What? What is this? No, not blood - it's an HD conversion of the 2002 Resident Evil prequel, which covers the origin story for the original Resi, which got its own HD conversion (opens in new tab) last year. But where that conversion seemed rushed, Zero's is much more convincing, looking passable as a modern release. But it's more important than that. Since Zero represents the last entry in the 'classic' series (before Resident Evil 4 (opens in new tab) came out and changed everything), yet was Nintendo-exclusive until now, it might be the last taste of old Survival Horror left in the rusty faucet.
In case you're not familiar with vintage survival horror, you spend your time piloting (and I use the word advisedly) your characters through creepy, pre-rendered environments, attempting to solve puzzles to progress deeper into the game. It's almost like playing through security cameras, which restrict your view of the lumbering zombies and other monsters trying to chow down on your innards. And while you can shoot them, you have to do so from that detached, third-person viewpoint (no over-the-shoulder aiming here) and with extremely limited ammo.
Sometimes avoiding conflict is better than getting involved, which is something the modern games elected to forget, focusing instead on gunplay, headshots and crowd management. But if the classic formula sounds too familiar to you, there is a slight twist in that you have two playable characters available to you for most of the game. You can switch between them, trade items and elect to split up.
It's worth mentioning that escaped convict Billy Coen is the most early-noughties character ever devised, complete with tribal tattoo down his arm. But he's a decent counter for Rebecca Chambers' headstrong rookie personality. The management of two characters and their respective inventories is arguably more hassle than it's worth, but at least it's something different in a very familiar template.
A side-mode unlocks once you finish the main game, replacing Billy with Wesker. In it, Wesker harnesses the power of Uroboros from Resi 5, with which you are able to sprint down hallways (Shadow Dash) and charge up your glowing eyes (Death Stare) to pop zombie heads. Yes, really. It's super-daft and definitely not canon, but at least offers long-term fans something genuinely new to enjoy/speedrun.
As with the Gamecube version, you can now drop items anywhere and at any time, which means you don't have to keep returning to a safe room to swap out inventory items. There is a new control stick option that moves in the direction you push, but the shifting camera angles makes it very strange. It's definitely better to stick with the tank controls – and play it with the D-pad too. In a game this unashamedly old-school, digital input feels best.
Except when it comes to the format of the screen. Zero's conversion appears to have had much more attention lavished on it, which includes full 16:9 Widescreen support, which the original didn't have. The reason this is possible is that – unlike Resident Evil HD (the remake of the remake of the original game), all of the pre-rendered backgrounds have been retextured for 1080p on current gen, preserving the look of the original, but adding crisp, curved edges and far clearer incidental details like writing on signs.
This extra fidelity extends to the audio too. The sound design already complemented the visuals perfectly on Gamecube, all echoing footsteps on tiled floors, creaking doors, and background 'music' that could almost be diegetic. But the whole game's audio has been remastered, with added support for Dolby 5.1 and it really shows. Gamecube games often had significant audio compression to fit everything onto those tiny discs, and now that restriction is lifted, the difference is really noticeable.
However, not quite everything has been given this remastered treatment: the 3D objects like doors and stairs on loading screens have very rough textures, which takes you out of the moment a little (and I'm surprised the loading screens are necessary at all), and the FMV cutscenes have some serious colour compression problems - presumably leftover from Gamecube. But these are small blemishes on the face of an otherwise beautifully remastered game.
So to the scares. It really isn't scary any more. Atmospheric, yes; scary, no. The unfortunate thing about the aging formula is that the game design is too apparent. You can predict boss battles because of the size of the room. You can tell what you're supposed to use new weapons on, work out whether you need to waste ammo on bullet sponge enemies at all, and even manipulate the massively antiquated (in all senses) typewriter save system so that you always have the upper hand.
Problem is, you really need to play the system with trial-and-error and use of reloads. It's entirely possible to miss a few too many shots and find yourself with no ammo left to take down a boss, and if you haven't been making backup saves, you're effectively forced to start again. Similarly, having a finite number of saves is fine, but dying after half an hour of moving items between rooms and characters is incredibly frustrating. I appreciate death is supposed to mean something in a survival horror game, but modern gaming has eradicated this kind of design. It's old, punishing and annoying. And since the game is very hard, even on normal, the problem is frequently apparent.
But while it takes a long time to get used to the game's annoying hangovers from '90s design, eventually you will develop a tolerance. And when you do, Zero is still a very good creepy puzzler. It's perfect for playing late at night, under a blanket with headphones on while it rains outside. That's probably not good for your psyche, mind - personally I still have 'combining ammo in preparation' zombie dreams from years of playing games with this system in the late '90s. You do a lot of inventory management here and it may have an effect on you for the rest of your life. Just saying.
It's bittersweet to say there will never be another Resident Evil game like this one - it's far too clunky and slow-paced for modern tastes. Even so, give it time and adjust to its eccentricities and there's some gameplay meat and even some brains to get your teeth into.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.