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‘Resident Evil 2’ Is the Game That Proved Horror Didn’t Have to Be Humdrum

Capcom's 1998 title bursts with color and life and gameplay beats that don't quite work, but that just makes it the more enjoyable.

by Ed Smith
Aug 14 2015, 6:20pm

Claire, we don't want to worry you, but there's something...Yeah, it's behind you.

One hour, 12 minutes and 53 seconds. That was the Resident Evil 2 speed run record I was trying to beat. And it still is. Despite playing the game, start to finish, three times a day for over a month, I couldn't get below one hour 20. I stopped to pick up too many herbs. I carried the Red Jewel when I should have had the Spade Key. I botched weaving through a crowd of zombies, got bit, and lost three seconds. My name never made it into the hallowed annals of speeddemosarchive.com, and now that I'm 25 years old, and without the time to finish most games, let alone drill one into my head like muscle memory, it probably never will.

But boy, do I know Resident Evil 2. I know that, despite the ability I once had, to beeline through the whole thing quickly and cleanly, it's a very tangled game—it's two aesthetics colliding with each other, and not always to beautiful effect.

Clichéd as they are, environments in the original Resident Evil are consistent and familiar, lifted from universal cultural landmarks like haunted house movies and Frankenstein. The word's often used to exonerate, unfairly, games that are plain stupid, but the original Resident Evil is truly schlock. It's kitsch. It's camp. It's not just in the zombies or the booby traps or the one-keyboard soundtrack, it's Jill in her floppy beret, the cast of characters FMV at the start, the intensely homoerotic Albert Wesker. Resident Evil is like a Brock Landers–style porn parody, just without the sex. Resident Evil 2 is trying to be more serious.

You open with the brutal, shock death of gun shop owner Robert Kendo then transition to the bloodied roads of Raccoon City itself, replete with bodies thrown through windshields, monsters eating flesh off the pavement and police cars on fire. The amount of zombies you encounter in that streets section (32, I can count them in my head) is close to the amount you meet across the entirety of the original Resident Evil. It's immediately set up as a more urgent, brute-force kind of horror game. The humor, intentional or otherwise, which pervades especially the opening of RE1, isn't present in the sequel. From the go, it has a straight face.

But then you reach the police station, and it's filled with the same colorful, absurd puzzles as the Spencer Estate. You're pushing statues, finding jewels, collecting chess-themed keys, and once you're done, you head into the sewers and come up in an enormous, impossible Umbrella laboratory. What begins as a graphic, muckier horror game gradually devolves into familiar VHS tawdriness. At the beginning of RE2 you're dodging zombies on a graffiti-covered basketball court behind an alley. By the end, you're inside an enormous chrome research lab, battling sentient plant vaginas. It's a game of violently clashing sensibilities and styles, where one minute you're in the forensics room of a metropolitan police station, the next you're being chased through a sewer pipe by a gigantic spider.

But the thing is, Capcom almost makes it work—the progression almost feels natural. It was only after playing Resident Evil 2 time and time again that I started to notice how it completely loses its mind about halfway through. For the most part, it clicks perfectly. Its makers do a terrific job of marrying completely off-the-wall monsters and scenarios with ostensibly mundane environments.

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Given this was 1998, I can't help but appreciate that kind of lavishness. When Atlus was putting you up against a single monster in Hellnight, and Konami was busying itself with psychology in the original Silent Hill, Capcom went with outright color and adventure. You flip on the Resident Evil 2 inventory screen and it's all garish reds and greens. Examine Leon's cop outfit, and it's comprised of pads and body armor and fingerless gloves—it's gone straight from the concept art desk into the game. Some visual markers are lifted from the real world, others are taken from trash novels and Hammer Horror—Resident Evil 2 collides them, in such a carefree way, that it fashions a look all of its own.

And it's filled with so many great moments. The crane-up shot when you arrive at the police station. The repeated jump outs of Mr. X, signaled by a sting of cheap synth. Sherry Birkin, slipping and falling down the sewers like a chump. Resident Evil 2 is alive and silly, unburdened by concerns of tone, consistency, or prestige. At the same time, it's very disciplined and constrained. Puzzles lock together perfectly. Scares are precisely timed. The length, even though it confounded my speed run, is absolutely right.

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Resident Evil 4 often gets talked about as a great rollercoaster ride, the way it carries you from a fight with a monster on a lake, to battling trebuchets outside a castle, to a shootout on a mine-cart. But Resident Evil 2 is just as eclectic. You go from the streets to the police station, the sewers to the lab. And along the way you have all these great micro set-ups—from picking up the first key to unlocking the final door, RE2 clicks together as one long puzzle, but it's sprinkled with scenes like the bodies getting up in the morgue, or the Licker crashing through the glass of the interrogation room.

In the most positive sense, it's a busy game. You play horror nowadays, things like Slender or Amnesia, and although they do it under the banners of subtlety and slow-build, they have just nothing going on—they're like found-footage movies, where 70 percent of the time you're just watching empty filler. Resident Evil 2 isn't the scariest horror game, and it's definitely not the most ornately constructed, but it's never dull. And even when the frights don't land, because RE2 is so vibrant, and popping, and up for it, I'm still inclined to smile.

Generally, though, the game's an oddity—when I think about what I like and dislike in games, Resident Evil 2 is a strange exception to the rule. I'm frustrated by immaturity. I think games are brash and excessive, and need to pare down. I don't like fantasy. And yet, RE2 remains a game I truly admire. Perhaps it's because, when I think of "experimental" games nowadays, I think of dry, essayist, state of the medium titles like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. And when I think of "wacky," games, I think of Bulletstorm, Advanced Warfare, Borderlands—games that, rather than the fruit of eager imaginations, feel like the products of a boardroom meeting to construe what young people are into these days. Resident Evil 2 is filled with colorful and conflicting ideas, to varying success, but contrary to a lot of games today, it has a willingness to try that always feel genuine.

Like one of Umbrella's viral experiments, Resident Evil 2 was a case of doing it just to see what happens. If the results kill you, or if they become a messy bricolage that doesn't quite chain together, then hell, so be it.

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