Release Date: January 20, 2015
Platform: PC via Steam (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Price: $19.99 USD (Steam)
When first released in 1996, Resident Evil set the bar for the survival horror genre. Its limited resources, dangerous enemies, and haunting atmosphere ensured that players explored every room and opened every door with trepidation. Its quality launched a franchise that now spans numerous games, movies, novels and comic books. It remains forever a formative experience in the memories of many gamers.
However, despite both its critical and commercial success, I never stepped foot into the Spencer Mansion myself, either upon its original release or when it was remade for the GameCube in 2002. Instead, I began my long Resident Evil career with the second installment. Returning now to the series’ roots uncolored by nostalgia, the most recent release begs the question: Does the HD Remaster hold its own as a new experience for a modern gaming audiences?
The answer is a qualified “Yes.”
A Remake of a Remake
The HD Remaster is largely an update of the 2002 GameCube remake, including that version’s modified map layouts, puzzles, and dialogue. Textures and models have been updated in the HD version, and while not on par with most modern games, they deliver a sense of polish that doesn’t appear overly dated or strain the eyes. Sound quality, too, has been updated, with 5.1 surround support. However, in most other ways, the game will feel perfectly familiar to players of the 2002 version.
For those unfamiliar with the earlier iterations, some background is in order. Resident Evil is a survival horror game in which players are given the choice of playing either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, both members of an elite police task force known as the Special Tactics And Rescue Service (more commonly referred to as the S.T.A.R.S.), as they investigate mysterious events at the foreboding Spencer Mansion.
The choice of protagonist changes both the gameplay and plot in small ways. Jill has a lockpick that can open some doors without a key and has more item slots, while Chris has advantages in combat and survival. Certain events will only be experienced by one character, but on the whole, the experience is largely consistent. Nonetheless, to experience the full content of the game, players must complete the story with both characters.
In either case, they quickly find themselves trapped inside the mansion, fighting to survive against the living dead. The gameplay consists primarily of exploring a complex maze of rooms and hallways, solving puzzles and finding keys to progress, and engaging in combat with the mansion’s many horrors.
While the gameplay is often clunky, and the dialogue universally horrible, the atmosphere of fear and tension at the heart of the game is still excellently executed. The combination of exploration and puzzle-solving remains both challenging and enjoyable even held to today’s standards.
A Sense of Dread
It’s in the exploration of various environments that the game really shows its brilliance. The Spencer Mansion is a truly frightening place, full of old suits of armor, ominous paintings, and secret rooms. Grandfather clocks ring through vast empty dining rooms, and blood-soaked chairs sit quietly by dead fireplaces in great libraries. The later levels, such as the underground labs, are equally unsettling, with computer monitors eerily flickering in abandoned rooms, while frozen corpses hang nearby.
The game is at its best in the quiet moments, when the chilling atmosphere is left alone to do its work. The sparse ambient soundtrack excellently reinforces the sense of dread, and the slow opening of each door as the next room loads heightens the suspense.
The camera, too, works to try to boost the unease. Each room and hallway can only be seen from predetermined camera angles, which often focus on some ominous element of the detailed backgrounds or highlight items to be found. They often intentionally obscure the danger that lies just ahead. Usually you will hear the groan of the monsters ahead before you see them, and you are rarely given the opportunity to see what lies far ahead of you, even if your character themselves can see it.
An Uncomfortable Feeling
While this heightens the tension, the constantly switching camera angles can be a major nuisance and can frequently confuse navigation. More frustratingly, as the default directional controls are relative to the camera, the simple act of moving through a hall may require multiple rapid input corrections. Overall, the controls imbue the game with a feeling of clunkiness that is especially problematic in the game’s many fights.
Combat is unfortunately one of the weaker elements of the game, and receives too great a share of the focus given the slow and unreliable controls. Unlike most modern action games, you cannot both move and shoot. Each action is deliberate, and one must first stop, then press a button to aim the gun, and then another to fire. Because of the camera angles, exact aiming is not required, and a quick button tap will cause Jill or Chris to point their weapon towards a given foe.
Weapons tend to fire slowly, and it’s easy to be hit by enemies as you stand stationary to attack, especially since they may be hidden by the camera angle. Most combats are straightforward matters of having enough ammunition, standing and shooting. There are only a handful of different enemy types (such as zombies, spiders, mutant hunters, and the occasional flock of crows) and heavier weapons will make short work of anything but bosses.
On medium difficulty, ammunition is plentiful, and in most cases, need not be carefully conserved. However, your character takes only a few hits to die, and the game’s few bosses can sometimes kill you quite quickly. It’s refreshing, then, when a bit of calm music begins playing as you enter one of the game’s limited safe rooms, in which one can usually find both a save point and a place to store your ever-growing collection of items.
Item slots are incredibly limited, and each item takes up one slot regardless of its size. A dog whistle takes up as much room as a grenade launcher in Resident Evil, and careful inventory management is crucial. Even saving your game requires using an ink ribbon, which is an exhaustible resource.
Unfortunately, inventory management is one of the game’s greatest annoyances as constant trips to the item box are required to ensure that you have enough space to pick up the new key items you need to progress. Chris only has six item slots, while Jill has eight. These slots must accommodate all weapons, ammunition, healing items, and key items that you want to carry at any given time, and you’ll usually want at least two empty slots to pick up new items discovered on the way. All too often, one will find themselves in a room far from a save point with three important items to take, but only two empty item slots. The only solution is to drop off a few items all the way back at the item box, and come back to pick up the remainder.
Additionally, because of the limited space, it’s difficult to carry keys until you immediately need them, requiring constant returns to the item box to open the doors just ahead. Unfortunately, keys and other plot objects each require their own slot. There’s no key ring in Resident Evil.
Indeed, the constant backtracking required both by the puzzles and the item management is one of the core frustrations of the game and unnecessarily pads out the game’s overall length.
Puzzling it Out
Fortunately, the many puzzles are mostly intelligently designed, and require some thought. Some are even randomized to ensure that one cannot simply follow a walkthrough to punch in the right code or do something in the right sequence.
Naturally, many of the puzzles require nothing more than using Item A on Item B, but some, such as carefully mixing a chemical to destroy a monstrous plant, require more thought. In some cases, the puzzles require a high degree of perception, for example: knowing to mark down the number of eyelashes on the shadows of eyes under lanterns to later open a door. In fact, there are a number of cases where I had to write down specific numbers or a sequence myself in order to progress.
Pen and paper is recommended.
One small foible is that certain items must be carefully examined in player’s inventory from all angles, as they may reveal secrets necessary to progress. This blocked my progress on a number of occasions, as I had failed to find the exact angle at which I needed to examine an object to find its secrets.
And secrets there are many. The mansion, forest residence, and underground laboratory you progress through are all awash in secret items and rooms. Discovering all of them is one of the game’s truly enjoyable elements.
Take a Holiday at Spencer Mansion
Many of the elements of Resident Evil HD Remaster feel outdated, such as the campy dialogue and voice acting, which is written with the delicacy of a sledgehammer and delivered without consideration of context, or the clunky controls and combat. However, the game makes up for these faults with carefully designed environments that fully communicate the terror of not knowing what lies around the next corner and puzzles that require careful consideration.
If you can look past its many minor flaws and frustrations, Resident Evil HD Remaster will scratch any survival horror itch, and successfully updates a classic for the modern age.