It’s often posited that ‘’familiarity breeds contempt’’. This maxim is especially true in the horror genre, where overexposure can reduce once-menacing-killers and grotesque monsters into irritating nuisances. For evidence of this phenomenon, look no further than Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees: previously-intimidating slashers who have become so ingrained in pop-culture, that their appearances have been rendered utterly banal. In fact, they’re so ordinary to us now that we’ve had to reinvent them as self-parodic cartoon characters!
If overusing a villain is a genuine risk in horror cinema, then it‘s surely even more of a hazard for video-games. For one thing, they’re typically longer -meaning that there’s a greater chance of antagonists getting stale- and then there’s the fact that you’re forced to replay any challenges until you can overcome them. Think about it, if you have to keep facing the exact same boss, then it’s going to feel less like an imposing confrontation and more like a tedious chore.
The thing is, even great games are guilty of this sin. Take Dead Space, for instance, an otherwise brilliant title that nevertheless blows its metaphorical load early on. Indeed, the opening hours of the cult-classic are very atmospheric, but as the monsters become more pronounced, the whole thing starts to crumble and we get bogged down in a sense of routine. Sure the Necromorphs are pretty intimidating at first, but before long you get desensitized to their repetitive jump-scares and wearisome ambushes. They only have so many tricks up their sleeve (like bursting out of vents and playing dead) and once they’ve been used up, then the impact is inevitably diluted.
Laura from The Evil Within is another good case study. Half-J-Horror-onryo, half-arachnid, she’s a truly alarming presence, guaranteed to make you lose your cool…Initially. Alas, she just keeps on returning, with all the persistence of an annoying cold-caller. This regular harassment continues until eventually you stop reacting to her arrival with a panicked shriek and instead let out an exacerbated groan. Tango Gameworks obviously wanted to create a sense of unrelenting danger with her yet, like many developers; they made the mistake of overdoing it and ended up subtracting from the horror, rather than adding to it.
Which brings us to Resident Evil 2 (2019), a game that clearly recognizes this pitfall and does its utmost to avoid it. The long-awaited remake exercises a surprising amount of restraint throughout, especially when you consider how easy it would have been for Capcom to indulge in hoary fanservice.
When it comes to rebooting/remaking/sequelizing things, there’s a tendency for the entertainment industry to amplify certain aspects of the original source, you know, the popular bits. Business acumen dictates that these things have to be capitalized upon and reinforced, even if it’s to the detriment of the overall experience. This can take several forms, be it a comically ramped-up body count (Friday the 13th sequels), a mind-numbing emphasis on action (Avengers: Age of Ultron), or an overreliance on gimmicky characters (Pirates of the Caribbean).
It’s this need to constantly escalate that led to some of the cringiest scenes from the Star Wars prequels and RE: 2 could have fallen into the same trap. After all, the original is a beloved artefact, considered by many to be the best in the series. Given this adoration, it’s easy to envision a remake where every nostalgic aspect of RE: 2 is cranked up to 11, with no regard for artistic integrity. In this scenario, the RPD hallways would be swarming with Lickers, there would be an endless horde of zombies to gun down, and Birkin would eventually transform into a giant Kaiju or something.
However, this remake has a welcome air of dignity preventing it from ever going too far. It keeps things relatively simple, at least by Resident Evil’s bonkers standards. For example, the aforementioned Lickers are deployed quite sparingly and you never encounter more than two at a time. This rarity means that, when you do bump into them, it’s still an exhilarating moment and they retain that fearsome quality they had back in 1998.
The same also goes for the zombies. Granted they are far more commonplace than the Lickers, but their number is still quite finite and you’re never in a position to take them all on at once. This is particularly relieving for fans, who were concerned that this would be another overblown, Michael Bay extravaganza, ala Resident Evil 6. That nauseating shitshow was the antithesis of horror, with approximately 6 million zombies clogging up the screen at any given time. Because the undead were so voluminous, they had to be underpowered and felt like inconsequential cannon-fodder as a result.
It’s therefore gratifying to see that RE: 2 does not continue this trend and actually restores the fear-factor. Again, it’s all to do with restraint, as this deceptively clever remake understands that it’s far more effective to scale back and return to basics, so that you can make just a handful of zombies a frightening prospect.
Finally, we have the infamous Mr. X who, for all of the hysteria he has generated, isn’t that dominant a presence. In fact, the only slice of RE: 2 wherein he is given free reign to pursue you is very limited. Unscripted encounters with the brute only occur when you are scouring the police station for electrical parts (he admittedly arrives a tad earlier in your B scenario) and other than that, his chases are all preordained.
His shadow may loom over the entire experience, but honestly, you spend most of your time in a state of apprehension- worrying that he might show up. The infrequency of Mr. X’s visits is crucial to his mystique, as it allows him to feel scary and imposing, rather than vexing. You dread his next arrival, not because you’re getting sick of him, but because he’s still got that new-monster sheen.
In short, RE: 2’s greatest attribute is that it doesn’t surrender to excess. Nor does it cram iconic creatures down your throat or overuse its stalker enemy. This understated approach makes it not only a faithful recreation of the original, but also one of the best horror games in recent memory.