Set the night before the infamous Mansion Incident depicted in the first Resident Evil game, Zero is a prequel which provides some extra backstory to the sinister Umbrella corporation and more context to RE 1 & 2. It was first released for Nintendo’s Gamecube in 2002, but was recently given the HD treatment by Capcom and marketed alongside the remastered version of Resident Evil. Zero received a fair critical reception when it was first released: it boasted impressive graphics and featured a couple of new gameplay mechanics to shake up the traditional RE formula. Resident Evil games had normally allowed you to play through as one of two protagonists, but Zero instead included a “partner system” which saw the player in charge of two characters simultaneously. But with the passage of time, how does Zero stand up now alongside the rest of the franchise?
Zero starts with the player controlling Rebecca Chambers, the improbably young 18-year-old medic attached to STARS Bravo team. Rebecca soon bumps into the muscle-bound escaped convict Billy Coen, a 26-year-old ex-Marine sentenced to death for mass murder. In terms of tone and setting, Zero is a pretty dour affair, and the writing doesn’t invest either character with much personality. Rebecca will be familiar to anyone who’s played through Chris Redfield’s story in the original Resident Evil, in which she’s a secondary and largely passive presence. In contrast, here Rebecca is the heroine, but although likable enough she doesn’t really get much development. Her vague lack of personality kind of makes sense in that she’s not much more than a child, but Zero still feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Billy is a pretty generic foil who has largely been forgotten by the rest of the franchise.
For the most part Zero plays out like the first Resident Evil, but the controls have been loosened somewhat in the remaster meaning the game is easier to play. The “partner system” was one of the game’s selling points when it was first released, but then and now its execution leaves something to be desired. The AI that controls your partner is not very good, and you only have limited control over what your partner does. You can set them to attack or to remain idle, which has the predictable results that they either shoot wildly and waste precious ammo, or don’t do anything while a zombie munches on you. Although the system might seem well-suited to co-op, sadly this wasn’t included (and co-op has always been a controversial inclusion in RE games anyway). Moreover, your partner will often block you, fail to follow you through doors or onto elevators, etc.
The developers did manage to put the partner system to use in some of the game’s puzzles, but it’s somewhat damning to consider that the system is most effective when the two characters are in completely different places. Rebecca and Billy have different abilities, but this doesn’t really come off either. Billy has a lighter, while Becky can mix herbs (Billy must be one of the only people in-universe who can’t mix a green herb with a red one). Billy is much larger and stronger than Rebecca, meaning he can take more damage, and also that he can move objects Rebecca can’t. In practice, this felt a bit lame, as I preferred to control Rebecca for most of the game, clearing areas solo and only summoning Billy to pick up items or move some furniture around.
Zero features the dreaded inventory management of the early RE games, with each character being able to carry six items. You can transfer items between characters, but there are no longer item boxes to store your stuff. Instead, you can drop items on the floor. This is sometimes convenient, as it means you don’t have to keep shuttling items back and forth from the item box, but in practice save rooms tend to act as your item hubs anyway and you just end up dropping loads of stuff all over the floor. Which is about as elegant as it sounds. It also feels like Capcom had a bit of trouble balancing the game’s difficulty around the partner system. In theory, having two characters should make things easier, but in practice your partner is often more or less a liability. As in other RE games health and ammo are often extremely scarce, and even experienced Resident Evil players may find Zero’s punishing midsection to be harrowing work. Only towards the end does the game become more generous with ammo, herbs, and ink ribbons, and that’s probably just because nobody would ever complete the damn thing otherwise.
Resident Evil Zero is not a game without merit. Certain sections of the game, especially the opening, are quite atmospheric, and the old Resident Evil formula has an inherent appeal which will probably be enough to help most series fans get through it at least once. The graphics are outstanding, and at times I thought it looked better than the HD remasters of 1 and 4, which are both far superior games. But I found myself much less tolerant of the game’s weaknesses than I was when I first played it on the Gamecube a dozen or so years ago. In particular, the antiquated AI and punishing difficulty are likely to drive most players today to distraction. Zero will still hold interest for some hoping to mine it for lore about the origins of the T-Virus, but even this material is a bit disappointing, and one can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience. If anything, Resident Evil Zero’s most enduring importance is probably as evidence of why Capcom had to radically change the style of the franchise. Zero sold over a million copies when it was released, and its remasters have done slightly better, but it’s still one of the most under-performing games in the franchise (even worse than a curiosity like Umbrella Chronicles). New series fans drawn in by Resident Evil 7 should definitely check out Resident Evil HD, but should feel free to give Zero a miss.