Back to the amusement park
Resident Evil 4 is back, and it is once again a heck of a thrill ride that frequently had me down to my last bullets, desperately trying to nail a headshot to open up a stunned monster inches away from delivering a fatal stab or bloody beheading for a devastating roundhouse kick to give me the precious seconds to regroup and plot the successive beats of the dance. The experience is faster, louder, gooier, and brought to life in vivid detail thanks to the RE Engine, which has been powering an excellent run of Resident Evil games for the past six years. Several dead-on-arrival online games and an undercooked remake of the third mainline installment aside, we’re probably in the longest streak of quality the franchise has ever seen, kicked off in 2017 when Capcom made a hard course correction back into the close-quarters horror the games had strayed from. And while we’ve gotten to the more action-heavy portion of Resident Evil‘s history in the remake cycle, this might be the best one of the bunch. My first run through the campaign took minutes shy of 20 hours, and I am raring to go back through a couple more times.
The opening village sequence is a harrowing storm of axes, pitchforks, and a roaring chainsaw as former rookie cop and Raccoon City survivor turned vague federal agent Leon S. Kennedy is forced to very quickly adapt and improvise in his search for the kidnapped daughter of the U.S. president. It’s never quite matched by anything else that follows, and I’m not ashamed to say that segment kicked my ass like it was 2005. In part, because 18 years ago, I had far fewer games, particularly ones as tense as RE4, under my belt, and more broadly, I suspect we were all still getting used to the over-the-shoulder camera and pinpoint aiming combination that would come to define the third-person action game for the next two decades. Look no further than the laser sight for Leon’s starter pistol; it was a training wheels concession you automatically had in 2005 and an optional purchase in 2023, a helpful but by no means necessary throwback for fans. Learning to survive the village was learning to play the video games of the future. These days it is all standard and requires no introduction. Leon can move while aiming, a common complaint of the original which tends to ignore that the combat was a fine-tuned engine, has no frills stealth option to open encounters with, and parrying mechanic with the knife. So in turn, the crowds of enemies are far more aggressive in surrounding you, interrupting vulnerable reloading animations with shoves and slashes, and grabbing you, opening you for a finisher from a buddy. You rarely allowed the comfort of dealing with trouble from afar.
The quieter moments are my true happy brain chemicals sweet spot, though. Rummaging through rotting houses for supplies. Reloading my always on-the-verge-of-empty guns with a few shells knowing that they won’t last long into the next time I’m jumped by a swarm of parasite-infected monks. Hunting down treasures (still hilariously antithetical to the story’s immediacy) to sell to the mysterious and charming Merchant, who pops up just when you need him with a gruff laugh. Organizing my inventory in the returning and just as addicting attache case, so endearing it spawned its own standalone fan game and now a feature that was part of the earliest marketing. All set to nothing but the sound of your footsteps, the wind blowing through spindly branches overhead, and the occasionally unaccounted-for and worrying creak or groan. Spooky resource management and procurement is my jam, and RE4 is all the way up my alley. The RE Engine’s use of scanned real-world objects and faces, high-quality textures, and subtle character animation, along with smart use of lighting, camera movement, and sound design, all come together to create this magic where the mere act of navigating creepy hallways, shining my flashlight into dark corners, and clicking on objects is a profoundly tactile and engrossing experience. Is there an ever so slight wiggle in my PS5 controller when I pick up a box of ammo and the loose bullets clink against each other and softly hit the cardboard, or is the feeling conjured by the excellent foley coming from my surround sound system and the controller’s onboard speakers? These new Resident Evil games are a joy to simply exist within. Let me live in the Merchant’s delightfully pirate-themed shooting gallery.
So Resident Evil 4 is back, but did it ever really go away? The original is playable on nearly every device that can run a video game. It’s received multiple official and fan HD remasters and, recently, a VR edition. More broadly speaking, it is one of the most influential action games ever made, standardizing the over-the-shoulder camera to the point where the “RE4 camera” was shorthand to pitch action shooters for years. Its influence is felt pointedly in 2023 after cutting my way through the excellent and even more “time is a flat circle” Dead Space remake and looking forward to seeing what the Silent Hill 2 remake has to say, which will drop the fixed camera style of the original in favor of the more action-oriented one. I could have sworn one of the Bloober Team developer interviews used the phrase “RE4 combat,” but I can’t find it now; I guess my brain still immediately fills that in. And much as Resident Evil 7 homaged the first game, 2021’s Village was positively soaked in 4‘s influence. Protagonist Ethan Winters fights off hoards of aggressive, intelligent mutated humans while exploring a muddy, wood and stone village. He creeps around a puzzle-filled castle with an oddly proportioned master. He battles a giant fish monster on a lake. He collects treasure and upgrades his arsenal with an eccentric traveling trader. It was all exceptionally on the nose.
Remakes are constantly in conversation with their pasts, they carry baggage from their original contexts and invite exploration of legacy, influence, and necessity, and RE4 ’23 comes with plenty. It’s the fourth mainline remake in the franchise (setting aside handheld and mobile versions and other old ports that would be seen as remakes these days, etc.) and easily the least radical in terms of glow up with what it brings to the table. Director Shinji Mikami returned to the original 1996 game in 2002 to utilize the full weight of then-modern technology and clever redesign to elevate the Spencer Mansion adventure to the absolute peak of what the original vision of Resident Evil could be. Years later, RE2 and 3 came to be on the idea of “what if these old Playstation games played like RE4?” and, in so doing, affirmed Resident Evil‘s shambling corpses could be scary once again, out of the context of the divisive tank controls and fixed camera angles and in the implied safety of being able to aim down a hall at their faces. So here we are in 2023 with a game that, 18 years after the original, the latest in a line of remakes descended from it, boils down to “What if RE4 played like RE4?”
And you know what? It’s a blast that’s also an experience that has left me wondering how far games have come since the 2000s. A game playing like Resident Evil 4 in 2023 is… a lot of games. Sure, individual hair strands are meticulously rendered, the fur lining on Leon’s iconic coat is perfect, the lighting dynamically bounces off surfaces, and loading times are barely present. But many of the major beats of this adventure were pleasant but not exactly revelatory trips down memory lane. And this is, of course, because of nostalgia on my part; even though I think of myself as a newer fan, I’ve been playing these games off and on for 20 years now. And the thrill of getting squashed a dozen times by El Gigante in a thundering storm and finally conquering him by the skin of my teeth just isn’t the same. Because of where I am in life, it couldn’t possibly hit like it once did. Mechanically, the showdown hews closely to what I remember, he stomps around, can rip the roof off the little shacks now but doesn’t swing any trees around, and Leon can once again recruit a wolf pal in an earlier chapter for an assist. It could very well have that original impact on fresh eyes, but the context is different; so much has been directly inspired by those high notes over the years.
And nothing here is on the level of RE2‘s reinvention of the Tyrant, a murkily remembered second-string antagonist reborn as a relentless force that hounded Leon and Claire through the RPD just as they were becoming comfortable navigating its maze. Later pursuer enemies informed his design, and he was the kind of surprise that really made you appreciate what a remake like that could do. He was such a memorable presence he spoiled the Nemesis, the Resident Evil stalker, in the sequel by comparison. The battle against Leon’s old military mentor, Krauser, is significantly retooled, using the new melee options to full effect and dropping the QTEs outside of a few generous dodge prompts, as they have fallen out of style in recent years and had to be high on the list of cleanups. It’s a more involved and satisfying battle, but that cutscene knife fight, frustrating as it was, left a hell of an impression.
The original game was famously mired in development hell for years, starting in the very late 90s, with several fascinating but scrapped iterations shown off that still live on in fan memory (figure out how to drop Hook Man into one of these games, Capcom) and spawning at least two other unrelated games from the process. The game we know now only started to take shape in the final years of this effort, and it shows in the breezy approach to tone and a slide from horror into just shrugging and saying it’s a goofy action movie now. The dread in the countryside, the part that always exuded the most developed sense of personality, gives way to Leon blowing up robed religious zealots using medieval weaponry and fleeing a giant runaway mechanical Napoleon statue before arriving on the island military fortress to flip through laser hallways. This leg of the journey drags, and the strain on resources is apparent. That it was all thrown in off the cuff is one of RE4‘s many charms. Carried by the rock-solid loop of mechanically precise combat/light exploration/prep work and played off with a smile. Leon’s one-liners, cheesy, often falling flat and feeling like they came from a guy in the awkward process of reinventing himself as a cool action hero, are memorable because of the game’s willingness to roll with it and not take itself too seriously. So much of it was a reach, and you couldn’t help but admire the effort.
Flash forward to 2023, and much returns. Many of the big crowd-pleasing lines are still there, or now trophy names. The statue lessened to a hazard spewing fire as you ascend a clocktower. Leon can still pull off suplexes. Shooting the lake checks off a mandatory joke. But it comes from a wholly different place. Resident Evil is not casting off the past and moving “in a terrifying new direction,” as the back of the Gamecube case proclaimed many years ago. For better and worse, this is the polished, prestige AAA video games circa 2023 Resident Evil 4. Once goofy quirks are now sacred, likely fiercely debated over in meetings, and aligned with The Brand. And it’s not all bad! Capcom put great care and effort into making every little moment more cohesive, a little classier (it’s OK to lose the very 2000s casual sexism), and in general, putting an extra shine on everything. The later chapters are far more shadowy, in line with the opening’s mood. The disparate aspects of the Los Illuminados cult and their experimental bioweapons are pulled closer together with additional lore and updated designs that stress the folk mythology angle. Salazar’s castle is decadent and decrepit and oozes a history of funhouse traps and hidden secrets just behind the gilded halls. The maps are interconnected, giving each of the three main areas a new sense of place and geography in line with Village. Leon’s characterization is grounded in his traumatic experiences of RE2, and his evolving relationship with Ashley is the anchor of the whole story, which might tug on the heartstrings this time around. And there’s still time for a Temple of Doom minecart ride where a man with a chainsaw on a parallel track chases you.
As I write this, The Mercenaries minigame just dropped a few days ago and made it clear that the updated combat is still a hoot as a score attack mode, though it feels all around too easy to snag S ranks; I hope the map and character roster gets filled out with a future update. And while no announcements have been made yet, the Separate Ways campaign, which I never got to play, is likely on the way, and I would guess planned to incorporate several setpieces from the original that are referenced but not explored, like the cable cars and the U-3 boss. I’m currently in my second playthrough on the Professional difficulty and making a clown show of it with the infinite ammo Handcannon magnum. Resident Evil games kicking your ass the first few times and then getting revenge with unlockables is a powerful part of the experience not to be skipped just because the credits have rolled. So while RE4 ’23 makes me question if a remake is even necessary given the source’s enduring legacy, it is a testament to its quality that I can side-eye its reverence to the past, which crushes some of the original’s personality into an acceptable modern mold, and still pump my fist when thinking about it. Perhaps knocking it for not being something we’ll still be talking about in 20 years isn’t fair, but the thought lingers. Though that cavalier, devil may care (there ya go) willingness to throw it all at the wall may be diminished, the united vision of Resident Evil 4, familiar as it is, is a pretty compelling package.