Having first popularized the tropes of the survival horror genre, the Resident Evil series has returned to its origins with a remake of one of its most popular entries. The recently released reimagining of Resident Evil 2 completely replaces the tank controls and static camera angles of the original, instead of utilizing the over-the-shoulder perspective that was introduced in Resident Evil 4. After the increasingly action-oriented gameplay of the franchise hit its nadir with Resident Evil 6, the seventh entry redirected things towards survival horror. But while that last title felt partially inspired by modern non-confrontation based horror games like Amnesia and Outlast, the RE2 remake remains faithful to the general design of the original game. In many instances, ammo can be scarce and you are forced into frequent contact with zombies and other nightmarish creatures. While directly confronting horrifying monsters is obviously inherently unsettling, there is a nuance to the fear that is generated through layers of game mechanics, aesthetic choices, and sound design.
Unlike later entries in the series, each enemy encounter is made memorable through the deliberate nature of the combat. While the basic enemy types are slow shambling corpses, they tend to approach in unpredictable stumbles, their heads bobbing from side to side. Since ammo is a very finite resource, landing headshots are essential. However, early on you are under-equipped and your weapons lose accuracy when you move, meaning you mostly end up standing still as the swaying zombies slowly approach. The number of headshots it takes to kill one of these monsters is unpredictable, inherently lending tension to even the most incidental of encounters. The zombies will march towards you, absorbing headshot after headshot released by your pea shooter as they weave closer in unique rhythms. Their ear-splitting screams result in jump scares and the hideous moans they emit makes their deliberate approach all the more nerve-wracking. Escaping isn’t necessarily easy either, as they will pursue you down hallways and sometimes even burst through closed doors.
To further amplify the tension, it is frequently unclear if a dead body will reanimate or not. Raccoon City is littered with corpses due to the outbreak, but it is never clear which bodies are infected. While you can attack to confirm their hostility, this is usually a waste of ammo as there is no guarantee that they would have reanimated if you hadn’t struck them first. Additionally, after “killing” a zombie, it is entirely possible that they will get back up a second time, occasionally even a third. And this is just behavior of the most basic of enemy types. Hidden in dark alcoves, you will find fearsome four-legged creatures with flayed skin that pounce at the slightest noise. You must slowly creep past them, praying that another creature won’t appear and force you to use your loud firearms. There are undead dogs which swarm you with their speed. There are variants of the basic zombie that are nearly invincible and can only be killed by a specific type of weapon.
And then there is your most formidable and terrifying opponent of all. It appears completely unexpectedly, its presence unexplained until much later in the game. Its name is Tyrant, and after your first encounter, it stalks you through the halls of the Raccoon City Police Department. Unlike other enemies, it is persistent and un-killable. If you are too noisy or have to resort to firearms it will find you, the steady thump of its footsteps the only clue that it is closing in. Once it is on you, your only choice is to run. By tapping into our inherent fears of being stalked by predators, Tyrant unnerves through his insistent pursuit, turning routine fights with zombies into frantic affairs that can involve being encircled by all sides. Even as you get more accustomed to the sight of its bulky frame approaching, the monster is always accompanied by discordant background music that escalates the encounter to a feverish pitch. And if it gets to you while you lack the necessary consumable items to escape, you are very dead.
The through-line here is that there is a consistent element of tension that extends from the unpredictability of the proceedings. When you begin to get comfortable with a certain enemy type or your surroundings, you will suddenly find yourself in unfamiliar territory. The frequent backtracking of the first half lulls you into complacency until new enemies spawn in the places you’ve been. When you finally become familiar with the nooks and crannies of the Police Station, Tyrant is unleashed. Then the dimly lit halls of the Police Station give way to sewers with murky waters that hide hideous monstrosities. After this, you push forward to a lab with a new breed of zombie that kills you in one shot.
RE2 is a rare game that has a firmly established sense of place. The specificity of each hub combines with the Metroidvania backtracking to make for a setting that seers into your memory. Writing it off as just another remake is a huge disservice, as there is a level of visual fidelity here that rivals that of other triple-A games. The undead have discolored skin, dried blood staining their crumpled business attire. The gore and viscera look convincing, dovetailing with the detailed environments to make for a fully immersive backdrop. The hastily boarded windows, coagulating pools of blood and desperate scribbles of the survivors convey the trauma of the outbreak.
While non-confrontation based horror games have partially supplanted survival horror in recent years, RE2 is a firm reminder of the terror of the latter. Although you are armed and can fight back, this means that you inevitably must do so, coming face to face with horrors again and again. Every time you round a corner there is a chance you will confront another shambling corpse, unloading shot after shot as it inches closer. And sometimes the thing around the next corner is far more terrifying than a standard zombie. The finite amount of ammo that can be found throughout the world is a gameplay hook that adds to the stress and the panic of each brush with death.
Zombie outbreaks may be thoroughly retread territory, but the Resident Evil 2 remake manages to make the subgenre terrifying again. Encounters often result in sweaty palms and soft curses. The randomness of the monsters you fight compounds with limited ammo and overwhelming audio-visual strain to create a cacophony of dread. The team at Capcom has fully utilized the unique strengths of video games to generate unease, forcing the player to face a gauntlet of nightmares. Taken as a whole, it makes for a definitive example of horror in the medium and a likely contender for Game of the Year.