Resident Evil 4: Come back any time!

After many long and fruitless years of trying, Resident Evil 4 and I had finally come to some sort of understanding: we just weren’t made for each other, and as disappointing as that is, that’s OK.

And then, just as I was finally getting comfortable with that thought, this brand new remake came along—finally a true remake, rather than another port of a port of a port—cut from the same cloth as Capcom’s previous two highly successful reimaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3, giving me one more one more chance to find a version of Leon’s Adventures in Spain to call my own.

I suppose it’s time to once again enter the world of survival horror—wish me luck…

This new game’s an unapologetically modern take on the 18 year old original, neatly slotting into 2023’s expectations of the series (and the genre) without much fuss. Certain aspects of Resident Evil 4’s unique character and rough edges have either been polished up or smoothed out in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, and although its almost blasphemous to admit this, I welcome this newfound homogeneity. It is better if an ongoing series—one where each numbered, connected, entry is released within waving distance of the last on the same hardware—retains the general framework and identity of the games that came before it. Nobody wants to have to relearn how to run and shoot every damned time, especially when the running and shooting already worked just fine one game ago.

And in any case, when the games are as consistently good as this, another helping of the same sort of thing sounds more like a promise than a threat. I’ve never liked every choice Capcom’s ever made with these remakes: I do feel the modern team’s idea of “challenge” tends to make enemies more bullet-spongey than dangerous, and as Resident Evil 2 couldn’t include the original’s A/B game system for numerous reasons it might have been better on balance to not try at all, but I appreciate their willingness to try and capture the soul of these games while altering or even axing anything they either can’t keep or simply has no place in modern gaming.

I’m sure it’s this respectful yet unsentimental design process we have to thank for the scrubbing of all QTE and QTE-reliant events from this new vision of Resident Evil 4. No longer do we have to mash a pair of unrelated and changeable buttons to run away from something or dodge an incoming attack, as if the standard controls that work just fine for everything else are suddenly no longer fit for purpose. Which isn’t to say nothing dramatic happens outside of designated cutscenes—there are still plenty of wriggly parasites and glistening eyeballs in there just begging to be introduced to the sharp end of Leon’s knife during a dynamic close up—but there’s a new sense of consistency and seamless integration to these scenes that wasn’t there before. When El Gigante: 2023 Edition falls to his knees, exposing the writhing growth on his back, you (assuming you want to) press the usual multipurpose melee attack button to climb on top of him, followed by the same button you’d hit to swing the knife in any other situation. The famous knife fight against Krauser now plays the way it used to look, sparks flying off their blades when they make contact and the newly rewritten dialogue, which if anything making Krauser even more of an ’80s-style broken action movie villain than he already was, playing out as the fight goes on, it reacting to you, rather than the other way around. The same actions—parry, evade, attack—produce the same results no matter what’s going on, and that means all of the fancier motions and more spectacular outcomes belong to you, rather than the characters.

The other members of the cast have also been given a once-over by the same critical eye, happy to question whether a “classic” line or reaction is really as unreplaceable as certain sections of the internet may make it seem. Leon no longer addresses the first Spanish guy in Spain he sees in nothing but English and then immediately reaches for his gun when that conversation—our hero obviously not understanding what’s being said—doesn’t work out the way he wanted it to, but makes a genuine attempt to engage with someone on their terms and in their language. The original’s unfortunate dabbles with casual sexism have also been eliminated, saving us all from the tired mental gymnastics of “Well, he’s a nice guy apart from that bit”. Luis no longer makes a cheap comment about Ashley’s “ballistics” when they meet (Luis’ greatly expanded role is more endearing all round), and as she’s wearing a skort it’s no longer possible to peek between a vulnerable young woman’s legs while she’s either minding her own damned business or running for her life. Even Ada, the sexiest professional triple-crosser ever created, now looks like she’s made an honest attempt to dress for the job at hand while still wearing a very flattering pair of ass-high stiletto boots.

Leon may no longer be in a hurry to make misguided quips about “equality” when he sees a woman brutally pinned to the wall with a pitchfork but he’s still got a mouth full of sarcastic (and often genuinely amusing) one-liners ready to go. His exasperated been-there-done-that-rocket-launcher’d-the-monster attitude now carries a new haunted undertone, although any fears that this is an attempt to turn him into the same sort of dark brooding slab of muscle they’ve gone and made Chris Redfield in Resident Evil: Village are unfounded as these fleeting darker comments only enhance the grisly horrors before us: after all, if Leon is bothered by this stuff, then it’s got to be really bad.

This skilled refresh of the script can be felt in every corner of the game, breathing life and logic into all the places where the old story would shrug and say “This happens because we said so”. Saddler’s telepathic influence over the infected villagers is seen more frequently (and experienced directly by the infected Leon and Ashley), which does a much better job of making those torch-wielding hordes come across as a mind-controlled mob chasing the characters with intent, rather than clumps of Monster A artificially placed between you and where you need to be. You’ll even feel the odd pang of regret when suplexing these villagers into oblivion thanks to the new blue coloured challenge notes dotted around everywhere. On a practical level they’re just extra tasks to clear for useful rewards (“Kill X of these”/”Destroy X of that”, etc.), but as they’re all written in character by nameless individuals—disgruntled locals trying to rid themselves of the cult, give weird aristocrats the middle finger, or sort out a plain old rat problem—you’re reminded again and again that actually, this isn’t just another day in rural Spain; something has been going wrong for a while, and the people living here didn’t want it to happen. Naturally the series’ notes and files have always imbued the monsters you face with some sad echo of a life cut short, but this steady stream of snippets focusing on the mounting fears and minor grievances of ordinary people, rather than high-profile researchers or capital-D Doomed individuals, brings a new angle to these established tragedies.

So carefully have these various additions and alterations been woven into the existing framework you’d almost believe they were there all along: being able to insta-switch between up to eight weapons or grenades can be assigned to the d-pad, drastically reducing the time you spend rummaging around the inside of an attaché case, is just better, as is the whole world not coming to a halt every time you pick up a common item anymore. Ashley’s health bar has been removed in favour of a Gears of War-ish partner-recovery mechanic that keeps her vulnerable without being an active hindrance, and she’s now as good at following Leon from A to B as I always wanted her to be, making the escort portions of the game feel protective and heroic, rather than that they were made by someone who hates me, specifically.

More drastic embellishments are found in the minecart section, which has been brilliantly redesigned with The Temple of Doom firmly in mind, and there are brand new brief flashes of a cold, dreamlike, alternative reality as Leon struggles with the parasite growing inside him, recalling the hallucination-based versions of Resident Evil 4 we were due at one point during the game’s troubled development.

Because the game gets so much so right so often, whatever has been omitted along the way only ever comes across as an honest attempt to iron out a few unpleasant bumps in the older and currently better known road. After all, nobody honestly ever thought “Yay, time to stop everything for a laser-aligning puzzle!” while playing their grenade-throwing, Ganado-bothering, action game, did they? And although that giant statue’s new appearance isn’t as gleefully over the top as it used to be, the part everyone actually remembers is the few seconds where you’re (QTE) running away from it, not the dull up/down switch/ladder/moving hands puzzle that comes just before that moment. It’s fair to say that the new sequence will not go down in history as top-quality GIF material, but when it’s so much more fun to play, does it really matter?

I want to stress that although some things a have been omitted, that doesn’t mean they and a hundred other details are missingthere is no point where you feel two corridors have been welded together to crudely “fix” an old problem, or that there’s a clean and clear distinction between the quality of anything lifted wholesale from the original and the new segments that surround them. These changes are as meticulously crafted as Resident Evil 4 always was, and they’re all still filled with the same little “tricks” designed to help you even the odds in what often seems to be an impossible situation: the oil lantern quietly swinging above two enemies, the hand grenade left lying around a place that’s about to be flooded with enemies, the explosive barrel positioned just so. You won’t necessarily catch them all before you’ve wasted your ammo fighting in the usual way on your first (or second) time through, but that’s just a sign that Resident Evil 4 is still at heart the same game it always was: these things are there if you think to look, but this modern take, released in an era where people expect to see and do and unlock everything sooner rather than later, is not going to funnel you into every helpful nook and cranny for fear of you missing out on the authentic Leon S Kennedy Experience™ if you’re left to make your own decisions.

So it’s clearly an impressive game, but it’s equally clear that a remake of this size couldn’t have happened without the extensive (and expensive) groundwork laid down by all of the other RE Engine games that came before it, without the full range of four full games worth of photorealistic props and virtual people to draw upon. We have Resident Evil 2 to thank for Leon’s and Ada’s faces, a few gleaming baroque details in Salazar’s home have surely been pilfered from Village’s Castle Dimitrescu, and that wooden dresser in a villager’s home looks eerily similar to something you’ve seen—perhaps in a different colour or in a different size—somewhere in or around the Baker’s cursed abode. The difference now is that the accumulated variety on display here, able to recreate everything from dilapidated country homes to harshly lit industrial structures, has lost the uncomfortably obvious repetition that marred Resident Evil VII’s house of horrors.

These layers of familiarity create a new history for the series, a clear and unbroken line from past events to the present day, and provide modern Resident Evil with a consistent visual identity all of its own. We’ve now played enough of these modern Resident Evil games—every last one a global multi-million seller—to know what the new kind of red herb looks like, that yellow is the colour they use to catch your eye, that when the targeting reticule shrinks you’re more likely to land a critical shot. You can tell which series you’re playing without a character or title screen to guide you, and that’s as true in Rose Winter’s fungal mind trip as it is Leon’s jet ski escape sequence.

I feel like I should mind. I should protest. I’m a “real” fan, damnit. You can’t just erase the past like this—not when it was already so loved, so well known, so good. But I can’t, because I don’t believe that’s what Capcom are trying to do. This isn’t an embarrassed apology for the old ways, them hastily papering over the original game with its “bad” graphics (by modern standards) and “weird” puzzles (it still has plenty of them), but a wish made real. Wouldn’t it be great if Capcom could make Resident Evil 4 look like it’s straight out of tomorrow, with a more fluid control scheme, less sexism, better writing, and a whole laundry list’s worth of enhancements?

Yes it would. And we know that for certain because we can play it ourselves. This remake may be less “Resident Evil 4” in some ways, but this is finally—after almost two decades of ports and tweaks and trying—the Resident Evil 4 for me. I adore it, and the additional Mercenaries mode can’t come soon enough.

I’ll have to remember this happy feeling when Capcom, after handling REmake‘s HD remaster like it was a newborn foal made of glass because they knew you can’t mess with something like that without it all falling to pieces, finally come for that precious game and give it the same sort of thoroughly modern makeover I keep telling myself I’m dreading. No doubt the “sacrilegious” changes they’ll make will help more people than ever fall in love with a game they’ve been struggling to see the appeal of for a long time—just like I did with 4.

Further reading:

[Ko-fi supporters read this a week ago!]