To kick off RE Week last year, I wrote a piece expressing my general apathy surrounding Resident Evil 4. Though in hindsight, I was perhaps overzealous with my criticisms, my overall conclusion was that “after I finished it, and for the majority of its duration, I decided that it was mostly fine, and something I would be unlikely to play again unless there was a particular reason.”
Whether my ever-growing love for this franchise is softening my opinion nowadays, or if the diminishing returns of Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 dulled its rough edges consequently, I look back on it more fondly now.
There remains a precipitous drop in my rankings, however, between the remakes of the original trilogy (1, 2 and 3 claiming top honours in that order) and Leon’s 2005 offering — and this is even when one considers the bare bones nature of Resident Evil 3.
Those halcyon days back in Raccoon City represent “my” Resident Evil, I suppose, with their groaning zombies and spooky settings, prior to the series’ much-discussed tonal shift. But now, almost two decades later, we have a new contender in town with Capcom’s latest addition, Resident Evil 4 Remake.
Dropping in March of this year, its modus operandi was clearly to reintroduce the titular “Evil” with a darker palette and more menacing enemy designs. Shortly after its release, I penned a piece that approved of these changes. This was, by my estimate, the perfect distillation of RE4; a fine job of rekindling that lost spirit while maintaining the essence of the original.
Now that the dust has settled and I’ve finished the main campaign, I’m left asking on a more personal level, what that notion actually means to me. So let’s answer the question that has been on my mind for so long now… does Resident Evil 4 finally ‘do it for me’?
First, I wanted to explore that aforementioned atmosphere more thoroughly. Its most obvious example comes in the opening scene, which now takes place at night, forcing Leon to shine a torch on his surroundings as he delves deeper into the hunter’s lodge. It could just be me, but these darkened scenes amplify the graphical impact as you reveal each new horrific detail one by one.
It goes beyond mere visual spooks, of course, as brand new jump scares are applied masterfully throughout the game’s duration. It might be in the literal sense, with hulking Brutes busting doors wide open or a Parasite skittering past in a flash, or even something as simple as shoddy construction that causes you to collapse through the floor. It’s a shock that forces you to reorient yourself as quickly as possible, lest you find yourself surrounded — especially if you’d played the original, and hitherto safe spots are no longer so.
The boss fights in RE4 were already the strongest in the series, and now, there’s an additional tension added into the mix. The Verdugo battle stands out particularly in my mind. In 2005, it was exciting and potentially a bit startling, but with some tinkering to the soundscape and its movements, it has now become something rather terrifying.
I think this is one aspect that I noticed a lot while playing this remake. In its inaugural edition, the game was very much trying to be cool at all times, oftentimes very successfully so. This adherence to bombastic, high-octane moments would come at the cost of its horror, a necessary sacrifice to make for the experience they were going for.
It was revolutionary, but can you really say with confidence that it was in line with the franchise’s values?
2023’s Resident Evil 4 doesn’t need to try anymore. Everyone knows what the previous version was like, and if they want more of that, then jeez, they can just play that one again. The guffawing meathead boy’s club of RE4 has been toned down, and to some, this may seem like a brutal sacrifice. But really, I’m left questioning how much of that we needed in the first place.
Was the degradation and objectification of Ashley Graham really necessary? The constant misogyny from Leon, Luis and, should they so choose, the player themselves? She was a gag character, to be gleefully mocked and berated. For her part, she didn’t exactly endear herself to us, running off recklessly at one point while shouting “leave me alone”, only to spring a trap and require another rescue. It could have been generously described as ham-fisted.
This new Ashley is different. She is just as vulnerable (as she should be, considering her situation), but her fear feels realistic, even her initial distrust for her saviour. If you pay attention, you might notice that her panicked dialogue when she is being abducted by enemies shifts as the story progresses. She becomes more defiant, confident. Just as Leon had done in that fateful September in 1998 when the world went to hell, Ashley is growing. It makes you cheer for her, as opposed to jeering at her.
If this gives the impression that the spirit of RE4 was watered down or neutered, this really is not the case. Luis is still a lady’s man, with an increased role that enhances the story with every moment he’s on-screen. His interplay with Ada Wong is intriguing, and he fits into the underground chapter so naturally, you’d be excused for thinking he had always been present there.
On that note, the mine cart ride is absolutely bananas. While it was once a set piece that otherwise operated mechanically similar to standard gameplay, it is now a scripted experience. Instead of the slog of hopping back and forth to dodge Ganados, you’ll be gunning down enemies as they whiz by, exchanging frantic banter with Luis the whole way. It’s one of a few examples where gameplay is mixed up to be snappier and more memorable.
Overall, the experience is more streamlined, but not at the cost of content. There were some parts of the game I was not looking forward to as they tended to drag — whether it was the hedge maze, the Salazar statue, or the final showdown against Krauser — that no longer overstay their welcome.
Most significantly, the island which makes up the final act is no longer a chore, featuring improved pacing and gunplay. As much as I would have liked for U-3 to remain present, its sacrifice prevents the flow coming to a screeching halt. And as far as combat goes, swapping between weapons on the fly feels so fluid and natural.
EDIT: Shortly after I finalised this piece, Capcom dropped the Separate Ways DLC that reintroduced several lost segments from Leon’s campaign, including the laser room and the showdown with U-3. I couldn’t find a natural way to fit this in other than with a footnote here, but damn, what a wonderful way of keeping these classic scenes intact while still maintaining the vision they had in mind for the remake.
I used to grow tired of mowing down hordes of armed Ganados on that god-forsaken island. Now, I want to splatter their brains in as many ways as possible, with the tactical caveat that resources aren’t dropping to the ground so generously. This makes me contemplate and consider my methodology, where once upon a time I was bursting onto every scene like a deranged one man army.
And at long last, I don’t have to wince in fear that Mike the helicopter pilot will end Leon’s mission in premature failure.
Really, I’m left wondering what more could reasonably be done to improve this game. The expanded lore, moody ambience and crisp movement make this feel like a natural progression from its predecessors, while the open setting allows for a degree of immersion not possible in the claustrophobic halls of Spencer Mansion or the RPD.
There’s a GameRant article that valiantly reels off a few things that the 2005 game purportedly did better, but most of them come down to personal taste, and for the aforementioned reasons, one of them — suggesting that the original’s pacing was superior — I find myself disagreeing with outright.
I do definitely miss the Leon/Salazar back and forth though, I will admit.
Circling back to my initial point, when I think of Resident Evil, my mind rushes to that reverential trilogy set in Raccoon City and its surroundings. And yet, when I look at how content rich the RE4 remake is, how eerie it can be, and how satisfying it is to play, I must make the admission that it has toppled the lesser trilogy entry (RE3) for third place in my rankings.
Congratulations, Mr. Kennedy, you have done the unthinkable and bumped my beloved Jill Valentine off of the podium. You’ll most certainly have something to brag about at the next bingo night.