Delving back into Resident Evil Zero is like finally finding your old, favourite slippers lost for years in a dusty cupboard. You know it's gonna be oh-so comfortable but there's a high chance something terrifying is living in them and they’re a bit out of fashion.
The Resident Evil franchise (Biohazard in Japan) is the grandaddy of survival horror, and it’s now as monstrous and many-legged as one of its T-Virus infected zombies. To recap, the biggest change up for the series came with Resident Evil 4 in 2005. It ditched the puzzles, jump scares and proper zombies of the 1996 original for a fully controllable camera, action-packed quick time events and body-snatching parasites.
Resi 5 and 6 followed in those footsteps, adding full co-operative play, and the most recent original entry, Revelations, even went episodic. Now, 20 years after it all began, Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster (REZHDR...kidding, we’ll go with ZHD) returns to zero hour. Note the ‘remaster’ - this is a game based on the 2009 Wii port of the 2002 original, so it’s not a full on remake like the GameCube version of Resi 1, which will forever hold the title of ‘Best Mansion’ in gaming. Cue ‘this series keeps coming back from the dead’ jokes.
Shambling a fine line
So whether you’re an old die-hard or looking to cut your teeth on the series, ZHD will delight (in creeping you out). It’s also notable for matching ‘retro’ gameplay with new-gen console presentation, something many other series could learn from.
The biggest changes are the more responsive control scheme (gone is the ironically zombie-like turn, walk, turn, walk) and the upgraded character models. In fact they’re pretty much the only changes. Still, it shambles a fine line between polishing the jagged edges and not mucking about with the original DNA. Unlike the power mad scientists of the fiendishly evil Umbrella Corporation whose T-Virus serum can mutate animals and humans into freakish biological weapons.
As kitsch as a German rave
Of course, the story of any Resident Evil game is always as wonderfully kitsch as a German rave, and ZHD is no exception. The story begins with the mysterious Big Bad infesting an Umbrella-owned train with killer giant leeches while standing on a cliff ledge in the dead of night, belting out a weird opera. Classic Resi, eh?
You play as Rebecca Chambers, a junior member of the Special Tactics and Rescue Service (STARS) and Billy Coen, escaped convict and ex-soldier. A fight for survival aboard the train escalates quickly into a hunt for answers through a creepy mansion that’s obviously more than it seems...ok, it’s an Umbrella research facility. Without spoiling anything, from there you’ll learn plenty more about the back-stabbing politics of Umbrella and the freakish research of its founders (some more back-stabbed than others) as well as the events leading up to the mansion outbreak of Resi 1. You mean you didn’t already know this was a prequel to the original Resident Evil? You do now.
Schlock and awe
This is one of the best Resident Evil narratives, because it reveals a lot about Umbrella’s origins, has a great cast of villains, and a varied set of locations. The dialogue is also often unintentionally hilarious - “You better clue in girl, or you’ll be worm bait” says hard-bitten Billy to a still-optimistic Rebecca - but it works in a pulp B-movie way. The relationship between the two is entertaining, but there’s a more important side to their relationship: you solve puzzles by switching between the two characters at will.
This sort of mechanic may be pretty familiar now, but it was was decidedly fresh back in the day. You can swap between Billy and Rebecca at the touch of a button, and switch between their admittedly very basic AI presets (follow/stay, attack/don’t) with another.
Even though it’s not exactly ground-breaking now, the important thing is it’s put to good use. One early example sees Rebecca fall through a roof into a locked room. Using a dumb-waiter she must coordinate with Billy, swapping items back and forth, so that he can eventually find the right key. It’s not unholy zombie science but these puzzles are believable and challenging enough to stay fun. They also break up the pace and you feel tensely isolated when the character you're controlling is cut off from their partner.
Gross body-horror and a slow-build tension are what Resident Evil is really all about, and ZHD still piles it on with a spade. It’s in the limited inventory space that forces you to think carefully about what to take with you. It’s in the claustrophobic, leech-infested opening train section. The chilling, deadpan writing when examining things or finding files that fill in story details or offer puzzle clues. And it’s even in the famous door-opening animations that mask the loading times.
Here, we have the perfect example of the two camps ZHD finds itself straddling. On the one claw, you’d think with modern console power we’d have the option to skip them, or have faster loading times and other tweaks to bring the pace more in line with our modern expectations. On the other, Resident Evil is a slow-burning, methodical game, and that little animation still gives your heart the chance to jump into your mouth when entering a new area.
Resident Evil Zero Verdict
If you want the faster paced, gunplay-heavy version of Resident Evil, you’ve already got 4, 5, 6 and Revelations to choose from. What ZHD proves almost immediately is that there was a gorey red special sauce to the original gameplay that has never really been successfully copied.
The recipe: line a tin with classic ‘metroidvania’ level design showing you tantalising glimpses of new areas and items before you’re ready to unlock them, add one part inventory management and puzzles, two parts breathtaking pre-rendered backgrounds and creepy fixed camera angles, a dash of distinctly Japanese humour and season with mixed monsters. Bake until very hard. It re-heats surprisingly well.
Even for true Resident Evil lovers though, there are moments that still feel clunky, and they’ll feel even more frustrating for new players. Also under question is the £15.99 tag for a game that’s essentially 14 years old.
That said, it’s one more confirmation of the original game’s brilliance that I still think it’s worth it, especially if you skipped the Wii port or haven’t played the original. This is where it all started (in terms of the story timeline anyway) and it’s well worth the terrifying trip back through the memory mansion.