Our review of Resident Evil 4, developed by Capcom. Available now for PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Xbox X/S, and Windows.
WHAT IS IT?
IS IT GOOD?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s the Aliens of video games.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
Horror gamers, action gamers, historians.
EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL
I’ve never entirely bought the hype for Resident Evil 4. Sure, it’s a good game, maybe even a great one. But it’s also plagued (see what I did there) by boring combat sequences that rely more on endless waves of enemies than any real sense of menace. RE4 may have invented the modern third-person action game, but in doing so it also abandoned the truly horrifying sensibilities of its predecessors, which remain some of the scariest video games ever made.
Much like James Cameron’s Aliens departed from the slow horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien in favour of blockbuster action, RE4 trades the insidious, malevolent atmosphere of RE1-3 for a far more over-the-top action experience. RE4 is a great game, but it isn’t always a scary one.
WHAT ARE YA BUYIN’
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: overwhelming players with hundreds of enemies is not the same as scaring them. The best horror games ever made – Alien: Isolation, Fatal Frame – generate their thrills through a genuine feeling of helplessness, of being equipped with paltry equipment or stalked by a single, overpowering foe. The most horrifying monsters are not cannon fodder: they are indestructible nightmares.
RE4 doesn’t agree with me. Instead, it hands me a handgun, a sniper rifle, a shotgun, and a rocket launcher and throws me into a village populated by thousands of fast-moving zombies, many of which have their own rocket launchers to fight back with. It’s a great deal of fun, mowing down these waves of ganados (RE4‘s uniquely Spanish brand of zombies), but it’s sometimes tedious and only occasionally is it scary.
For those who’ve never played it before (or need the refresher): RE4 puts players in the conventionally handsome shoes of special agent Leon Kennedy (returning from RE2, arguably the best game in the series) as he’s sent to, of all things, recover the president’s daughter who has been kidnapped by Spanish zombies. Yes, RE4 inaugurated the grand tradition of ridiculously stupid Resident Evil plots, dialling everything – the writing, the acting, the combat – somewhere well past an absurdly silly 11, a pattern which the series would (mostly) cleanse itself of by the time of the excellent “soft reboot” of Resident Evil 7. (Sadly, and as I lamented not so long ago, the recent Resident Evil Village was something of a return to the RE4 template.)
Across its twenty or so hours of gameplay, Kennedy will confront plague-infected zombie creatures large and small, go on the world’s most terrifying fishing trip, and unravel a vast conspiracy with intriguing links to series lore. With its incessantly propulsive plot, which flings you from village square to castle gate to abandoned quarry and beyond, RE4 rarely gives you a moment to breathe – which is mostly a good thing, because if you slowed down long enough to think, the plot might break your brain.
WHAT ARE YA SELLIN’
The absolute 100% best thing about RE4 is that it perfected the action genre. That was especially true at its original 2005 release on GameCube, when it wholesale invented a new style of over-the-shoulder combat, but it’s still true today: playing the RE4 REmake with its modernized controls, you feel like you’re playing the best kind of AAA action game.
Other updates to this particular REmake are a mixed bag. On the plus side, a lot of the campiness of the original has been toned down, resulting in a more anchored and therefore more atmospheric horror experience. Indeed, there are a few unsettling moments, not present in the original, where you can really see Capcom wrestling with the two competing strands of RE DNA: the one more action-oriented, the one more thoughtful, creepier. That extends to the presence of a few new enemy types, somewhat negating the annoyance of the original’s endless hordes of identikit zombies.
On what this reviewer would consider the negative side – though not all would agree – the game on the whole is now much easier. (I levelled a similar complaint against the recent Dead Space remake.) Not only is aiming and shooting much easier, frequent autosaves negate the “meta” fear of dying and restarting from an older checkpoint. Add in the new ability to parry attacks with Leon’s blade – at the (new!) cost of destroying the blade, forcing you to wait until you can repair it – and your survival is a bit more likely.
Perhaps RE4‘s biggest and most welcome fix is to the president’s daughter who – spoilers I guess – eventually becomes the sort of AI companion that was extremely in vogue in late 1990s/early 2000s video games. Do you hate escort missions? Well, RE4 is here to say it’s possible to do escort missions without spending twenty minutes trying to convince the president’s daughter to get out of harm’s way. Also welcome is the near-absence of Quick-Time-Events, another bane of early 2000s gaming, and one that I vividly remember derailing several sections of the GameCube RE4. If you have terrible memories of replaying certain sections of RE4 thanks to slightly mistimed button presses, you can be relieved that such nonsense has been excised here.
If I’m hard on RE4, it’s only because I blame it for sending horror video games off in a painfully uninteresting direction, prioritizing big action set pieces instead of slow, methodical scares. The Evil Within (from RE4 director Shinji Mikami), Dead Space, even The Last of Us: while these games all offer varying degrees of fright – I’m the first to admit that Dead Space had one or two moments that scared the bejesus out of me – they all, inevitably, descend into mindless combat against big dumb monsters. That’s something you could never accuse Fatal Frame of.
That said, and in spite of myself, Resident Evil 4 is ultimately a fun action-horror game. The combat is exciting, the set pieces are fantastic – at one point there’s a literal roller-coaster ride – and its B-horror/B-action vibe eventually grows on you.
RE4 is a hallmark of action gaming and worth checking out, especially if you never tried the original. I still encourage gamers – please, I beg you – to try out masterpieces like Fatal Frame or Alien: Isolation if you want to be genuinely terrified, but there’s a reason why RE4 is revered as one of the best video games of all time. Even if the rocket launchers are a bit much.
Final score: 9/10 Texas chainsaws.
Visit the official website for Resident Evil 4 here.