If you were to create a tiers ranking system for Resident Evil games, popular opinion would see Resident Evil 4 near the top.
2005’s over the shoulder romp through rural Spain redefined not only the franchise, but the survival horror genre and, more broadly, gaming itself. It retired the long-established norm of fixed camera exploration through individual rooms, introducing a more dynamic perspective that put you in full control of Leon Kennedy’s range of movement.
This has remained a staple in modern action titles, ranging from the blockbuster God of War series to the recent remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3. The reason it works is because it is fluid and responsive, and though it can take a little time getting used to the 17-year-old beta interpretation of this, once you’ve adjusted you’re flying through stages without a care in the world.
Call me crazy, but that last sentence is one of the biggest issues I have with this game.
As I’ve alluded to time and time again, I’ve been marathoning the Resident Evil series over the last year, starting with 2002’s remake of the original game. The tense atmosphere and precise level design of that entry showcased exactly what made people fall in love with Raccoon City and its denizens back in the 90s, and I eagerly set about undertaking the games sequentially from there on.
This would mandate a bit of time hopping back and forth, with the next two remakes releasing almost two decades later, before returning to the GameCube era for Resident Evil 0. Regardless, I found things to like about each game (some obviously more than others), with Resident Evil 4 remaining squarely in my sights.
It has been the most hyped chapter since it released all those years ago, and though I had a vague idea of some of the concepts, I was mostly going in spoiler-free; an organic first-time experience of the game PSM Magazine lauded as “a major milestone in gaming history”.
After I finished it, and for the majority of its duration, I concluded that it was mostly fine, and something I would be unlikely to play again unless there was a particular reason.
Loaded though this comment may be, it is not necessarily unique to myself, as this has become the consensus among those who clamour for a return to the series’ roots, not only deriding Resident Evil 4 as overrated but pinpointing it as the precise moment the franchise jumped the shark.
The caveat that I must provide, of course, is that I am not playing this game anywhere near its initial release date, where its high enemy count and quick time event action set pieces may very well have blown my mind. What it offered has since become standard, indeed proving a testament to how far ahead of the curve it was.
As I now slog wearily through Resident Evil 5, I do so with the knowledge that, for all intents and purposes, the game design that entranced me so would die with the deeply flawed Resident Evil 0, to be replaced for a time with hordes of foes and big beefy lads pulling off herculean feats of strength.
Trying to pinpoint why Resident Evil 4 didn’t capture my imagination could go so far as recognising that the third-person action genre doesn’t particularly interest me, but that’s something of a false equivalence; the remakes of 2 and 3 did hold my attention throughout their runtime.
The most apparent issue, I think, is that the sense of agency is never taken from the player. Leon is capably mowing down wave after wave of cultist, bobbing and weaving around enemy fire, without much impediment. The game’s solid AI means that you have to stay on your toes to avoid being surrounded, but even when your back is against the wall, you can easily turn the tables.
Ramp up the firepower with a shotgun, maybe, or pull out a knife to stun the nearest Ganado before clobbering a few of them with a roundhouse kick. It’s silly and high octane, and every minion you defeat has the potential to yield more ammunition or a healing item to keep you going.
Flashback to Resident Evil 2002 for a moment, and the long sessions spent in a safe room fretting over whether you have enough bullets to carry you through the next section. If you misjudge the task at hand and receive a bite from a zombie, is it worth proceeding at all? When was your last save? How much time would you lose? Do you have enough herbs to make up for it, or the space to carry an additional first aid spray? Would spending an ink ribbon on saving now leave you stranded a few hours later?
The shambolic gait of the walking dead makes them easier to evade, but it takes practice. Mistiming your approach results in a costly loss of vitality that can stymy the current run.
You feel powerless much of the time, and though you can strategise the ways to make Spencer Mansion less daunting by burning fallen corpses to prevent them from reanimating, even that is dictated by an ephemeral resource.
And honestly, that’s what I want from survival horror. I want to panic. I want to feel like I’m in over my head. I want my decisions to carry weight, and not merely rely on a combination of timely dodges and RNG loot drops.
Resident Evil 2 and 3 reintroduced a great deal of this, not only with the more oppressive atmosphere of a zombie invasion, but by toning down the ‘one man army’ aspect of its protagonists. Other than Carlos Oliveira squaring up to punch monsters in the fucking face, you’re left to feel like you are the prey in any given situation.
It’s not quite as dread-inducing as it was in Resident Evil remake, but it’s more in line with my expectations. With this in mind, I am looking ahead with great interest towards next year’s Resident Evil 4 remake, with its promises to return to a darker tone. Marrying the bombastic action with dreary environments? It could work quite well.
Trying to consolidate my thoughts as best I can, I’m left concluding that the classic Resident Evil formula makes for a more evergreen and unique experience — or at least this is true for me, personally. It was something that had been distilled to its purest form by the time the millennium had rolled around, featuring a gameplay loop predicated on anticipation and application.
You can be sloppy in Resident Evil 4, or even outright lazy, with little in the way of consequence beyond minor hindrances or a death offset by frequent checkpoints. To err from the path of laser focus in Resident Evil Remake, just for a moment, is a dire mistake that will likely cost you dearly. The stakes are much higher.
And that’s exactly what I want from survival horror. For survival to be horrific. Consider that to be a bit twee if you will, or a little on the nose, it’s merely my perspective on an argument that RE fanatics have been debating for years.
Resident Evil 4 should rightly be lauded for how it revolutionised the industry. It’s a solid, wacky roller coaster ride that emphasises fun moments and chaotic gameplay. I doff my cap for what it achieved, and then make my way back towards the Arklay Mountains to immerse myself in what I consider to be the franchise’s true peak.