Being outshone is never fun. That was unfortunately the case for Resident Evil Zero when it was released the same year as the acclaimed Resident Evil remake. Having to follow up the latter’s success, especially when taking into account that RE0 was in development for far longer than the remake, it seemed that the prequel faced an insurmountable task. The game still sold well, but 20 years later, it would seem that Resident Evil Zero has been left by the wayside by Capcom and its fans. But is that fair?
Resident Evil Zero takes place just prior to the start of Resident Evil, where the the Ecliptic Express, a train owned by Umbrella, comes under attack from a swarm of leeches. Two hours later, S.T.A.R.S. Bravo Team is sent via helicopter to investigate a series of cannibalistic murders in the Arklay Mountains outside of Raccoon City. However, en route to the Arklay Mountains, Bravo Team’s helicopter crashes, with officer Rebecca Chambers becoming separated from the rest of the team. She eventually comes across the Express, which is now eerily quiet. Entering the train, Rebecca soon finds herself locked inside, with the Express beginning to move. Further investigation reveals that the train is filled with zombies. Rebecca eventually encounters convicted murderer Billy Coen, who has recently escaped from the prison transport that was taking him to be executed. The duo must now work to together in order to stop the train, figure out what’s going on, and come out alive.
Much like REmake, Zero made use of pre-rendered backgrounds, with effects layered on top to create a much more immersive atmosphere. Obviously, after the release of Code: Veronica, Capcom switched over to real-time 3D environments, making this technique immediately dated. That being said, the atmosphere in Zero still remained spooky, with well-detailed locations. And as with REmake, Capcom was able to pull off some nifty tricks in Zero, such as dynamic shadows and eerie reflections from things like puddles and windows. It’s all tied together by the soundtrack by Seiko Kobuchi, who created a sense of foreboding in the game when it’s present, and immediately ratchets up the tension when the soundtrack goes silent.
Gameplay-wise, Capcom tried to switch things up with Zero, starting with the implementation of the partner system. Seeing as Rebecca and Billy were in it together, the idea of swapping between the two characters during gameplay seemed logical, and was a fulfilment of a similar idea that Capcom had come up with during Resident Evil 2‘s development that was never implemented. Rebecca and Billy each have their own abilities, which requires you to rely on the system in order to progress.
You could also have your partner controlled by the AI in order to fight enemies alongside you, or break up the duo entirely to have them explore different sections of the train at the same time. You’d still need to call your partner back in order to solve some of Zero‘s puzzles, which introduced more risk to the tactic if you had to run past enemies at a certain point, leaving your partner to run into those same enemies.
As a further shake-up in the gameplay, the series’ iconic storage boxes were dropped. In their place was the ability for you to drop and leave items on the ground in order to pick them up later. You also now had two inventories to manage. And while the idea of using one character as a mule for your weapons and ammo seems nice, the reality is that Zero doesn’t quite let you do that (more on that later).
And yes, if you weren’t careful, you could metaphorically paint yourself into a corner with your saves by being stuck with not having enough firepower to make it through an area. Hence why the game gave you an option upon reloading a save to start from the beginning of the game. There’s some room for error, but eventually you learned how to play the game “the correct way”, using the partner system effectively with the game’s new mechanics regarding items.
Regarding its Survival Horror aspects, Zero was definitely in line with the pre-Resident Evil 4 games in terms of the genre tropes: the constant unease when you ventured into an area, coupled with a lack of ammo and the eventual decision to either fight or dodge enemies with what little you had, and so on. However, you could start to see that the series’ move away from pure Survival Horror started here, not with RE4. Zero is still clearly in the classic RE camp, but the small things (the partner system, the inventory management) sowed the seeds for what was to come later.
However, these new seeds were also the start of problems with Resident Evil Zero. The absence of that storage box forced you to have to keep track of where you left key items if you dropped them, some of which may have been left behind in the same area you ran past a pack of enemies because you didn’t have enough ammo to kill them. Worse still, Resident Evil Zero ensured that you couldn’t use one of your characters as a mule for weapons and ammo by forcing you into situations where Rebecca and Billy needed to split up or fight alone, requiring you to juggle between the two inventories.
More egregious was the decision to go back to the original game’s idea of having something like a shotgun take up two inventory slots. When you have to drop said shotgun in order to make room for something like a keycard, it’s an outright poor decision to stick with a “classic” idea in the face of modernity. Another baffling decision was for Zero to stick with the tank controls of the original games. Keep in mind that again, REmake had been released earlier in the year, and had implemented a new control scheme option that brought the series forward. This is all after gamers had experienced a revelation in movement freedom in games like Devil May Cry. Tying Zero to the past in this way just added more clunkiness that felt extremely out of place.
If it wasn’t the battle between modern and classic that soured Resident Evil Zero, its story certainly added to it. Being a prequel, the story was essentially locked in to a predictable outcome for Resident Evil, as we all know what happened to Bravo Team and Rebecca. As a result, any sense of danger or excitement evaporated. Furthermore, the story added nothing significant to the series’ lore. What does the addition of knowing that leeches were used to create the T-Virus contribute, particularly when they’re not mentioned ever again after this game? Why does Rebecca not even mention the events of this game in Resident Evil? What’s the point of putting Rebecca through all of this when we all know in the first game, she’s made it out alive and well to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”? Sure, newcomer Billy has a bit of mystery to him, but his addition to the story is really inconsequential. The fact that he’s not appeared or mentioned in any game since Zero is proof of that.
Ultimately, Zero just didn’t bring enough new to the series, especially when compared to REmake. The partner system offered some unique gameplay moments, and was eventually refined in Resident Evil 5, but here it’s hampered by clunky inventory management, and the omission of game mechanics that were present from the very first game. The story was hamstrung with restrictions as a prequel, and really did very little to enhance the established canon. When compared to the superb REmake, Zero feels lacking, even today. As a standalone game, it’s still competent, and it’s certainly not an outright bad game. But when taken in context, one can see why the majority of fans (and Capcom) have left it behind.