Resident Evil Zero is something of a forgotten gem in the venerable horror franchise’s illustrious crown. Prior to the paradigm-shifting behemoth that was Resident Evil 4, Zero has the distinction of being the last mainline ‘classic’ entry in the series, at a point where the average punter was getting a little fed up of tank controls and pre-rendered backgrounds. However, Zero deviates from its contemporaries with some surprisingly fresh gameplay additions, and is probably one of the most difficult entries the series has seen to date. As such, this prequel sits in its own niche, lacking the accessibility of RE2 and REmake, while perhaps being the rawest example of old-school survival horror you can find. In that sense, it’s probably the most esoteric Resi yet.
Originally released in 2002 on GameCube, Zero takes place 24 hours before the events of the original survival horror classic, with S.T.A.R.S. Bravo Team member, Rebecca Chambers, investigating Raccoon Forest with her team following the outbreak of a series of cannibalistic murders. The unit splits up to investigate the area, with Chambers snooping around a seemingly abandoned train in the middle of the woods. It’s here where she meets and subsequently teams up with Billy Coen, a former marine convicted of first degree murder.
Zero is classic Resi but puts its own spin on the proceedings. For starters, you can now switch between two playable characters instantaneously by hitting Triangle; you have the option of going solo or exploring together, which opens up a little more strategy on the combat front. Teaming up to dispatch the rotting remnants of Umbrella’s unscrupulous work force not only saves ammo, but feels suitably gratifying to boot. Your partner is controlled by the AI, which does a decent job at keeping foes at bay (you can set them to attack on sight or remain docile), although their self-preservation skills are pretty much non-existent; they won’t perform any evasive maneuvers, but rather just stand their capping foes until the threat is gone or they end up brown bread. As such, they can sometimes prove an annoyance in the middle of battle, but at least have your back if you need some extra firepower.
Rebecca and Billy also have their own strengths and weaknesses. The young S.T.A.R.S medic is able to combine healing herbs and chemicals, while Billy can utilise his strength to shove heavy objects and can absorb more punishment from enemies. While both can hold their own in most situations, Zero encourages you to explore different roles for each character, and I found it pretty satisfying having Billy rocking the heavy firepower, while Rebecca acted as medic/backup, resulting in a reliable combination that I rarely deviated from. Fortunately, managing your characters is pretty intuitive, with a simple tap of the touchpad giving your partner command to split up or regroup, while the inventory commands are easy enough to follow as you exchange items between each other, even in the midst of a battle.
Speaking of items, this is probably the area that received the biggest overhaul in Zero. You no longer have access to item boxes, meaning you have to juggle items between both characters—that’s a total of twelve spaces between the two, six per protagonist—or drop them on the floor to retrieve at a later date. This opens up a wealth of strategizing as you must plan ahead and carefully consider which items to take and/or leave behind when the time comes. This inherently means you’ll be backtracking a lot in order to obtain gear you previously dropped, which can be a pain if you have to trek from one side of the map to the other. On the flips side, I found it immensely enjoyable to have this kind of micromanagement going on, as it pays to be sensible about your choices; nothing is more gratifying than having the right weapons when the time comes, and you can save yourself a lot of trouble if you think logically about your next step. However, Zero is unforgiving in this manner too. You can find yourself completely unprepared for a boss battle, for example, and find that you literally cannot progress as you either don’t have enough ammo or the right weapon on your persons, and can’t leave the area to grab them.
Still, the new mechanics do make the bread-and-butter Resi antics a little more interesting. It’s also worth noting that Zero doesn’t force teamwork on you much of the time; if you fancy leaving one of your characters sitting in a safe haven while you investigate on your own, so be it. It;s this flexibility that is one of the main appeals of this Resi prequel. The game definitely doesn’t slack on atmosphere: the train section offers a welcome change of pace for the franchise, and there’s some standout moments elsewhere (you’ll visit a training facility and lab among other areas) that retain that quintessential Resi atmosphere and stomach-knotting dread. Zero is also a little more cerebral than the likes of Resi 2 and 3, and the use of two characters to solve some of the challenging riddles that punctuate the action is a welcome addition. The utility of the modern control scheme option also ensures newcomers aren’t perhaps as alienated.
That said, Capcom obviously ran out of inspiration when it came to enemy design, as there’s not an awful lot in there that excites the player. Most of them are recycled from the remake, and the brilliant Crimson Heads from the remake are conspicuous by their absence. Bosses are a mixed bag too, with some encounters feeling far less dynamic and threatening than past offerings. Nonetheless, the zombies and main characters look great with the benefit of a high-definition paint job, particularly the facial animations, while the backgrounds looks sharper and have more nuance than their GameCube counterparts. In short, it’s a brilliant visual upgrade that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with last year’s Resident Evil HD Remaster. You can also collect a wide range of unlockable costumes this time around, which you can change into at anytime via the inventory, while the Wesker Mode puts an interesting spin on the regular campaign.
Whether you’ll pick up Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster depends on how much you’re into classic Resi. Those of you with a penchant for tank controls, fixed camera angles, and methodical gameplay will feel right at home here, particularly as it’s one of the most punishing games in the series. However, if Resi 4 and 5 were more your cup of tea, it’s doubtful that Zero’s sluggish pacing and old-school mechanics will have much appeal.