The original RESIDENT EVIL 4 was the first M-Rated game I ever owned. The first version came out on GameCube in January 2005 as one of the iconic ”Capcom 5” games, but it wasn’t until it was re-released on the Wii in 2007 that I finally got my hands on it. I tried watching my older cousins play it before, but was always too scared to stay in the room.
Finally, at the age of 13, I was ready to take on the horror all on my own.
It wasn’t until then that I had an important realization about the game, and the whole Resident Evil series as a whole: These games aren’t just scary, they’re also deeply silly. RE4 presents itself as this terrifying experience involving cult members and body horror, but it’s more akin to the kinds of cheap thrills you’d find in bargain bin action movies. It’s over-the-top, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s fun! It’s entertainment for the sole purpose of being entertaining. That’s one of the main reasons I was so excited to play its remake.
RE4 was one of the first Resident Evil games I owned and through it, I quickly fell in love with the campy horror that the series has always been known for. These games are tense, stressful, gross, but also so ridiculously goofy. The stories are eugenics nonsense, the performances are stilted, the outfits don’t make sense, and there’s always people trying to make passes at each other after witnessing a horrifying scene. What I thought was so scary about the series as a child was really just one part of what makes these games special. The series has always, whether intentionally or not, been able to balance terrifying body horror, suspense, action, and campy melodrama. You never know if the next scene is going to be a bad read of a poorly written, sexually loaded line of dialogue, or a gratuitous murder via monster transformation—but it’ll probably be both.
RESIDENT EVIL 4 takes those qualities and ramps them up to 11, with even more horror, action, over-the-top characters, and humorous moments. You play as secret agent Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop turned hardened badass, on the search for the president’s kidnapped daughter Ashley in a remote “Spanish” village that’s been taken over by a madman who’s learned to harness the power of a parasite found deep underground. None of that set up makes any sense on its own, but totally clicks together viewed in the vein of hacky action movies. Suddenly you’re suplexing infected Spanish villagers who have Mexican accents, running away from boulders Indiana Jones-style, and spouting zingers every chance you get. This is all within the first two hours, and it only keeps escalating for the next 10. You’ll run from a giant moving statue in a castle, do sick Quick Time Events to dodge lasers, and solve shipping crate puzzles in a falling suspended cage underground. In general, RESIDENT EVIL 4 does not let up.
RE4’s gameplay is maybe the only controversial point that I could see being used in support of the need for a remake. You can’t move and shoot, which even at the time of its release was weird. Although you’d never been able to move and shoot in a mainline Resident Evil game up to that point, the greater emphasis on action and combat made the limitation feel more egregious. The thing is, you almost immediately adapt to the inability to move while you shoot because the game is built around it. The enemies are slow, blundering, yelling whenever they’re nearby. They hit hard, meaning that you really do still need to be careful and aware of your surroundings, but the games’ new melee follow-ups made combat still feel dynamic and exciting. You’d run away to get room, turn around and shoot a dude in the head, and then run towards him to do a roundhouse kick. So while you couldn’t move and shoot, there was still a lot of movement happening throughout the encounters.
Combat is only half the game though, there are also puzzles that involve moving pieces around a room—classic Resident Evil—and we can’t forget the iconic inventory management of the attaché case. The puzzles in RE4 are the least memorable part, because everything is so streamlined. The attaché case, on the other hand, is a great reinvention of the classic inventory management system from older games. You could hold much more than six items at a time, but they all still took up space in an inventory. Less time was spent figuring out what to take and what to leave, but it was still important to always keep in mind how much you’re carrying. While any one of these elements could be “modernized” for a remake, they’re minor annoyances and give the game its distinct flavor in their own ways.
Since their “return to horror” with RESIDENT EVIL 7, Capcom has decided to remake the older Resident Evil games with their flashy new RE Engine and a more serious tone. I have my gripes about how they’ve handled the characters and writing for these remakes, almost like they’re backtracking on what makes the games so special to me. They take beloved characters and moments from previous games, but suck out the goofiness to make them more serious. Characters are modeled beautifully and wear appropriate-for-the-context clothing. They speak and act like normal people in situations that are incredibly abnormal. I am not saying this can’t work, but there is something fundamentally lost about the franchise in this pivot to a darker tone. Maybe I’m in the minority here, I haven’t ever found the premise of global-bio-terrorism-through-zombies-and-mutants to be something incredibly deep. While the other games in the series were easier to understand a remake for in regards to graphics and mechanics, remaking RESIDENT EVIL 4 is a harder sell; it was a high point in the franchise—would this remake be mostly about wrangling in all the outlandish moments to make it fit in with the new canon?
Well, yes and no it turns out. The new RESIDENT EVIL 4 is good, not just as a game on its own, but also as a great reminder of what makes this franchise unique. While it does change a lot about the original game’s tone, it still always feels like I’m playing something that is incredibly invested in what it’s like to play the original. The biggest change mechanically is, unsurprisingly, the ability to move and shoot, but it doesn’t make the game any easier or manageable. The enemies now move more aggressively, making you have to be much more reactive and on your toes. They no longer yell when they’re right behind you or give you time to run away from them. They are relentless, and sometimes combo you while you’re stun locked—while I appreciate all the animation Leon performs when getting hit, waiting for him to recover while you’re still surrounded by enemies can be frustrating. Your knife can now break and the window for performing physical moves is much smaller, meaning you can’t rely on old tactics. But you do now have a parry ability, ammo crafting, and an attaché case charm system that helps you choose what kinds of resources you find more often. The new RE4 gives and takes: it’s not harder than the original, but the different mechanics lead to an equally exciting and refreshing way of playing a new version of an old game.
These slight changes are even more apparent in the maps and spaces you visit. It’s all the same locations and order (for the most part) but it looks so much nicer and alive in the 2023 version of the game. The village, for example, has a well that was entirely decorative in the original, but now serves as entrance to an underground passage. The rickety floors of the bell tower now crash under your weight. The cow that used to just sit there during the brawl will now trample you and foes alike if startled. And that’s just the starting village area. All of the familiar places get a visual facelift, as well as little additions here and there that keep returning players from feeling like they know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s all here, the cabin scene, the water room, the railroad sequence, but slightly altered just enough to keep you on your toes while not losing what made them so exciting almost 20 years ago. Even though it isn’t entirely new (like RESIDENT EVIL 3) or uses radically reimagined areas (like RESIDENT EVIL 2), it was a whole lot of fun just thinking about what some of the classic rooms would look like and seeing them come to life. It’s the first of the new remakes that actually feels proud of its original source, and only changes enough to make it feel refreshing for long-time fans.
The cast and narrative is where we can clearly see this investment in a more serious tone coming through. Luis, the Spanish scientist with a big role in the original, is less horny (unfortunately?) and his greater screen time in this remake makes him all the more lovable. While I wouldn’t say I’m more of a Luis fan now, I do think his expanded narrative brought some heart to the game. Ashley is basically a whole new character, almost entirely reworked, even mechanically. She can no longer be told to stand still or hide in dumpsters, but can either stick right next to you in a “tight formation” or give you some space with a “loose formation.” Narratively she’s a much stronger character overall and it leads to some really nice moments between her and Leon. She’s less bratty, more confident, more fun to be around, and again (unfortunately?) less horny. These two characters were jokes in the original—Ashley was a brat, Luis was a creep—but now the game is heavily invested in their experiences throughout all this and how they reckon with the situations they find themselves in. I’m no longer laughing at them, I empathize with them. That’s good and bad. On one hand it is done really well, but on the other hand I miss the weird goofballs they used to be. It’s this strange instance of the creators still really caring about the source material but trying to take it more seriously.
This is where this rebranding of the series starts peeking through and it no longer feels like Leon and Ashley’s wild ride in Mexico-Spain Land. Leon is still very much an action movie star, but this new investment in his trauma from previous games doesn’t make him a stronger or more likable character. Leon never took anything seriously that was happening around him in the original. He already had one bout of nonsense in Raccoon City, and like, this village stuff was a walk in the park. He is much more humanized in the remake, and he shows a much more vulnerable and open side through his interactions with Ashley and Luis. There’s a lot less Ada and Krauser, as well as villain moments in general. I’m hoping the inevitable Separate Ways DLC will give us a lot of time with the two evil spies. Their lack of presence in the base game is felt, especially in comparison to how fun their scenes are in the original. The big bads also suffer. Saddler is kind of a non-entity throughout most of it and Salazar’s new look is appropriately creepy but there aren’t any silly moments. I miss him hopping around like a small child and throwing a fit. It’s a noticeable loss, because some of the best parts of RESIDENT EVIL 4 was Leon swinging zingers at these creeps over video call on a foldable walkie talkie. The narrative is better paced I will say, and while a lot of the lines are ripped straight from the original, there’s a lot a lot of good new stuff here.
Although the RESIDENT EVIL 4 remake isn’t as dedicated to the goofiness of the original series in the way that the original RE4 was, it is closer than any of the other remakes so far. The best thing that RESIDENT EVIL 4 remake has going for it is that it almost captures the feelings of playing the original game for the first time again. Whereas the other remakes were different from the get-go, this one doesn’t try to stray too far from its source material. I was so excited to see what would be around the corner, what would be changed and what would be the same. Would they keep this? Is Leon gonna say the line? Is this item that was in the original still in the same spot? Things like this kept me deeply invested throughout. Not only is the game still a whole lot of fun, there’s also still such a noticeable respect to just how great the original was by how much they rely on what people liked from it. It makes me excited to see how the inevitable RESIDENT EVIL 5 remake will fare, I think that one will be even easier to build off of and strengthen than RE4. While it doesn’t replace the original, RESIDENT EVIL 4 REMAKE gets pretty darn close to capturing what made RESIDENT EVIL 4 (and the whole franchise) so special.