Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: Switch, Wii, GameCube, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed – via Resident Evil Origins Collection), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: Out Now
My quest through the Resident Evil series continues; this time, by going back to before the beginning. At this time of year, it is fitting to write more reviews from my 2020 education on Resident Evil! Though, reviewing them in any sort of chronological order seems beyond me, eh? Ah, let’s go with it. Resident Evil Zero tells the story of the S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics And Rescue Service) Bravo Team that venture into the Arklay Mountains prior to the Alpha Team of the original game, discovering shocking and horrific revelations that inform events elsewhere in the series. With nostalgic fixed camera angles and tense/clunky (take your pick) controls combined with the characterisation and drama that Resident Evil is so great at, it’s an entertaining ride, though it is unnecessarily obtuse in certain ways. I am reviewing the HD version within the Resident Evil Origins Collection on PlayStation 4; the first release was on Nintendo GameCube in 2002.
After a helicopter crash, Officer Rebecca Chambers (Riva Dipaola) and her colleagues search the surrounding area, finding that convicted criminal Billy Coen (James Kee) was being moved but is now missing. Exploring the ominous forests, Rebecca discovers a stopped train – the Ecliptic Express – and upon entering, the gameplay begins. She quickly finds that the people on board are now violent Zombies; soon encountering Billy, they decide to form a temporary combo to fight their way out as the two playable characters in Zero. Rebecca is quite a new recruit, feisty but inexperienced, and so there is conflict with the egotistical and brash Billy. This dynamic and how it develops is the source of endearing moments – I really enjoyed the back and forth they have.
To get to those story moments, you first need to survive; to do so, you work through environmental puzzles, whilst staying out of the claws of Zombies and other unfriendly creatures. This was my first experience of Resident Evil in the fixed camera angles style, where you go from screen to screen with the viewpoint decided for you. Often, said angles are tailored for maximum atmospheric build-up, restricting your sight and spatial awareness. It is admittedly quite jarring having such limited scope for movement, especially coming from later Resident Evil games such as Resident Evil 4 with the over-the-shoulder viewpoint it introduced. The difference is, though, just that – a difference, and there are certainly unique merits to this way of doing things. In a horror setting, giving the player such defined circumstances accentuates the scares effectively.
For most of the game, you control Rebecca and Billy in unison, switching from one to the other at impressive speed. Each has their own inventory of up to 6 items to manage, as well as specific equipment they can use: Rebecca can create healing items with her mixing kit, and Billy can use his lighter at opportune moments. Furthermore, Rebecca is the only one who can combine herbs for more powerful healing items, whereas Billy can take more damage and push heavier objects. Recognising which is the best fit for a task is essential to progressing in Zero. This is emphasised when they are split up on simultaneous yet separate paths through an area, exchanging items when possible in order to reunite. Other entries – for example Resident Evil 6 – have a dual-character mechanic, but Zero noticeably dedicates itself to the concept in a more ingrained way. It works well, and ensures you play as each character for a considerable amount of time instead of just focusing on one or the other.
This train area is sort of an extended tutorial; it acts as a sort of microcosm for the challenges the game throws at you, with roaming Zombies, obstacles that require you to consider the environment in new ways, and a tougher enemy or two that are more formidable to get past. Weapons and how you use them are a crucial aspect; the expected armory is to be found here, be it a pistol, rifle, shotgun, grenade launcher… There are also items such as the Molotov Cocktail to help you fend off your opposition. Similarly to the camera, aiming and firing is very deliberate – for me, and how I had my controls set up on PlayStation, it first required holding R1 to lift the weapon, then movement inputs to shift my targeting, and subsequently pressing X to shoot. As it is so methodical, planning your approach is important to avoid getting flustered in intense scenarios. Just as with the fixed camera angles, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I got accustomed to it, to the point where it felt very natural.
With Zero being a prequel to the original Resident Evil, it serves up many intriguing morsels of story information that connect not only to that game, but others in the series. Familiar faces appear in cutscenes interspersed throughout the narrative, and whilst the GameCube origin is evident visually, they’re nevertheless well-produced, cinematic in tone, and fascinating to experience; you get to witness where certain plot points of other games originate. However, particularly towards the very end, Zero loses a bit of momentum in this department. There is rising intrigue from documents you find, the details of your surroundings, and the aforementioned cutscenes, but when it comes to the final flourish, it all resolves very fast and left me wondering why we didn’t see more of where particular plot threads had gone. I am still satisfied on the story front, but there was opportunity for a keener impact that would make the final ominous note even more striking.
Take Your Time
Of all the Resident Evil games I have played, I would say Zero is the slowest-paced; it asks you to be very purposeful in how you act. Rushing into situations is a no-go, and will likely end with you stumbling into the grasp of an enemy. Audio cues are a common signifier of imminent threats, from the footsteps and groans of zombies to the change of music track as you near particular plot developments. I wouldn’t say it is always subtle, but it is undoubtedly effective – you often hear what is happening before you see it!. Instead of being led through a lot of consecutive linear areas, Zero feels more as though it is a collection of claustrophobic tight spaces that hide secrets under their surface. An air of ominously descending downwards thickens as you go further into the game, mirroring how the story unfolds and unveils new horrors within the mystery.
Whilst being in smaller locations gets you to contend with the feeling of being trapped, there are also drawbacks. Movement being quite slow – even the animations of opening up a new room seem slower than the original Resident Evil – mean that when you are going back to previous rooms to organise items and put together solutions for puzzles, it can gradually drain away the nervous energy Zero has built up to then; this is especially the case when you have cleared out the hazards and are literally just trekking around to gather the items efficiently. The balance of backtracking isn’t quite struck, leaving Zero with a slightly uneven pace. Notably, the later stages of the game are much more immediate than the earlier ones, sacrificing part of the depth of exploration for an increased frequency of fresh (or, given the setting, not-so-fresh) sights.
Speaking of which, environments themselves are remarkably varied within the mountainous setting, and there are plenty of callbacks through similar location types. The design of each is intricate and crucial to puzzles being rewarding to figure out. As well as this, there is plenty of gruesome surrounding paraphernalia to, well, creep you out! Interacting with some objects gives you a bit of text info on them, contributing to the ambient foreshadowing that Zero excels at. The palette is dominated by cold colours, often browns, blues, greens, and whites; together with the weathered, unclean aesthetic to your surroundings, it proficiently leaves you uncomfortable. My main complaint on the visual side of things is that those backgrounds aren’t very refined, which might speak to the GameCube origins again, but in a HD version it would have been great to see even more polish in those areas. Contrastingly, the new character models are brilliant – Rebecca and Billy are each full of expressive personality.
In addition, the monstrosities you are up against supply motivation to press on! It’s Resident Evil, so there are a range of hostile inhabitants with proficiently unsettling designs. The motif of Zero is rooted in insects and slimy, parasitic tendencies; leeches are very prominent… Yeah, I know, nope nope nope. During my time with the game, a seemingly invulnerable and regenerating strain of infected caused me a lot of strife, often positioned in narrow corridors where it is tricky to get past without being swiped or latched onto. There is distinct challenge posed by this, but another way of viewing it is that it artificially extends the length of the game; I spent quite a while trying to find a way past without being damaged, and my progress through those areas would have been much smoother otherwise.
I Need A Medic
Those moments, when the path you need to take is lined with potential peril, Resident Evil Zero is quite a difficult game. As I played, my opinion on this fluctuated – I much preferred when the conundrum was right in front of me, whether that be a puzzle that could be solved within one room or a strong enemy making a surprise entrance. Personally, I find that the reactionary improvisation that asks of the player is much more satisfying than when figuring out how two rooms that are far apart connect. The latter got tiresome more than once – if there was more inventory space, that may have helped, especially as there are no item crates to organise with. In order to swap out an item, you have to leave it where you are; if you need it again later and you have left it far away or blocked by an enemy, well, you’re going to have to make your way back.
Previously mentioned intermittent fights against one-off, tougher enemies show the more positive side of the troublesome situations Zero can place you into. Those sudden battles are important for breaking up the rhythm and putting a focus on combat when they appear. Ammo is at a premium, so utilising your loadout to emerge from these encounters in enclosed spaces requires a skillful knowledge of how to handle yourself. They can be very spontaneous, and are one of the reasons to stay constantly prepared with a close eye on your inventory and ammo/healing supply. In fact, overall Zero is quite a bruising journey for Rebecca and Billy, where damage can rack up quickly.
On the other hand, the difficulty and least enjoyable puzzles are admittedly softened when on a repeat playthrough, as you know where the items are that you are going to need, and can plan out where to go with your new prior knowledge. This doesn’t excuse the game on that first run, though; the game design should naturally lead you through, but it can be hit-and-miss whether Zero is successful at that. The dual-character mechanic is one with lots of creative possibilities, it just seems that the sweet spot of making it consistently player-friendly hasn’t been reached. A way of merging it with item crates may have worked better and streamlined the whole experience.
The HD version of Zero has a few extras as well. You get free access to some costumes (there are others that you can pay for); Rebecca wearing a Fan Design Jill Sandwich T-shirt totally didn’t take away any tension from scenes, aha! Upon your first completed run, you unlock more modes to experiment with, too… Another inclusion is a handy gallery for viewing back cinematics, a welcome choice considering the gripping story of this game. These little touches collectively elevate this release of Resident Evil Zero.
Insightful and suspenseful, Resident Evil Zero lets the player delve into a previously-unknown time in the series chronology. The characters, plot twists, and settings are mostly superb, but Zero does suffer a bit from the way it implements the new dual-character mechanic; exciting in theory and occasionally in practice, the way the rest of the game has been molded to make it work can cause instances of excessive backtracking and item retrieval. Still, Zero delivers more than it disappoints. From start to finish, there are thrills, scares, and dramatic reveals, aptly acting as a precursor to the rest of the series. To think how events escalate from Rebecca walking up to the train, or even from that final, chilling frame…