The 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil successfully revived a beloved, if flawed, game. Advancements in art and technology gave Capcom the ability to effectively enhance the game's atmosphere through clever lighting and new camera angles. Simultaneously, Capcom used the same techniques to craft a prequel to the original--Resident Evil Zero--which has now been dusted off and re-finished for modern platforms.
Zero pairs Rebecca Chambers of the Special Forces unit S.T.A.R.S., with Billy Coen, a slick military prisoner who's on the run. The two meet on a train that's overrun with zombies, but the duo eventually makes their way to the mansion-like training facility of the evil Umbrella Corporation. As they seek an escape, Billa and Rebecca face myriad biologically warped monsters, a mysterious man who's seeking revenge on Umbrella, and the harsh realities of limited inventory space.
Like numerous other Resident Evil games, Zero challenges you to carry just enough supplies to defend yourself from Zombies and heal your wounds, while also leaving space for key items that are used to solve the game's many puzzles. With only enough space to carry some of your findings, you spend a lot of time looking at your inventory, debating what to keep, and what to leave behind.
When compared to earlier games in the series, Zero makes this process easier by not only affording you two characters, but also by allowing you to leave items anywhere you wish--as opposed to specially designated storage chests. Still, Zero's limited health and weapon resources provide gripping tension as you navigate dangerous, uncharted territory. There are times, too, when you are separated from your partner, making the job all the more difficult. You can freely switch between characters with the push of a button, and you may have to when your partner calls for help over their radio, as they tend to get attacked by roaming zombies when left alone for too long.
In these moments, Zero instills a fair amount of anxiety. With heightened, fear-induced senses, you also pay more attention to your environment, which is often beautifully rendered and presented through effective camera angles. While the fixed-camera system allows for impressive pre-rendered backgrounds, it can make your characters difficult to control. It's common to run in odd directions due to wild shifts in perspective during scene transitions, and it’s easy to misjudge the depth of a scene when trying to pick up objects.
For all its faults, by design or otherwise, Zero still scratches the quintessential-Resident Evil itch. You hardly ever feel safe, and when working on difficult puzzles, you force yourself into dire situations, hoping that you'll come out alive on the other side, let alone with a solution to your quandary. Instilling tension is a commendable feat, especially given that Zero relies on tricks that are over a decade old. However, there are times when the game swings in the opposite direction, where it’s too silly for its own good. It's hard to tell whether you should laugh or jeer when the game cuts from zombies to an opera-singing villain atop a distant mountain during a cutscene, or, when Billy utters one of his many, 80's B-movie grade one-liners. There are only superficial efforts made to develop the characters, and the pair rarely acknowledges the insanity of the world around them.
More than most games in the series, Zero ramps up the challenge in a clever way by starting you on a train...to train. It's a linear environment with two levels and just a handful of enemies and puzzles, which allows you to come to grips with the controls and the types of challenges that lie ahead. From there, it ramps up at a steady pace, throwing new enemies and increasingly devious puzzles your way. You do fall into a routine towards the end of the game, but this version of Zero offers a palette cleanser after the fact that instantly renews your infatuation with it: Wesker Mode.
The unlockable Wesker Mode is, by every metric, totally absurd. It replaces Billy with Albert Wesker; the series' iconic behind-the-scenes villain. Wesker possesses super-powers, including the ability to endlessly release bursts of energy that decapitate nearby enemies. He can also sprint incredibly fast, knocking over almost anything in his path. With these abilities at your disposal, Zero becomes a game about speed and force, rather than one about desperation and careful play. It also becomes an odd but enjoyable parody of itself when Billy’s voice comes out of Wesker’s mouth. This mode breaks all sorts of rules, but after a dozen hours of tense survival, it’s really satisfying to instantly overpower your enemies and have a laugh at the game’s expense.
Zero bears the hallmarks that made the original Resident Evil enjoyable. At a glance, it looks impressive, with some expertly composed shots and highly detailed environments. Some issues from the original persist, reminding you how far controls in games have come since 2002, but they are temporary frustrations that fade once you find your footing and continue your journey. You may tire of the formula by the end of the game, but with Wesker at your fingertips, don't be surprised if you find yourself eager to sprint through zombies and decapitate them with energy blasts. It's just crazy enough to work.