As Jesus himself once said, “If Thou hast a long running franchise, thou must do a prequel at some point.” Think about how many major horror and even non-horror franchises have gone back to past events at some point. Star Wars has an entire trilogy of mostly-maligned prequels, franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have two entries that supposedly explain the origin of Leatherface, and even games aren’t a stranger to this, with franchises like Yakuza actually managing to pull of prequels pretty well. Point being, the idea of a prequel is often times more enticing than the end product, and this is very much the case with Resident Evil 0, a game that in theory would shed some light on the origins of the evil that plagues the series.
The idea with prequels is to tell the story behind the story. That is, recontextualize what you think you know of a character (or characters’ origins), perhaps showing them grow into the person audiences know them to be. It’s always an interesting concept, and I have seen it work before, but more times than not it feels like a pointless exercise in self-reference and wink-winks to the audience. Oddly enough, Resident Evil 0’s storyline is kind of this, where it explains the origins of some things in the series, but is also mostly just another Resident Evil story.
Taking place a day before the outstanding Resident Evil REmake, Resident Evil 0 initially follows the exploits of Rebecca “Im’a Practice ‘Moonlight Sonata’ While Everyone Around Me Is Being Cannibalized” Chambers, a member of the STARS Bravo Team investigating the cannibalistic murders in the Arklay Mountains outside Raccoon City. Through a series of shenanigans, she’s separated from the rest of her team, goes on a train, and stumbles across Billy Coen, who is kind of guy that Mac, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, would like to be. He’s buff, he has an edgy early 2000s haircut, and he has tribal tattoos for some reason. He’s also an ex-Marine, and was sentenced to be executed for supposedly murdering a village of 23 people.
Together, the duo team up to uncover the mystery of the train and the anime pretty boy who sings in the mountains. The game has a strong opening sequence, with the train being a really refreshing setting for…well, any horror games, really. I can’t think of many other titles that are set on a train. It isn’t long, though, before the train crashes and they wind up in a mansion in the Arklay mountains overrun by the undead, and also leeches. Because, as it turns out, the anime pretty boy is Dr. James Marcus, the dude responsible for creating the ever-evolving T-virus by combining the Progenitor virus with…leeches.
And believe it or not, the mansion you run into that’s overrun with the undead is not the Spencer mansion, but a totally unrelated building that just so happens to also be up in the Arklay Mountains. Of course, this being a Resident Evil title, this place eventually blows up, which raises just all kinds of questions. Why in the original is this explosion in the mountains, which is pretty damn conspicuous, never brought up again? Why don’t we see the leeches, lame as they are, ever again? Why doesn’t Rebecca mention in the Spencer Mansion that she just so happened to already come across a place like this just down the road to the STARS Alpha Team? And why, oh why, is James Marcus an anime pretty boy?
Look, the series isn’t exactly known for high quality storytelling. When it’s not showing kind-of-dull character interactions (apart from the legendary voice acting in the first game), it’s delivering ridiculous, plot-hole ridden stories where no event—no matter how catastrophic—is ever brought up again. It’s an issue Capcom repeated in Resident Evil Revelations¸ a game that takes place in 2005 and functions as a somewhat-prequel to Resident Evil 5, in which an entire city is destroyed in a viral outbreak incident and is never once brought up in any other title. Call me crazy, but I can’t help feeling that something like this happening in the real world would be talked about for years to come.
No, instead, Resident Evil 0, like so many prequels before it, suffers from the “So what?” syndrome that is common in these types of stories. The most it adds to the lore is “leeches were used to make the T-virus,” but this has absolutely no impact on the rest of the series. As a standalone RE story, it’s mostly fine, with characters like Billy having the potential to be interesting (sadly, his execution, like most other characters in the series, is mostly just bland). It ticks all the boxes you expect from an old-school Resident Evil title, complete with gothic atmosphere, an underground lab, and a big boss that’s killed by a big weapon at the end right before everything gets blown up.
However, this game is not without its merits. While the story most definitely suffers from a case of prequelitis, the gameplay and the ideas it introduces are interesting and would be expanded on in future installments. The biggest, most unique hook is that players now control both Billy and Rebecca, and can switch between them on the fly. Unlike Resident Evil 5, which had full on cooperative play, this is still a singleplayer game, and the friendly AI mostly stays out of the way. By swapping back and forth between the characters, players manage their inventories and solve puzzles, with them oftentimes having to split up.
It’s a pretty neat idea, one that has decent execution. And unlike other games in the series, each character has unique traits that make them indispensable as a team. Rebecca can mix herbs together, but is slightly more vulnerable, while Billy can take slightly more punishment and use more powerful guns. It’s a classic team up, with one character being the vital support specialist and the other being the heavy hitter, and for the most part, it works. Inventory management can get annoying, though, which does lead to one of the game’s biggest detriments.
Making sure you have the space to carry all of your supplies and key items has been a hallmark of survival horror games for a long time now. In past Resident Evil titles, there were item boxes you could dump items off in, and they would magically transfer between other item box locations. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it let players manage their items pretty well. There are no item boxes in Resident Evil 0. None whatsoever. Instead, players must drop items right on the ground and come back for them later if they think they’ll need them. Remembering where everything is is absolutely vital to success, and it leads to some real pacing issues.
Perhaps the biggest offender is in the form of the Hookshot the player can get. Most people will leave it at the train crash site once they reach the mansion because it has no combat functionality and takes up two vital inventory spaces. However, there comes a point later on where players must use it to reach a gap in a ceiling, and it’s far, far away from the train crash site. So the game comes to a grinding halt for the player to run aaaaaaaallllllllllllllll the way back to the beginning of the train, grab the cumbersome Hookshot, then run aaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllll the way back to the area it needs to be used in. Letting players drop items wherever they want is an interesting idea that sadly falls flat on its face in execution.
For the most part, this is a standard entry for the series, although the monster designs lean a bit too heavily on “normal animal BUT BIGGER!” or “normal animal BUT ZOMBIFIED!” There are zombie chimps in this game for crying out loud. While the environments and main character models are (of course) gorgeous, the art design for the monsters really struggles to stick in one’s brain. Whereas I can remember numerous monstrosities from the original, its REmake, the second game, the fourth game, and even the fifth game to a certain extent, I struggle to remember much of anything about the monsters in this entry. They’re there, they’re fine, and you’re not likely to remember they exist once you put the game down.
That can summarize the game as a whole. As its own thing, it’s a totally serviceable, if not terribly memorable entry in the Resident Evil franchise, and it being a prequel just opens up even more plot holes in a series already riddled with them. It’s a shame Capcom didn’t go all out with this one, as it was the last “classic” Resident Evil game with fixed camera angles and stiff combat. While the next entry would blow expectations out of the water, it’s difficult not to yearn for a better swan song for the gameplay style the series was founded on. It doesn’t help that the REmake of the first game was released earlier in the year that 0 came out in, because that truly feels like a love letter to old school Resident Evil in every way. It was a tough act to follow, and Resident Evil 0 winds up coming across as being worse than it actually is because of it. Still, taken as its own thing, you can do much worse if you have a hankering for that old school style of survival horror. It may not be anybody’s favorite entry, but Resident Evil 0 still offers players a fun enough time as is.