Resident Evil HD remaster review: dawn of the dead

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Capcom
Developer Capcom
Release Date Jan 20, 2015

More than any game in recent memory, the HD remaster of Resident Evil demands nostalgia if you're to truly enjoy it.

It's a game with a lot of history, after all. This is technically a remake of a remake — an HD-ified version of the 2002 GameCube remake of the 1996 PlayStation 1 survival horror classic. But even in 2002, the first Resident Evil's age was already showing. In 2015, nearly 20 years since its original release, much of the game feels like an anachronism, a piece of gaming's past that's more interesting from a historical perspective than it is to actually play.

And yet, if you have that nostalgia, as I do, all of that changes.

Resident Evil may not live up to many modern standards. It may leave me swearing up a storm as it reminds me of the cruel, unpolished design of older games. But it also brings back wonderful memories of late nights in front of my PS1, getting scared by zombie dogs jumping through windows. It allows me to relive some fond moments from my past, and it includes just enough visual improvements and control tweaks to make it the best form for doing so.

I inevitably needed breathers from the onslaught of zombie attacks
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At the beginning of Resident Evil, players take on the role of either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, members of a police task force sent to investigate a series of murders at a huge mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City. Whichever protagonist you choose, you soon end up separated from the rest of your crew, exploring the deadly mansion and fighting a growing legion of undead monsters.

The layout of the mansion and its devious puzzles are (as far as my memory can tell) identical to the GameCube version. Which is to say: This is one convoluted-as-hell bit of architecture. Exploring the mansion is handled in third-person with fixed camera angles, and in addition to dodging zombies, you need to solve obscure puzzles and track down a frankly alarming number of different keys to different doors.

While the arbitrary, adventure game-style puzzles can be difficult to parse, the way they send you ping-ponging back and forth through the mansion is actually a good thing. Resident Evil builds its setting up as a memorable place where — despite its absurd layout — I eventually memorized each hallway and especially the location of rare safe rooms. I inevitably needed breathers from the onslaught of zombie attacks, but the game makes you earn them.

Despite the overwhelming forces stacked against you, Resident Evil is not an action game. Even on the easiest difficulty, Jill and Chris can only take a couple of direct attacks from zombies before they fall dead. And even if they were hardier, the mansion contains a very limited amount of weaponry and ammo.

Instead of opting for combat every time, survival depends on making difficult calls about which situations you can escape from and which require the use of force. These split-second choices build an incredible amount of tension, making the game scary on a mechanical level.

It's important that these characters aren't the traditional near-invincible video game heroes; any individual encounter could as soon lead to their death as any sort of brief victory. Opening every new door became a heart-quickening experience, as I dreaded finding out what waited to hurt me on the other side.

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The struggle for survival at the heart of Resident Evil extends to its save system. Eschewing any sort of checkpoints or save-anywhere approach, the game only allows you to save in specific rooms that contain a typewriter. On top of that, you must have an ink ribbon in your very tiny inventory in order to save. Left all your available ribbons in an item box elsewhere in the mansion or have run out completely? Too bad, no saving allowed.

This old-school save system can come across as extremely punishing to new players. It forces you to replay tens of minutes or more when you die and encourages making long treks out of your way in order to get another save in. But for as many expletives as it led to, this design choice is also key to the special brand of terror Resident Evil produces. If everything else was the same — same zombies, same low threshold for dying, same lack of ammo — but the game just reloaded you in the last room when you died, it would not be nearly as scary of an experience.

The old-school save system can come across as extremely punishing
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One small concession Capcom has made with this remake is in the actual controls. The original Resident Evil featured a style commonly derided as "tank controls." In other words, the character could only move forward or (slowly) backward. Pressing left or right would cause the character to swivel in that direction at a leisurely pace. Again, this added to the overall tension in the game, but it's arguably one of the less scary, more aggravating elements.

The original control scheme still exists in the 2015 HD re-release, but there's also a slightly modernized replacement available. In this updated option, movement is more on par with other third-person action games — i.e., pressing left or right on the control stick makes your character more or less instantly turn and move in that direction. It's a nice change, and for those who are concerned, it definitely doesn't make the game too easy.

The 2015 version of Resident Evil also features a modest visual upgrade. The gorgeous background art from the GameCube version has been modified into a high-definition resolution. As with the controls, the game allows you to swap back and forth between the old-school 4:3 and the modern 16:9 looks. Character models have also been beefed up to being on par with Resident Evil 6's graphics. Those newer-gen models occasionally felt strange against the less detailed backdrops, but in general the upgrades work fine.

Wrap Up:

Resident Evil is still a classic, but it's hard for some people to go back to

In fact, "it works fine" kind of sums up my feelings on Resident Evil's HD remaster as a whole. Whether or not that's high praise will depend entirely on your personal history. I have trouble imagining anyone who didn't play and enjoy the early Resident Evil games getting really pulled into this remake. But there's no doubt to me that there's still something magical here, some formula that can't ever be replicated in quite the same way. For one special game — in 1996, in 2002, in 2015 — it works.

Resident Evil was reviewed using a final downloadable PC code via Steam provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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