In 2016, Resident Evil Zero is a horror that isn’t scary. An adventure that necessitates neither logic nor ingenuity. A shooter that controls as if it were programmed on a Casio fx-9750GII graphing calculator. A vignette of a multi-decade drama that details the intersecting stories of dozens of separate characters, but one feels like it was written by a disturbed schoolkid.
It is a remake that’s faithful to a fault. An incrementally more user-friendly, vastly prettier update that carries over nearly every major flaw of the original.
You play, initially at least, as Rebecca Chambers, of the Special Tactics and Rescue Squad - S.T.A.R.S. That ham-fisted acronym is far from the cheesiest slice of a cheesy tale, told through endless cutscenes of faltering, over-acted dialogue.
One character early in the game tuck-rolls through a shattering glass window just in time to impart some convenient exposition before immediately dying in a scene dripping with emotional resonance. “Zombies and monsters?” Chambers replies before his passing, in the cadence Judy Garland used to inquire about lions and tigers and bears.
It’s totally sincere, so it works. Resident Evil Zero’s writing, profoundly awkward, I’m sure, even before its localisation, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game. It’s more like The Room than it is Sharknado.
Zero serves as a prequel to the original Resident Evil, and details the events that take place after Chambers steps aboard a train halted by a swarm of icky leeches. She soon meets singleted Lieutenant Billy Coen, a convict that escaped his escort on the way to be executed for the murder of 23 people.
Quickly, the pair begin to cooperate, and switching between them adds a little depth to Zero’s many simplistic puzzles. Coen is physically stronger, but Chambers can mix herbs together into more powerful healing items.
Resident Evil Zero is a straightforward adventure game, but its puzzles are never as esoterically frustrating as many pure adventure games. You’ll never try jamming a duck into a toaster in a vain attempt to reverse-engineer the game’s surreal logic. Instead, you’ll chuck in a key into a dumbwaiter to exchange it between characters on different floors.
It’s all presented well. Resembling doughy ken-dolls, the player characters are the least impressive part of the game graphically, but the background environments are beautifully detailed. Mansion halls are littered with oil landscapes and sturdy tables are decked out with shadow-casting candelabras and wine bottles that gently roll side to side with the motion of the train. This is clearly where the lion’s share of the game’s budget was poured; into re-rendering the backdrops that dropped jaws in 2002.
Scaffolding these production values are a collection of odd mechanics that could be easily revised so as not to waste quite so much of the everybody’s valuable time. Flavour text roots Rebecca in front of whatever chunk of environment bears describing, instead of allowing the player to continue exploring the room while simultaneously reading the subtitle.
Pressing X over an item opens an entire new screen that, over the course of a slow half-second, interrogates, “Are you really extra double sure you want to pick up this key-card that is conspicuously crucial to progress the level?” These are all minor quibbles, a few seconds here and there, but these things do add up.
Mostly, these mechanics carry over from the source material, where they were a deliberate design choice rather than a lazy oversight. Normally, game characters lug around literal tonnes of heavy ordnance without discernible effort; it’s off-putting that Rebecca and Billy can conceal only as much as an actual human about their person.
Backtracking through areas that repopulate with new enemies – magically, at times, as we’re on a moving train – is ultimately compulsory to reclaim discarded items. Head-scratching is then needed to prioritise ammunition, guns, healing salves, and quest items, and to reshuffle everything between the eight precious slots of each of the game’s two leads.
The idea of all this, one has to suppose, is to augment that quintessential survival horror feeling – the tension that gradually evolves when the player is constantly flapping about on the precipice of resource-poverty, forever fearing that hollow click when a flesh-sniffing something lumbers through that next corridor.
And that’s the crux of it. Are these archaic, unwieldy game mechanics justified if the game isn’t frightening? I enjoyed playing Resident Evil Zero in 2016, but I enjoyed the non-deliberate campiness of its writing, and I enjoyed it as an inoffensively easy switch-off-your-brain adventure puzzle game.
In 2002, it was enjoyed for its soundtrack, production values and atmosphere. Graphics alone can’t carry a game, and though the remastering brings back a youthful slimy lustre, it can’t begin to compete with your bog-standard modern blockbuster as simple eye-candy.
Fear is awfully subjective of course, but Resident Evil Zero just isn’t especially scary anymore. It has only a fraction of the cheap jump-scares and chilling body-horror of Dead Space, none of the choking dread of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and none of the twitchy tension of Resident Evil 4.
Back in 2002, agonisingly slow area transitions ratcheted up the tension, and each room in RE0 is separated by a door that is afforded its own cutscene. Over a few seconds, the door creaks open, bordered in blackness.
Area transitions weren’t momentous, but slowing the pace lent a certain gravity to navigating the spooky levels, and primitive hardware could also take a breath. In 2016, it feels like time wasting, and isn’t necessary with the power of modern gaming system. What once created suspense now creates inconvenience.
The one and only major mechanical improvement is the ability to navigate through environments with the analog stick instead of being stuck with the d-pad. It’s vastly superior to moving in only four directions, but it’s still horrendous for gunplay.
Parts of the game have you fighting tiny crows that dart around the room far away from you, before quickly dive-bombing and clawing the characters’ faces. They’re nigh impossible to attack from a third person perspective with the camera fixed on one wall of the room, as the game only allows you to fire in three gradients: flat, 45 degrees up, and 45 degrees towards the ground.
Resident Evil Zero HD isn’t a bad remake. It’s an extremely pretty remaster of an old game with problems typical of the era in which it was developed. For fans of the franchise wishing to have the same experience as players did on release day, that’s perfect. For those of us looking for a new horror or adventure game there are better choices. Resident Evil HD Remaster would certainly be a better place to start for players looking for a jumping-off point into old-school Resident Evil.