensome systems come across almost as an act of insubordination against increasingly convenient modern-era game design. In the face of what its series has become, Resident Evil Zero is a unique historical artifact. Obnoxious and ornery, unfair by any reasonable standard, it is audacious in its recalcitrance, its absolute refusal to change during an era when games like Halo were granting players regenerating shields and frequent checkpoints. Resident Evil Zero is a time-frozen tableau of how things used to be, somehow charming in its truculence; defiant, even as it dangled at the precipice where game design morphed from what used to be into what currently is.

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

+ A well-done port, with a strong graphical upscale and, unlike many HD Remasters, a handful of new modes and unlocks
Harsh balance and cumbersome systems make this difficult to recommend in the face of better games in the series

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