Resident Evil Zero plays sufficiently different but also pleasantly familiar to its chronological sequel, and even if such proximity does not continuously work for the best, it ends up being more positive than negative
Now available on the Switch, Resident Evil Zero was originally published for the GameCube in 2002 as part of an exclusivity deal between Nintendo and Capcom. And, as its title ought to make blatant, the game delves into the occurrences that unfolded before the events portrayed in the franchise’s excellent debut. As an effort that qualifies both as a prequel in terms of story and as a successor regarding chronological release, one may claim it does not perform exceedingly well in the tasks that are expected out of these kinds of games, which are – respectively – filling in the blanks left out by the first chapter of the series and showing significant improvements over what came before it.
It works as a testament, however, to the generally unshakable captivating core of the Resident Evil experience that, despite these failures, the game does not reek of sour disappointment. Much to the contrary, even though nearly none of its pieces rise to the remarkable and iconic status boasted by many of the moments of the survival horror classic that introduced the saga to the world, not only does Resident Evil Zero deliver in thrill and tension, but it also manages to tweak that game’s formula notably enough to emerge as a worthy and unique addition to a canon that offers fear in many distinct flavors.
The beginning of Resident Evil Zero is not too different from the one of its sequel. Raccoon City is being plagued by a series of brutal murders that leave behind cannibalized corpses. Trying to get to the bottom of these crimes, the local police force sends in their elite unit, dubbed S.T.A.R.S., to investigate the area where most of these happenings have been taking place: the Arklay Mountains. The difference is that where Resident Evil tracked the progress of the members of the Alpha Team, Resident Evil Zero sheds some light on the ordeals faced by the set of officers that were deployed shortly before them, and whose disappearance led to their mission: the Bravo Team.
As revealed during that game, the group’s helicopter crashed into the forest before reaching its final destination; what is not shown, though, and what Resident Evil Zero dedicates itself to covering, is that Rebecca Chambers and a couple of her partners escape the wreckage to stumble upon an overturned military transport truck, which was carrying a dangerous criminal sentenced to death. Upon failing to find his body, and locating only the remains of the soldiers that were escorting him, the platoon splits up to search for the missing man. What Rebecca comes across, though, is far more perilous than any violent human: a stopped passenger train that, unbeknown to her, has just been attacked by the very same virus that caused much of the trouble in Resident Evil.
As expected, Resident Evil Zero, through a plot that is developed by a mixture of brief cutscenes and the gathering of documents spread around its scenarios, works towards tying the events it depicts with the horrors that occur in the mansion that serves as the setting of its sequel. And, to a certain point, it achieves that goal. The problem, though, is that much of the effectiveness in awakening sheer terror seen in the original Resident Evil stemmed from the fact its script was meaty enough to give some depth to what was being encountered by the characters while also boasting a level of vagueness that left minor details in the dark.
In trying to fill those empty spaces, sadly, Resident Evil Zero treads into grounds that are perhaps a bit too dramatic and unlikely for its own good, creating a story that, rather than feeling enlightening, comes off as totally unnecessary. Even so, in spite of that expendable appendage, there is no denying that once the quest gets underway and sets its focus on the survival horror it is known for, Resident Evil Zero is very engaging. And that excellence, of course, begins when Rebecca steps into a train bursting with infected creatures and sees herself forced to ally with Billy, the very same dangerous criminal she and her squad were looking for.
It is in that unlikely partnership that the defining feature of Resident Evil Zero is encountered, because while its sequel forced players to choose between a male and a female officer they would then lead through the entirety of the adventure, this ten-hour origin story has – during most of its run – gamers guiding a duo, with the press of a button allowing them to switch between the member of the pair they are actually in control of. Much like Jill and Cris, Rebecca and Billy are not totally similar, for where the former has access to a chemistry set that gives her the skill to mix chemicals and healing herbs, the latter has superior defense, a lighter, as well as the ability to move heavy objects.
And it goes without saying that, quite frequently, Resident Evil Zero pushes players towards making use of those distinctions, as the quest has: plenty of puzzles that require either chemical prowess or brute force; a handful of moments when the protagonists have to cooperate in order to advance; and notable segments when Rebecca and Billy are separated by devious twists of fate that demand that gamers control them individually through puzzles, enemies, and traps so they can be reunited. It is an alluring concept, and one that works well for the most part, giving birth to remarkable slices of gameplay that simply could not have existed in the original Resident Evil, with the highlight being a riddle that compels the heroes to find a way to exchange items between themselves despite the fact they are not together.
Regardless of all the joy it brings, though, it is hard to ignore the flaws the system generates. For starters, the behavior of the AI-controlled ally can be configured in two aspects: whether they will shoot enemies in sight or stand still; and whether they will follow the leading character around or stay behind. Unfortunately, while the second conduct can be altered with the touch of a button, the first cannot, which leads to a lot of unnecessary pauses and trips through the menu.
On that same front, having to monitor the health of two characters simultaneously can be a big pain when one considers their energy is not displayed directly on screen, also only being visible inside the menus; it is a trait that makes pausing during battles a must, and the breaking of the gameplay flow too frequent. Additionally, most players will certainly come across instances where their partner will either get stuck, stand in their way, or act not as smartly as one could wish for when facing particularly dangerous scenarios. It is arguable that those occurrences do not come around often enough to demolish the experience. However, since the death of a single member of the pair leads to a game over, hence causing the loss of progress, and given health-recovering items are relatively scarce, a single dumb move in the field of battle can end up being quite annoying.
Everywhere else, Resident Evil Zero is not so different from its sequel, playing – therefore – like a slightly altered version of that game. Its starting section, locked in the tight confines of the infected train Rebecca finds, does indeed feel unique, as it uncovers a new claustrophobic scenario that is pretty much perfect for some survival horror. Quickly, though, since a train could not possibly hold such a big game, the quest moves into settings that are not far removed from the iconic mansion of Resident Evil and its inner secret facilities, as the protagonists enter a training center that looks a whole lot like a big abandoned house and a lab in which shady experiments were conducted. And in those environments, players will be greeted with all the terror one expects from the franchise.
In Resident Evil Zero, fright and tension emerge out of all corners. They exist in a blend between numerous ominous locations and a forebodingly quiet soundtrack that makes the game feel like a playable horror movie; they lie in how every door that is opened and every somewhat odd noise that is heard may hide a threat that is both visually terrifying and effectively dangerous; they live in the subconscious knowledge one has that Resident Evil Zero is not afraid to punctuate its quest with plenty of well-done jump scares; and they loom in how Rebecca and Billy are constantly having their survival skills tested, independently of which of the three available levels of difficulty is selected.
In regards to that last item, there is a noticeable tweak in the way Resident Evil Zero operates, because it feels slightly more action-focused than the franchise’s debut. It is not, of course, that – at any point in the quest – one will either feel comfortable being trigger-happy or have to face sequences where the number of foes encountered is especially high. Zombies and other genetically modified monstrosities still only show up sporadically, because – once more – the adventure extracts as much anxiety out of the anticipation that something might be there as it does from the times when there is indeed danger around the corner; however, not only is the appearance of flesh-eating creatures more common, but there are also more of them that simply cannot be avoided.
Consequently, situations that push players into shooting are more prominent, and so is the presence of ammunition, healing items, and typewriter ink for recording progress. Fortunately, the balance between combats and relief remains nervously tight, meaning that it is not rare for Rebecca and Billy to have to advance through potentially hazardous territory with a sliver of health and barely any bullets; in fact, it is arguable that, in some specific portions, Resident Evil Zero stresses that equilibrium so hard that it comes very close to breaking it, as a few of its segments can leave players in conditions that are almost impossible to overcome if they are not very careful about managing their resources. Whether that trait is a quality or a flaw is a matter of personal judgment, but it is likely that one who does not feel comfortable with the constant risk of running out of health and bullets will not be able to get into either Resident Evil Zero or its sequel.
The game, however, has a few other characteristics that qualify as flaws regardless of who is looking at them. The first one should be familiar to anyone who went through the hallways of Spencer Mansion, and that would be the camera system. Quite stylishly, and looking to augment tension, all of the environments are seen from the perspective of a fixed camera; although interesting and certainly a part of the franchise’s early identity, that approach causes a myriad of issues. The angles from which the scenes are depicted vary a lot, which does create a lot of beauty; ultimately, though, it also unearths plenty of instances when the perspective that was selected is poor, as it can make navigation difficult and – even worse – cause conflicts to be frustrating, as sometimes incoming enemies are just not visible until they are too close for comfort.
Furthermore, scenes that are larger, such as a patio, a long hallway, or a big room, can have different cameras that are activated according to where the characters are standing, and when cuts between them happen, chaos can ensue, for a directional input that was leading the protagonists one way will suddenly start sending them towards another point. Reacting to those abrupt changes quickly is nigh impossible, and due to that, fumbling to adapt to the new setup is inevitable, which can be annoying when there is no danger nearby and maddening when zombies or other much faster foes are closing in on the heroes.
Another problem that is inherited straight from the original Resident Evil is related to the game’s inventory system. Rebecca and Billy’s pockets are not very deep: each of them only has six available slots to fill up with items. And when one considers that weapons, bullets, and healing herbs – which are all a must – already occupy some of them, and that collecting other assets and carrying them between two points is the main way through which the puzzles of Resident Evil Zero are solved, it becomes clear that there is not enough room for all of that. The game, however, actually finds ways to aggravate that shortcoming. Firstly, because bigger weapons occupy two slots this time around. Secondly, and more seriously, because it does away with the item boxes of Resident Evil.
Surely, even that was not a perfect system; yet, it allowed the protagonists of that quest to store goods in a place that could be accessed from multiple points, which was undeniably practical. Without that mechanism, players are only left with the option to drop the items they want to leave behind on the ground. It is a welcome action that did not exist in the property’s debut. Regrettably, as a consequence of the elimination of item boxes, it creates an issue of its own, as the lack of some sort of central storage constantly forces gamers to backtrack to where they dropped the item they need at that moment. Truthfully, Resident Evil Zero provides a pretty helpful system that allows one to see, via the map, where each item was left; nevertheless, the solution is far from ideal, as any frustration could have been avoided with either just giving the characters bigger pockets – which would somewhat go against the survival nature of the quest – or simply pairing up the item boxes with the ability to drop goods.
Therefore, Resident Evil Zero is, much like its chronological sequel, a flawed game, with the shortcomings it exhibits being of a magnitude and frequency that make them very hard to ignore. At the same time, though, its prowess in matters of tension and fear is absolutely notable, because playing it is being constantly surrounded by sheer dread, whether stemming from an unshakable feeling that something horrifying is always about to happen or originating in its sometimes overwhelming shortage of resources, and that ability is boosted by a fairly original gameplay setup that finds its own signature both in a slightly heavier focus on action and in the presence of a duo of protagonists that must work together in order to survive.
And it is thanks to those excellent features that the game justifies its existence, for although it does not succeed either in improving on the chapter that it works as a prequel to or in satisfyingly filling up the blanks it left, Resident Evil Zero plays sufficiently different but also pleasantly familiar to it, and even if such proximity does not continuously work for the best, it ends up being more positive than negative.