Being acutely aware of the very real difference between “I don’t like this” and “This is actually-factually a steaming pile of horse manure” is, I feel, an important skill that can help us all focus on things that match our own personal preferences while still keeping one interested eye on anything that falls outside of our usual entertainment bubble. However if taken too far (like the sort of person who would own a blog called “KimimiTheGameEatingSheMonster” might do) there’s a danger that mindset will lead to repeated and very frustrated attempts to understand the cool things everyone else enjoys that you just can’t see the appeal in: Personal embarrassments in this field include anything Mega Man, any Mario game that’s not called Yoshi’s Island, and Squaresoft’s legendary time ’em up, Chrono Trigger. But knowing I don’t like these games doesn’t stop me from being ignorant or envious of the charms they seem to have cast on everyone else, and hope springs eternal that maybe this time I’ll see what I’ve been missing all these years, this time I’ll finally overcome whatever invisible barrier’s keeping that juicy gaming nugget from me and I’ll finally gorge on its sweet gooey innards.
“This time” this time around is a game everyone else swears is one of the greatest pieces of entertainment ever created; a game that reinvigorated a whole franchise, smashed Nintendo’s unearned “Anything on that’s just for kids” labelling, and spawned a range of copycat takes on the formula in the years that followed… yet I can’t help but find myself wishing I was playing something – anything – else instead. The game I’m talking about – and heaven help me for admitting this – is Resident Evil 4.
I’ve been trying to like the game for years and years, approaching it in different frames of mind, at different times of the year (some games are just “winter” or “summer” games, don’t you think?), and on a variety of formats: I really was hoping this most recent attempt would end up going the same way as my fresh run through Resident Evil 3, a game I was politely indifferent to before but now I’ve made the point of spending time getting under its icky skin I can not only see the broad appeal but can genuinely appreciate and take pleasure in how it tried to shake up the then-standard survival horror formula. I just can’t reach that point of gaming enlightenment with Resident Evil 4… but what’s worse is I can’t even come anywhere close to it.
So I’ve tried to look at this weird blind spot in my gaming taste rationally: I’ve made a point of studying the tome-like Japanese guide book just to make sure there’s not some special technique I’ve been neglecting or a particular way of looking at the game that’ll make it all fall into place, I’ve watched videos created by expert players who’ve spent hundreds of hours with the game, I’ve read FAQs, and I’ve listened when people have enthused about it. None of that worked. I can see and understand all the little tricks and details going on in there, but being aware of them hasn’t done anything to alleviate the utter apathy I have towards Resident Evil 4. So with nothing to lose I thought if rational wasn’t going to do the job I may as well have a go at being irrational about it: Seeing if I can channel the excitement people have for that knife fight, finding nostalgic fun in playing as Leon in his old RPD outfit, and enjoying Ashley’s little fist pump when you snipe an enemy from afar. This is a game that lets you fill an attache case with fish, for heaven’s sake! FISH! I can think of a fair few games where the option of something as daft as a suitcase-bass-only run would be something I’d throw myself into with glee, but here? Nah.
So what the heck is my problem? Maybe it’s too silly? Maybe seeing the ridiculous mixed in with all the grisly bioweapon stuff’s irritating me? Says the woman who felt compelled to write a whole blog post when the original’s zombie shark wasn’t given the “respect” it deserved. So that can’t be it – I’m not mad this ganado-filled romp with added Eduardo from Extreme Ghostbusters isn’t dark and “mature” enough for my admittedly unrefined tastes. I can’t see it being a general aversion to Mikami’s approach to game design either – I think plenty of his pre and post Kennedy works are not just brilliant games but some of the very best I’ll ever play (Vanquish, PN03, the original Resident Evil, etc.). Hmm… I really don’t think I’m going to get anywhere with this unless I start breaking it down so let’s try to identify some simple surface-level irritations – not anything clever or worthy of in-depth analysis – just things that get right up my nose. Maybe if I can isolate these silly little snags I can then push past them and get on with appreciating the game itself.
OK so as far as I can see it the future of survival horror’s here and it’s very very brown. We’re talking original Quake levels of brown. Now games don’t need to look like an explosion in a Skittles factory to be visually interesting but this takes Silent Hill 2‘s muted tones and then somehow manages to make them even more mutated. Muted-er. Mooted? Not look exciting. My screenshots folder is a sea of uninspiring earth tones and it just leaves my eyes feeling bored. Even the original Metal Gear Solid trilogy, games that could be accurately described as “the blue one” “naked cartwheeling Raiden” and “the green one”, don’t come across as monotonous and washed-out as this. This visual blandness isn’t helped by opening in very by-the-numbers rundown rural village populated by pitchfork-wielding inhabitants – even if you’d been living in a cave your whole life and had never seen a horror anything do the whole “reclusive weirdos vs outsiders” thing before (even I have, and I am that reclusive weirdo living in a cave) it doesn’t draw me in the way the grand mansion halls, decimated city streets filled with the dead, and a cemetery stuffed with not-so-dead corpses clawing their way out of the earth (does nobody think an on-site graveyard is a bit of a clue that worker safety might not be Umbrella’s top priority?) did in previous games. At least I never have to worry about losing my way in this muddy miasma: I’d like to tell you that’s down to the handy objective markers on the map but there’s really no need to ever look at it seeing as the game insists on artificially dumping a mildly inconvenient mob around whatever exit I need to go through, no matter how many infected monstrosities I cleared out the last time I was wherever the heck I am. Thanks a lot for that Resident Evil 4, I appreciate the help.
Trying to find something slightly more substantial to complain about than “I don’t like the colour scheme” leads me to the gameplay feature that blighted an entire generation, QTEs. Good heavens if there’s one thing games don’t ever need, it’s QTEs. Resident Evil 4 decides QTEs are so much fun you get to run away from the same villagers pushing the same boulder twice, sling a few into boss battles just for the hell of it, as well as plenty of other button-mashy sequences of doom that could have been better handled any number of other ways, please. I own arcade sports titles predating this game by over a decade that literally have more thought and skill behind their controller-destroying inputs than Resident Evil 4.
One thing I have to admire is Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter and Leon’s reason for getting himself knee deep in bioweapon offal once again. This game manages to devote whole chapters to gaming’s most hated feature – the dreaded escort mission – and yet somehow nobody seems to notice the walking panty shot/jiggly tits/bucket (your choice, depending on the costume) Annoying-o-Tron you’ve been saddled with enough to moan about her like I’m about to do. I see her as a living contradiction of the game’s rules: sometimes she officially disappears for a bit and you’re safe to play the game like, I dunno, like it’s an action-based horror game or something, and sometimes you can leave her in what is definitely a safe spot where no enemy will ever spawn but because you’ve wandered a set distance the game deems just a little bit too far away some type of infected lackey will instantly and impossibly teleport in and capture her, your punishment for leaving her safe and carefully clearing out the area instead of dragging her and her one-hit-will-probably-kill-me-if-I’m-not-captured-first backside along with you. As a character it seems to me like her personality mostly consists of pointing out things you’ve already noticed, getting captured if she’s not hiding in a bin, and switching between being indignant in cutscenes and doll-like compliant in-game. Hewie, the striking white Alsatian from Haunting Ground, is more useful, a better companion in a crisis, and has a stronger and more consistent personality.
Now for all my whinging I can see these things are minor, specific to my peculiar tastes, and/or of no real consequence to anything. I can recognise these are non-issue issues, put them to one side, and finally… oh wait no funnily enough I actually hate the bones of the game itself. Oh dear. There’s one instance very early that perfectly encapsulates everything I cannot stand about the game: There’s a big open arena with lots of unsuspecting enemies hanging around that appears to be custom-made for one of my favourite things in all shooty games – expertly picking off bad guys from huge distances away using the rifle with the excellent reload animation I just bought from the large-coated merchant around the corner. I love these bits and I could happily do them all day long, nothing beats knocking someone off a guard tower with a single shot or watching an enemy fall to their knees before they even got close enough for you to hear them cry out in pain. Except here you only get to pick off a few token ganado through the nearby hole in the wall before you’re forced to enter the arena properly and the one sodding villager deliberately placed out of sight around the corner goes “Oi! It’s that troublemaking foreigner with the perfect hair!” (translation possibly not accurate) and suddenly they’re swarming in from everywhere and making a direct beeline for you anyway. Later on in the game I could perhaps understand this: by then Leon is a known problem that needs to be stopped ASAP and at that point you’re dealing with highly dedicated weirdos, not the Plagas-fied remnants of regular middle-aged villagers whose main points of interest are “Can still put a plate on a table and climb ladders” (not at the same time – that’d be difficult for anyone) but to give you that first taste of freedom and then immediately rip it away just seems… mean? It feels like someone on the design team decided this area was going to be a big battle scene, so a big battle scene’s what you’re going to bloody well get no matter what other opportunities you briefly thought you had. It feels like there’s no reward in thinking for yourself or trying to experiment with your shiny new equipment or Leon’s vastly expanded abilities when compared to the previous games because the ultimate outcome for every location has already been decided before you even got anywhere near the title screen.
But I love all of this “Fight some zombie hordes, then go fight some more” business when I’m playing Resident Evil 5 – I’ve even been going through it again just to make sure my feelings for it weren’t a case of rose-tinted fondness for a game that dares to mix a missile-throwing Wesker with a few Indiana Jones knockoff areas – I adore the siege scene in the first chapter that’s so suspiciously close to Resident Evil 4’s first big “enemies attacking the building” event that if they’d been made by two different companies Mikami’s team would’ve sued and won. So what’s making Leon’s scenario stick in my throat when the series’ co-op continuation is something I could merrily play all day long? I know there’s not much in it but I think for me the difference is this: 5’s first major gang-up takes the time to show you a huge group of infected people already congregating in the area, lead by another one brandishing a megaphone, as a chunky executioner goes about performing his gory job – it’s entirely reasonable that all of these guys are going to home in on you when the shouty in-charge guy spots you and tells everyone to attack. Resident Evil 4’s equivalent scene seems to have a bunch of regular goons show up and violently assault you for a bit just because they were worried you might need something to do and they leave because you’ve endured enough of the fighty business to carry on. Chris and Sheva’s game keeps forcing you into these cramped kill-or-be-killed situations where you’re once again in a restricted area being set upon against your will, whereas Leon’s presents you with a half a dozen different rooms and buildings to sneak in or around in an apparently quiet area before the game decides you’ve crossed the magic invisible line and it’s pile-on time again. To be more specific, my problem with 4’s same-but-different take on this “gotta fight ’em all” structure is this: It keeps on flirting with the idea that it might not be an action-based shooty game, or that running in guns blazing might not be your first and best course of action, and then goes and makes you to do it anyway. In 5 when enemies start clawing their way up chainlink fences or bursting through glass windows it feels more to me like you’re in a sticky situation and have to make the best of what’s happening around you, whereas 4’s end result – shooting your way out of a problem with a bit of running away thrown in for good measure – may be similar (or as close as makes no difference) but it tends to happen in places where you could have tackled things in another way, if only the game had allowed you to do so. As shallow as it may sound, it really is all down to the presentation: Resident Evil 4 has me playing as the lone infiltrator on a stealth-rescue-escort mission that doesn’t allow me to do any proper stealthing and makes the escorting as soul-sappingly un-fun as every other game that ever had you protecting a weak character against a horde of enemies as possible. Resident Evil 5 has me playing as a giant muscle-mountain or his cool new friend in a game that wants me to do lots of fighting and never feels like it’s pretending otherwise. This is why I can accept and enjoy Code: Veronica – which is in many ways an objectively poorer entry in the series and as much as I love it I wouldn’t wish to argue otherwise – because it knows it wants to be the action movie game in the series and it tries really hard to make the overall presentation and what’s asked of the player match up to that all-out mood. Likewise 5 offers you no or very little choice on a standard run through the game – you have to kill the chainsaw guy to get the key, you have to play hide and seek with Wesker if you want to live, you have to solve what few puzzle there are if you want to continue – but because it tries to do just one thing, well, there’s never any uncomfortable gap between what I thought I was allowed to do and what the game is going to make me me to do.
Calling the complaints above flimsy or shallow would be entirely fair… if I was trying to use them as points with which to “educate” others or claimed they were universal truths, which I am not. These issues are mine and mine alone, the result of a square personality trying to fit into a round game… hole. It feels like an act of gaming heresy but I’m going to say it: I’m officially giving up on trying to learn how to like Resident Evil 4, and I’m going to have to be OK with that. It’s important I allow myself the space to not enjoy something – and that doesn’t mean being a Marvin-spirited plughole of negativity trying to drag everyone down with them, all I need to do is realise this thing isn’t my cup of tea just like… like watching police procedural dramas. Or pears. My irrational dislike of the game may be, well, irrational, but it’s really not a sky-falling-in deal either – there’s no reason why I have to like this game, not when there are so many others out there that I do enjoy or would like to try out for myself.
And that’s really all there is to it: I have my own personal tastes and this particular game doesn’t fall inside them, even if it’s still clear to a sourpuss like me that Resident Evil 4 has been meticulously planned right down to the placement of every last chanting monk, creepy Regenerator, and roaming chicken. I can see and totally accept that a game I love to bits wholesale lifted enemy types, scenarios, and setpieces from this previous work even if I absolutely cannot stand their earlier implementations for no more meaningful reason than “The game annoys me like fingernails down a blackboard”. It is a shame I can’t get into it – who doesn’t want more good games to play? But if I can handle being comfortable liking games are obviously… not-so-great… then it’s about time I learned how to be comfortable with the opposite side of that coin too.