I learned about survival horror from the first Resident Evil, and loved how Resident Evil 2 took that to the next level with a city full of zombies after your neck. When I loaded up the recent Resident Evil 2 remake on my PlayStation 4, it felt like revisiting an old friend, if that old friend happened to be a festering zombie with its guts spilling out of it. At the same time, it’d been so long since I played the original, the experience felt fresh—or maybe rotten is the better way to describe the zombie-infested evening.
I began my RE2 campaign playing as Claire rather than Leon, since that was the order I’d played the original. In the opening, a lorry driver is eating a hamburger that kind of looks like a disgusting slice of zombie brains stuck between buns. He accidentally runs over a zombie, but thinks he’s killed a pedestrian. Wracked by guilt, he steps out, unaware that he’s about to become zombified.
The action cuts to a prelude sequence in the petrol station that acts as a warmup and tutorial for players. The game proper begins once you reach the Raccoon Police Department Station. Ironically, what should be considered the safest place in the city has become one of the most dangerous, as it has been infiltrated by zombies. That inversion amplifies the sense of vulnerability as police officers, traditionally symbols of authority, are getting chomped up as quickly as the civilians.
The atmosphere within the station itself is genuinely creepy and the remake’s graphics are stunningly realistic. The rain showers down like nails, and many of the hallways have busted lights, drowning them in darkness. The zombies are gorier and more voracious than ever.
But here’s the weird thing. Despite how visually repulsive they appeared (like that one corpse whose necks muscles rip apart) and how much deadlier they were than in the original, the zombies didn’t scare me. They were obstacles I had to circumvent or take out, not monsters I genuinely feared.
To be fair, horror games in general don’t affect me the way they used to. Fear is, in many cases, a conditioned response learned through experience, and I’ve played so many horror games that I’ve been conditioned to shrug off most scares. The only time I felt fear in this current console generation has been the VR component of Resident Evil 7, which really got me in a sweat because I felt like I was actually at the Baker Ranch. Outside of VR, though, almost nothing has instilled the same level of fear the original inspired.
But I wanted to feel that knot of fear forming like a fist in my stomach when I first played horror games, arms taut and controllers wet from sweat and anxiety. And it did happen in the RE2 remake—just not because of the zombies.
The first time I felt something akin to fear while playing the RE2 remake was the first time Mr. X appeared next to the helicopter remains. Mr. X is the invincible Tyrant that chases Claire throughout the police station. The encounter was tense the first two times I confronted him. But after that, I realised I was able to outrun him in most situations and never felt threatened by his appearance again. (I haven’t confronted Mr. X in Leon’s playthrough yet, so he may be more deadly there.) A big part of this is also because the more frequently you see something, the less afraid you become of it. This is the case with the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, the relentless ghosts in what I consider to be one of the most underrated horror games around, Silent Hill 4, and even Scissorman in the original Clock Tower.
The first time I felt palpable fear in the remake was playing as another character, Sherry Birkin. Sherry is a young girl who’s trying to get to her parents and is hiding underneath the police station. After Claire sees her, she tries to help them both escape. Unfortunately, they’re stopped by the chief of police, Brian Irons.
In the original RE2, the first time you meet Chief Irons, he’s inside his office and has the corpse of the mayor’s daughter on his desk. A corrupt officer, he has a sadistic obsession with hunting animals that culminates in him targeting humans. Believing that he’s been infected with the T-virus, he’s doing his best to kill everyone in town, even causing disruptions among the police to ensure their failure.
In the remake, even before his first actual appearance, we get a sense of who he is in the taxidermy notes we find in his office. He writes about hunting a White-Tailed Deer and states, “I’m getting tired of working on these puny things. May be time to move on to more challenging animals.” Each of his targets gets progressively bigger, and there’s an ominous undercurrent to his need for more stimulation, with the final note describing a 529-pound Siberian Tiger: “I nearly came when I sliced its yellow belly open and its warm guts spilled out. I still smell of wild beast. This is the life.”
In the first encounter with Chief Irons, he threatens to kill Claire at gunpoint. He then orders Sherry to tie Claire’s hands up and shouts he’ll shoot Claire if Sherry doesn’t comply. He has no compunctions, ruthlessly threatening the young kid to get what he wants. Once Claire is tied up, Irons smashes his pistol into Claire’s face and takes Sherry away.
Shortly afterwards, you actually play as Sherry, locked by the chief inside a room in the orphanage. The fact that you’re weaponless and just a child means you have no means of fighting back. What makes this sequence so terrifying are the circumstances and the uncertainty of what awaits. Whereas Claire in her worst condition can still fend off zombies, Sherry has no chance. She escapes the room she’s locked in after solving a simple block puzzle.
In the hall, the purple walls have children’s art on them, which is an ominous contrast with all the violence that’s surrounding them. There’s even a poster with words written by a child that read “Don’t run!!” This has disturbing connotations since all Sherry can do is run.
She makes her way through the nursery, then down the stairs in the main hall. She finds Tom’s diary, an orphan who writes about another one of the children, Oliver. Oliver “came back in the middle of the night, all messed up, screaming ‘help me’ and stuff! I didn’t even recognise him at first; his face was all peeling and melted off.” What’s more messed up is that the adults try to cover it up by calling it “a skin thing” that will “get better soon.” Some type of experimentation was going on using the orphanage kids, and Chief Irons was either in charge of it or helped expedite the process.
The door out of the orphanage is locked so she has to sneak her way to the director’s room. There, the corpse of the mayor’s daughter, Katherine Warren, is lying on the table. There’s no explanation given for how she got there. But as she hasn’t turned into a putrefied zombie, chances are good this is Chief Irons’ doing. The chemicals bottles around her indicate he’s going to be doing some dissecting. When Sherry grabs the key, Irons shows up. But he doesn’t appear at all perturbed that Sherry has seen the dead body. Instead, he angrily tries to seize Sherry. Sherry, defending herself, grabs a bottle of acid and flings it in his face, causing half of it burn off.
Furious and in pain, Irons chases Sherry. It is a terrifying pursuit as the spaces are tight and Sherry has no way to fight back. Sherry hides in the nursery, but Irons comes in and locks the door. Sherry is trapped inside with him and I found myself extremely stressed. Half his face burned by acid, he looked more monstrous than the zombies. The police chief swings his flashlight around, searching for Sherry. I sucked at this section and kept on getting caught, leading to the game over screen with a “YOU ARE TRAPPED.” This sequence is the only place I actually died in my playthrough.
Zombies are deadly, but they’re also just flesh-eating automatons. Monsters like Chief Irons are much more insidious, able to stalk his victims and hunt them down. If Irons wasn’t in so much pain from the acid, he could have been getting a kick out of tracking Sherry, which is really unnerving to even consider.
Eventually, because I sucked, my wife, who was playing with me, snuck around Chief Irons. Irons eventually runs to the restroom to wash his face. We retrieved the key and began running towards the front of the orphanage. Sherry was able to unlock the door, but chains held it together from the outside so she couldn't escape that way. She had to run back to the director’s room. Along the way, there’s an eerie Shining tribute, with the chief breaking down a door with an axe.
I wondered to myself: why was I much more scared here than at any other part of the game?
It’ll Get Better Soon
A few days after I finished Claire’s part of Resident Evil 2, I went with my wife and our new baby for a checkup at our local clinic. We checked in and were waiting in the lobby upstairs when I suddenly heard shouting at the front of the clinic. A woman was asking to come inside with her daughter, but security had shut the door and locked it. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” the guard said, and told her that the whole clinic was on lockdown. They could not let anyone in. The woman begged to be given entry with her daughter and the exchange became more and more tense.
I was confused, wondering what was going on. A nurse came out, called us, and told us we needed to get inside ASAP. Above, we could hear a helicopter patrolling the area.
It turned out there was a shooting nearby and security had determined the clinic had to go on lockdown to protect it from something like a hostage situation. We were taken to a patient’s room where we waited to hear news about the shooting. It was tense and I hoped they’d catch the shooter soon.
A zombie apocalypse is terrifying to countenance, but more in the realm of fantasy than reality. But a human murdering others? It’s unfortunately become too much an accepted part of our cultural consciousness, considering almost 40,000 gun deaths were reported in the US in 2017. The idea that there was a shooter nearby our hospital was horrifying. My fear turned into anger as I sat there helplessly with my wife and my daughter, wondering what was going to happen next. I had to start calculating, what do I do if a shooter gets into the hospital? How will I be able to protect my family? Even with a gun of my own, would I really have a chance against someone who might be carrying an automatic machine gun? I have had serious conversations with friends who’ve told me they’ve been doing serious research about bulletproof backpacks for their kids.
We ended up staying for most of the day at the clinic until the police and security gave the all-clear. I don’t know if they caught the shooter, or they just got away. But I felt like part of the undead after that, so burnt out from the stress.
Unlike the zombies, who are relatively dumb, Chief Irons is the human kind of monster preying on Sherry. His threat felt so much more real than anything else in the campaign. When Sherry finally gets caught by the chief, he yells, “The game is over.”
The chief gets his comeuppance thanks to Sherry’s father, William Birkin, who’s become an even deadlier monster. He parasitises the chief, who dies when the embryo rips its way out of his chest.
I hope my kid never has to deal with human monsters. But the fear that feels all too real is what made this sequence so terrifying for me.