When I played Resident Evil for the first time last year, I was surprised by the techniques the developers used to induce fear, surprised that they actually worked, to an extent. The fixed camera angles, for example, combined with deliberate enemy positioning and sluggish movement made the game an absolute chore to play, but the ways they were going about creating horror was manifest and impressive.
This wasn’t my first run-in with Resident Evil 4. I played the game as a kid, on the Wii I believe, and swiftly shat my pantaloons every time I did. I never made it very deep into the village, I was too overwhelmed with dread. I think about that when I play it today, and while that same emotion of dread and fear isn’t quite present, I think that might be because it has been replaced with anxiety. I brought this up with Dead Rising too – a game that once had me leap across the room to turn the Xbox off from the console’s glowing button of safety because I couldn’t bear to watch the zombies tear me to shreds – that fear was almost gone, ceded to the all powerful “anxiety”. I don’t have anxiety in the real world I might add. I’m introverted for sure, but this sense of unease is unrelated and purely reserved for, seemingly, old video games I once found terrifying.
Resident Evil 4 isn’t “scary” to me for several reasons, but unsettling to the point of not wanting me to play it? Absolutely. Resident Evil 4 is a game that took everything I liked about the original game’s tenacity in forging a unique horror experience and not only made it leagues better, but actually had gameplay alongside it worth playing and enjoying, when I wasn’t feeling totally stressed out that is.
Plonked in a strange Spanish village, you, Leon Kennedy, are tasked with infiltrating the gloomy town in search for none other than the daughter of the United States President, Ashley. Leon himself is a returning character from the second installment in the series, but as my experience with the franchise is limited to its forefather and 5, I don’t have much idea who he is. From the offset, Capcom seemed to have prescience of E-boys, as with his luscious bangs drooped across his face and general Laissez-faire, bad boy attitude, Leon wouldn’t look out of place on TikTok. A future career path if the whole saving the world thing doesn’t work out.
I feel Resident Evil 4 is at its scariest here, at the beginning. You don’t know Leon’s potential, nor do you understand the threat you’re up against at all. To start with, enemies are nothing more than impoverished villagers wielding axes and pitchforks, yet there’s something about them that’s…off. Leon addresses this to HQ, stating the locals are hostile, which as the game progresses is a harsh understatement. They hide behind barrels and infamously swarm you in waves. Resident Evil 4’s combat is at its core a wave based shooter. You travel from location to location and the game tends to lock you into mini-arenas to fight a hive of enemies. To begin with, armed with a weak pistol and a pittance of ammo, these scenarios are terrifying, despite the opposition consisting of nothing more than a lethargic angry mob.
This ties more deeply into the game’s combat and, more specifically, the control scheme the game opts for. “Tank controls”, as they’re most widely known, have been a staple of Resident Evil from the beginning and only up to the most recent entries has Capcom altered convention in favour of the first person perspective. They’re labeled that due to the way you move back and forth relative to the character itself, rather than the more modernly-utilised free form camera movement where you move in relation to the camera. Series director, Shinji Mikami, once explained the decision behind the control scheme, stating it (in combination with the fixed camera angles of the original) gives the game a more “cinematic feel”, a phrase which today is worn so heavily it only makes me cringe. That said, I totally agree with this sentiment, as despite the original game’s abundant flaws, this design decision is glaringly apparent in its purpose. In Resident Evil 4, the fixed camera angles are gone, but somehow tank controls still work. I think this is because the scheme is inherently sluggish, and combat encounters in Resident Evil 4 feel both frantic due to the claustrophobia enemy waves subject you to yet also slow and deliberate because of the tank controls. The result are scenarios where you always feel tense because you understand your movements aren’t fluid and fast, you need to plan what you do and where you move and it adds an element of strategy to combat which games without the scheme wouldn’t have.
Younger gamers might be completely oblivious to tank controls, because by and large it’s a remnant of an older era, perhaps for a good reason. While the scheme works in Resident Evil 4, it works in a very specific way which inhibits the way the game can be played. Many games from a plethora of genres simply don’t benefit from the calculated results of tank controls, and in some ways nor does Resident Evil. Playing Resident Evil 4, at times I found myself incredibly frustrated by just how stilted and unresponsive it feels to do anything. A simple motion like backing into a door which isn’t directly behind you can result in death as the scheme isn’t forgiving at all. With another scheme, even if panicked, a player can generally save their bacon through pure skill and reaction time alone, but with Resident Evil 4, you almost have to plan every move you take. Of course it can lead to superb tension, and some level designs really excel at creating landscapes which offer covert retreat routes for example, but you can never really shake this feeling of clunkiness.
I think the fatal flaw with the control scheme is that it proves a hefty limitation which the game doesn’t abide by 100% of the time. To beat a dead horse, tank controls require a slower paced game, and for the most part Resident Evil 4 is, but when it comes to some enemies and boss fights, the game appears to forget about it. A series staple, the zombie dog, and flying insect, novistador, both go against convention by full on running at Leon or, in the latters case, erratically darting across the sky. Combined with the general lethargy of aiming with a controller – which I’ll give some leeway due to my strong, unyielding preference for a mouse – I found fighting these enemies more frustrating than difficult. Nothing more, ultimately, than something to waste your time and bullets on. Bosses like Verdugo seemingly exist just to break the rules the game tries to follow, constantly sprinting and attacking with swiftness not seen in any other foe. “It” as it’s referred to is a scorpion like creature which charges at you ceaselessly to the point where I adopted a strategy of standing still, dealing as much damage as I could until it knocked me down, healing and repeating. Jack Krauser is the same, using superpowers to dash towards you and knock you down with no time to react.
Even with that considered, it’s hard to disparage the game as the remaining majority is simply wonderful, yet perhaps not something I ever wish to experience again. To harken back to a comment I made at the beginning of this review, Resident Evil 4 makes me anxious. I always feel on edge both before and during my play session. At times I didn’t even want to play it, at no fault of the game, instead in silent admiration for that chilling tension the game provides which sometimes I didn’t want to face. The game has a weird Japanese vibe to it which seemingly tries to nullify everything it’s doing with its brooding tone. You know the vibe: stereotypically wacky animation, absurd, logic-void set pieces and dialogue where every line is meant to be read as some sort of jocose rejoinder. All of that is present here, the latter abundantly so, to the point where I honestly couldn’t tell whether the dialogue was one big joke. I must say though, despite the complete clash in tones, it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the game at all. I’d even argue it potentially made it better, adding some lightheartedness to a game which is otherwise evil and dour. Everyone knows Chris punching a boulder from Resident Evil 5, but Leon running from a boulder is just as hilarious as he seems to move at Sonic-speed. The fact he did it twice was just the icing on the cake. Leon’s snarky banter with villains Sadler and Salazar is like if you took every cheese known to man and rolled it into one; it’s bad, but it’s that beautiful type of bad.
This isn’t to say Resident Evil 4 is a mockery though. That sense of trepidation is the dominating mood and it slots into the aforementioned slow yet shaky pace of combat perfectly. Enemies like Dr. Salvador (iconic chainsaw man), the Bella Sister (more chainsaw fuckers) and the Garrador (a blind but deadly wolverine-esque claws wielding freak) are fantastically designed, absolute masterpieces in how to design enemies which prove difficult to deal with, induce a sense of terror at their mere sight yet still feel fair to fight against. The former enemies will instantly kill Leon if they manage to attack him, but that’s balanced by predictable movement patterns and low-ish health. The Garrador’s lack of sight means you don’t have to worry about him chasing you in one regard, but his heightened hearing and single weak spot on his back means you need to provide an audible distraction away from you to deal damage to him. Even weaker enemies like the villagers and their several variants prove tough to deal with throughout the game and, as previously discussed, are a major element in the game’s tense combat encounters due to their mob-like formation.
While parts of Resident Evil 4 are flat out humourous, I get the general impression the story is meant to be taken seriously. Similar to how I can separate the silly from the serious with the game’s tone, I can do the same for the game’s dialogue, despite how over-the-top it is. Unfortunately, in my experience, it was hard to latch onto the story in any meaningful way, as the main driving force behind the game’s narrative is a quaint and plain rescue mission. Resident Evil 4’s narrative explores some themes of covert operations and betrayal, but it feels quite surface level. Instead, I found the lore regarding the perfidious underbelly of the village a more interesting hook to bite on, despite how scarce information tends to be in reference to it.
Essentially, like every Resident Evil game, the world is threatened by sinister clans exploiting the world of bioterrorism. In this case, the “Plaga” is at the root of the village’s disturbing events, an organism capable of altering a subject’s DNA in ways which can force them to become incredibly hostile and even mutate into creatures of nightmares. The monsters of Resident Evil have always struck me as a bit garrish, often erring on the side of “gross out” design in the same way the Saw franchise ended up being nothing more than gore-porn. It’s okay, and some mutations like the uncanny Regenerator or the aforementioned Garrador remain rooted in some semblance of sanity and therefore prove quite disturbing threats, but even those that feel a bit “out there” are still interesting to explore how they mutated and for what purpose. The Regenerators for example were developed with the ability to regrow limbs at an almost instantaneous pace, demonstrating alarming danger to any that face it. It’s a shame the game never feels all too interested in delving into this side of the game, or at least not in a way which is right in your face. The game by most accounts feels like a classic “gamer’s game”; gameplay first, story second, lore for those that do some digging. Instead, the resulting narrative of one big rescue mission is fairly mundane and feels like lost potential.
Gameplay first though, and ignoring some occasional slip ups with regards to certain enemy designs, this right here is why Resident Evil 4 is considered a classic in the genre. To say Resident Evil 4 is a masterclass in balance is an insult, as Capcom combined superb level design along with an unspoken, dynamic difficulty system which further balances the game’s pace and inventory/ammo system in a way which is almost unrivaled. The dynamic difficulty system is the real star of the show and it’s something that if you know about it, you know why it’s so commendable, though if you don’t know about it, then Capcom have done their job perfectly. In essence, Resident Evil 4 alters enemy behavior and loot based on how well you’re playing. Are you landing your shots? Are you dodging damage consistently? Haven’t died in a while? The game knows, and adjusts how the enemies respond to you in a way that I barely even perceived while playing, yet it was clearly (and objectively) a system which was working.
I knew about this system before I played the game which gave me complete foreknowledge that if I ended up sucking, the game would become easier for me. The best part, I found, is that despite this prior insight, I didn’t feel like the game was coddling me through it. I could pick up on how the enemy was slowing down and giving me more time to aim, but I never felt a sense of patronisation on the game’s part. It’s just fair. One of my pet peeves with most video games are the difficulty options they provide. You know, the ambiguous choice you’re given before experiencing the game’s challenge? How am I meant to gauge what difficulty I should play at before I know what the developers mean by “normal”? Resident Evil 4 scraps that through this hidden system and it works not only on the overt level, by pacing the game in a way that feels fun to play, frustration-free and, as Mark Brown alludes to, places you in a “flow state”, but this discrete system removes the stigma – internal or external – behind choosing difficulty. Scrublords and sweaty nerds unite, we’re all experiencing the game the one way it was intended. Bar a bonus extra hard difficulty you can unlock. Fuck that.
Let’s preface this next comment by hammering home how brilliant I think the difficulty system is. It almost completely wipes out some of my prior frustrations with the game and does so without even telling me! Amazing. But…it has the opposite effect too. One of the reasons I tire of Mario Kart so quickly is its unswerving dedication to negative feedback loops, which is to say better players are punished through less fruitful item pickups while worse players are benefited through the reverse. I get the concept, and for what Mario Kart is – a party game aimed at everyone from newborns to pensioners – it simply works, but for me? I find it demoralising knowing that playing well only counts towards a fraction of my likelihood of winning, and in more cases than not, it feels like the negative feedback loop trumps skill.
This is relevant, I promise, as Resident Evil 4’s dynamic system inherently needs to serve two goals, help those in need and restrict those bulldozing through the game. Again, it logically makes sense, but in actual play, it feels like you’re almost an actor in a film with no say into how events will play out. I can shoot enemy heads off with killer precision like the game wants me to, but only to the point the game wants to, at which point it “punishes” me for doing it too often. Of course I place “punish” in quotations as it’s less of a chastation and more the game respecting your skill and putting you up to the challenge. I’d hazard for most players though, they’re not at that upper echelon of skill and thus the game will inevitably get to a point whereby you feel it is too hard. The saving grace is, of course, the fact the system is fluid, and it’ll acknowledge your struggle and reduce the difficulty again. It’s a balancing act that by and large is executed incredibly well, but it’s worth noting the existence of perceived unfairness I felt.
That’s not the only perceptible triumph in game balance though, as the game heavily forces the conservation of ammo and swapping weapons according to the situation. A game that does this hellishly well is Doom, notably the 1993 original which had you use your entire arsenal to progress, along with a slow, methodical doling out of ammo. Resident Evil 4 does the same, despite having half the weapon selection. In my playthrough, I found myself using 4 weapons on average, starting with the pistol, acquiring a shotgun, rifle and smg down the line, eventually culminating in the acquisition of a magnum as the latter two weapons either fall out of usefulness or become too niche. Each weapon serves a different use case: the pistol is a fantastic all-rounder, the shotgun deals with groups effectively, the sniper deals collateral damage to single enemies, the smg’s high capacity is great for stunning enemies and the magnum, as many will know, is essentially every gun rolled into one.
Ammo is hard to come by, and if you’re doing well the game drops it rarely. It can be picked up occasionally through dead enemies and scattered boxes and crates, and the mere sight of 10 measly bullets for your shotgun will force a little “weeee!” out of you, in one way or the other. It is scarce, and as each weapon has its own strengths, shrewdly choosing which one to use is a great source of strategy and foreplanning, and by the end of the game I found myself diving into each and every one. It’s a fantastic experience, using everything available that is, as it’s so easy for games to make weapons either too anemic for practical use or too strong you use nothing but it. This is made no more apparent by how the game had me use grenades so frequently, of which there are 3 variants with different effects. The “too-good-to-use” phenomena is an all too prevalent one in video games: potions in Skyrim, the Master Ball in Pokemon, Cherry Bombs in Plants Vs Zombies etc. Resident Evil 4 sidestepped this with elegance by creating plentiful situations where they’re applicable, and by restricting ammo, you’re essentially forced to use them anyway. Grenades are widely effective, yet they appear just enough to reach a level of rarity, encouraging you to conserve them for better applications, yet still common enough to not lose sleep over having to use them.
I don’t know if I’ll ever play Resident Evil 4 again. It truly does induce an uneasiness in me which is both thrilling yet, unsurprisingly, a strong deterrent. People laud the game for how it introduced the series into the modern age with compelling, action-first gameplay while still retaining the horror Resident Evil is known for. While I fail to find the game wholly frightening, with its cheesy dialogue, absurd set pieces and outrageously overkill enemy designs, it still captures being stuck in a foreign land, alone, with imminent danger, brilliantly. I’ve replayed Resident Evil 5 plenty of times (yes, I’ll review it, and yes I like the game), but I think that’s because it doubled down on being a silly action game and I don’t feel the same anxious emotions playing it. Resident Evil 4 is a beautifully horrific blend of horror and action, one that rightly goes down as a statement in history and one worth anyone’s time.