Resident Evil is back, again, but sadly the returning title this time around is by far the weakest of the 'classic' Resi games. In fairness to Capcom, it has done a great job in updating the original version: the backgrounds here look even better than the ones found in Resi Remake Remaster Reloaded, and it also contains the same 'advanced' control scheme and widescreen options. There's no doubting the level of effort that's gone into getting it looking like it does, and if that's all you wanted to know, then buy away. For everyone else, however, a loving update sadly doesn't stop the experience itself from being barely worth your time.
Originally released in 2002 on the heels of the masterful remake of the original game, Zero is like a shambling Baldwin brother not named Alec, existing only in the shadow of something far greater, its few original ideas fleeting or flawed. It was the last of the old style Resident Evils, and for good reason: the series, at that point, looked totally knackered, reduced to repeating itself with diminishing returns.
Not that Resi Zero didn't at least try and shake things up - it did, creating its own set of problems in the process. Its biggest deviation from series norms (at that point) was the introduction of two controllable characters interacting in real-time: players can choose to control either STARS rookie Rebecca Chambers or escaped boy band member Billy Coen, flitting between them at will (with the AI controlling the other). Rudimentary commands - stop, go - can also be issued, and a good deal of puzzles revolve around splitting the team up and asking one to rescue or otherwise assist the other.
It was an interesting idea, but it was fiddly and laborious then and still is now. Two characters means two different, limited inventory slots which have to be managed, constantly asking players to swap over items, weapons, ammo, and whatever else in order to carry the optimum amount of stuff. If Resi 4's celebrated inventory screen resembled a sort of briefcase Tetris, seeing players rotate and organise items to maximise carrying potential, then Resi Zero's is akin to constantly packing and repacking a suitcase for two people about to go on the shittest holiday of their lives. It is as much fun as that sounds.
Other changes to the established formula have unwanted side effects. Concessions were made to old Resi rules to make Zero - and its constant inventory management - slightly more user-friendly: you could now drop items anywhere rather than lugging them back and forward to a storage chest. Players had clamoured for this addition since the first game, and while fine in theory, it actually means that instead of having one location where all your gear is stored, it's now likely be strewn across the map as you continuously try and reorganise your tiny inventory to house key items. Mikami's Resi is as much about forward planning as it is zombie shooting: the whole house is a puzzle with an optimum solution. But because you can now drop items anywhere, the game throws stuff at you with abandon, giving it a messy, inelegant feel, with the player never quite sure what they'll need at any moment.
With its key gameplay innovation falling flat then, Zero also has the misfortune of running out of ideas roughly an hour in, once the players violently alight the Ecliptic Express. In 2016 it may seem silly to think how much fuss was made over the fact Resi Zero began on a train, buy you consider that one of Resi's core appeals was that gorgeous, pre-rendered art style, then taking that much-loved aesthetic and applying it to a whole new setting was a cause for excitement. Sadly, this particular train ride lasts about the same amount of time as it takes to cross London on the tube, and soon you're back in another mansion, another drawing room, another corridor.
At times, Zero is almost a parody of what came before: its giant chess board puzzle (players move lifesize pieces around a board to unlock a drawer) seems like a deliberate nod to the ridiculous locks and mechanisms of entries past. If it is a playful nod then it's a good one, undermined by the fact Zero uses those very same puzzles and solutions as a crutch throughout most of its running time.
The penalty for moving the wrong piece in that puzzle - poison gas - is near identical to the punishment for moving the wrong suit of armour in the original's Spencer Mansion, and there are echoes of echoes everywhere. Crows crash through windows; Resi 2 and 3's sewers make a reappearance. A puzzle with a clock recalls a similar quest in Resi 2, so too an important corridor which recalls that game's morgue and armoury. Perhaps the most blatant lift is found in turning a light on and off before moving furniture to collect an item off of a stuffed and mounted animal head, taken directly from Resident Evil.
There are tenuous narrative reasons for why Zero's environment so closely mirrors that of the other games, but it's homage with no guile, empty pastiche, an appreciation of the original's style but not quite how it works. Resident Evil built beautifully, changing environments at just the right time to further a feeling of discovery. There was joy in finding new areas, and relief that you were on the right track. Zero's slavish appropriation of previous instalments' identities robs it of that joy, and so all you're left with is the relief that it might soon be over. There are no real highs in Zero, no big beats to mark your journey, with enemy and boss design being as tired as everything else. Giant bats! Big monkeys! Huge, erm, centipedes?
Resident Evil Zero isn't the worst game ever made, but it is an uninspired one, the last throw of the dice of an old style wherein everything relies on the skill of the director and the semi-static world they can conjure, and - to a lesser degree - the unique gameplay elements they can offer. Zero comes up short in all regards.
Version Tested: PS4