Upon playing any of the more recent instalments in the Resident Evil franchise, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the series started out in the genre of survival-horror. Now it’s all shooting down attack helicopters, high speed pursuits and Gears of War aping shootouts. The metamorphosis wasn’t even gradual, it only took a few games for things to get this way. Resident Evil 5 saw the series become much more action oriented, and 6 took things into complete overdrive, until any hint of the original starting place of the franchise was completely obliterated.
Given that it’s commonly referred to as the game that started this transformation, you’d be once again forgiven for thinking that Resident Evil 4 would be looked upon with disdain from fans. After all, this is where it all began. Gone were the fixed camera angles of previous instalments. Gone were the lurching zombies; now replaced with enemies that could (gasp) run, gone was the inability to aim. This is the type of “reinvention” that fans usually hate (see Final Fantasy XIII), taking away what once was their’s and replacing it with something more accessible for wider audiences. Except it wasn’t. This time the balance was struck perfectly. The sequels may have taken things too far, but this is the defining moment of the franchise, it’s crowning glory. Shaking up the controls, introducing the now commonplace over the shoulder perspective; these decisions didn’t make Resident Evil 4 an unwanted departure from what worked before, or an unnecessary change-up. No. They made it fresh, exciting and one of the most re-playable games of all time.
The link to the prior games isn’t entirely severed. You take control of returning protagonist Leon S. Kennedy (from Resi 2) who now works as a government agent. Arriving at a secluded, rustic, European village his mission is to find the President’s kidnapped daughter, Ashley, and return her to safety. With the new locale taking the action out of Raccoon City; comes new enemies. Replacing the now tired and overused walking dead are the Las Plagas, a terrifying new breed of terror. At first taking the form of psychotic villagers, the variety of enemies on display is impressive. As you progress through the game you come into contact with more and more intimidating antagonists, each radically different from the last and so many of them leave a lingering impression. Who can forget their first encounter with the Chainsaw man or with the heavy breathing “regenerators”? This sense of variety is what gives Resident Evil 4 a lot of its staying power. No two set ups play out exactly the same. You have the intense village stand off, the speed boat fight with the lake creature, the mine cart chase, even the section where you take control of Ashley.
On that subject, let’s address the obvious elephant in the room, the one gaping flaw. Once you locate and rescue the damsel in distress (and that is all she is) you have to escort her through the rest of the game. Escort missions are tiresome, infuriating chores at the best of times (only The Last of Us really pulls it off well) but they are especially irksome when the person in question is this dense. Not only is the actual character a shrill, ungrateful, whiny pain in the arse who sets feminism back a good few decades, but she is also held back by some of the stupidest A.I in video game history. Add to this the fact that she has no means of defending herself whatsoever and she becomes a hindrance that threatens to ruin your enjoyment of an otherwise faultless experience. How many times did you find yourself getting into the groove of a set-piece, feeling like a major bad-ass only to realize the moronic halfwit you’re supposed to protect (who’s seemingly incapable of running away from danger without you telling her to) is being carried away by your enemies? Admit it, you were tempted to let them take her.
But let’s not dwell on this. There’s so much good stuff still left to praise. The intuitive management system (designed to replicate a briefcase), the fluid animations, the genuine scares! Whilst the later games felt like they had to trade in frights for pyrotechnics, this superior offering managed to have both working in harmony. Boss battles in particular provided action thrills, whilst more isolated, atmospheric moments supplied the horror.
Don’t hate Resident Evil 4 because of what it’s successors turned the series into. It may have set those events in motion, but intrinsically as it’s own game, its one of the finest examples of how to reinvigorate a franchise and introduce something new, and it’s still just as good as you remember it.
Resident Evil 4 is available on PS2, GameCube, Wii, Microsoft Windows and to download on Xbox 360 and PS3.