Resident Evil, a franchise that popularized the niche horror genre for video gaming. Its influence and reach are still felt today, with dozens of games, several movies (of drastically varying quality), TV series, and even comics! The franchise itself has forever left a mark on society; even someone as far removed from video game culture as possible like my grandparents knows about Resident Evil. The first game released in 1996 by CAPCOM on the PlayStation and was revolutionary in many ways, creating a blueprint for what a good survival horror game could be that up and coming companies would follow for years to come. They were titans of the industry, with all of their games finding success. But after the third mainline game which was met with overall success but followed the same formula as the original. After two ‘side’ games, the consumer base was getting bored of being fed the same soup with a different flavor repeatedly and began expressing severe doubt in the franchise. Many of the fans began to express growing disenchantment with the series as a whole and vocally expressed disinterest, it was clear if the next Resident Evil (RE) wasn’t something new and spectacular that they’d lose a large portion of their dedicated fanbase… a fate that can cause companies to go bankrupt
Capcom took their complaints extremely seriously and in 1999 they began experimenting with some wildly different formulas and ideas, piecing together fragments that worked. In total they ended up scrapping four builds they were working on and even showcasing some of these builds to the public at E3. Two of these builds they liked the idea of but didn’t feel fit the direction they wanted the RE franchise to head and turned into their own games/franchises, being Devil May Cry and Haunting Ground respectively.
So what’s the point of me saying all this? It’s not like I’m giving a dissertation of the entire brand of Resident Evil, so why fill you in on all this extraneous detail? Firstly, I think it’s important to give credit to those deserving of it, both Resident Evil and Capcom themselves certainly qualify. It’s rare to see companies willing to evolve, change, and earnestly listen to feedback from their fans and test audiences. However the main reason is that I believe context goes a long way in truly understanding and appreciating something, doubly so in the case of Resident Evil 4. What I mean by this is that you can have a favorite movie that you love watching and let’s say you found out that it was made using really scummy practices. They outright stole footage from people, treated its actors poorly and was toxic to early viewers. If you learned that about your movie, how would you feel? The opposite is true too though, if you found out they had a really small crew, budget, were extremely kind to their crew members, paid them fairly even with their small income, and spent tons of extra man hours in post making sure it came out perfect, it’s likely you’d have an even deeper appreciation for the movie.
It’s fair to say the company itself was at stake with this installment and they cut no corners in their pursuit of giving a game worthy of the expectations and hopes of their fans. There were so many points where a single stumble would have caused this game and Capcom to fail, so many things that could have gone wrong. They used motion capture and hand did all the facial animations for the characters, something unheard of back in the early 2000s, to try and make the game look as good as possible. The game finally came out in 2005 and the rest is history. It was an astronomical success, critically acclaimed across the globe, and once again changed the gaming industry forever.
As I discuss RE4 I will be doing so in a spoiler free way so that if you haven’t played it and this article convinces you to give it a go it won’t spoil the experience for you. Let’s start out by discussing the game as a whole before focusing on the finer details. It’s a third person, over the shoulder action-horror shooter. Our guns have laser pointers on them to help us aim rather than crosshairs. You play as the returning hero, Leon, from RE2 who has received government training and now takes missions directly from the president. You’ve been tasked to find his missing daughter who was rumored to have been seen in a small village in Spain and if the fact that he sends you in alone isn’t proof of just how competent Leon is, then the game will surely convince you.
As Leon investigates and it’s clear that things have gone terribly wrong here and he must fend off hordes of enemies. One immediate change is that you aren’t fighting zombies in this game, you are instead fighting what’s referred to as ‘Ganados’. They are humans that were injected with a parasite that controls their actions. They retain much of their ‘humanity’ though; they continue to live normal lives, tending to crops and farm animals, talking to one another, eating meals and even going to church. However they are programmed to become hyper aggressive to outsiders. When hunting they communicate and use strategy, can operate machinery and vehicles, and use a wide array of weapons from standard farm implements to the more extreme chainsaws and dynamite. While these enemies are much more dangerous than your typical zombie, it’s also clear that Leon is much stronger and better trained too. You learn quickly that shooting enemies in different parts of the body has different effects. Shooting them in the arm can stun them as they clutch their arm in pain, leg shots can cause them to trip and fall over, and head shots cause them to grab their face in pain and stumble about for a few moments (when it doesn’t just outright explode their brains that is). There is also the addition of melee strikes; enemies that are on their knees or grabbing their face give a prompt when approached to give them a good ole roundhouse kick which gives Leon invulnerability frames and can hit all the Ganados around Leon and his victim. Additionally enemies will throw projectiles at Leon, but with good aim and timing you can shoot them out of the air and in the case of dynamite, even turn the weapon against them by forcefully exploding it with your shot. All of these details make combat extremely rewarding and fun to learn and master.
The game doesn’t use tutorials like many other games, instead it is designed in a way that naturally rewards the curiosity of players as they are encouraged by the level design to experiment with new mechanics. Whenever a new mechanic is introduced it is shown to the player on its own before being introduced in more complicated ways. An example of this is bear traps and trip-wire mines. Our first encounter with bear traps has us follow the whimpering of a dog as we find it has gotten its leg stuck in a bear trap. We free it (because only an irredeemable psychopath wouldn’t) and it runs off, but this teaches us to keep an eye on the ground as we move now and from this point on bear traps can be found in the environment. Trip wires follow a similar design in that the first one we see is encountered independently of any enemies, as we naturally aim our gun at it out of curiosity and see that it lights up under the laser dot sight, we shoot it and watch it explode. It perfectly shows us this new mechanic before we then encounter them in scenarios with enemies. These are two examples that happen IN THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE GAME and it continues to give us information without holding our hand or implicitly stating how it works. So often we see games hold our hand by telling us exactly what to do and by having intrusive tutorials and text pop up on screen that really remind us that we’re just playing a game. These natural ways of giving the player information and the tools to figure things out really helps keep us in the moment.
This game is also a master class in pacing and can honestly be viewed as a case study in the subject. I have beaten this game 22 times (yes I keep track) and each time I revisit this game it is still an absolute blast, with the pacing being an absolutely major contributor to this. You never get too comfortable and subsequently bored with any of the game’s features at any point in time. The game has such a massive amount of variance in environments, enemy types, scenario design and gameplay sequences, all while perfectly pacing the rate at which things change. There are the perfect amount of quiet scenes in between the massive set pieces and big scenarios like bosses and horde battles. New mechanics and hazards get added at a comfortable pace like the aforementioned bear traps and explosives that keep encounters with enemies from feeling safe and familiar. New enemies are also introduced at an amazing pace to further shake things up and even the default ‘Ganados’ evolve themselves over the course of the game. An amazing mechanic that gets introduced is when enemy heads explode into these horrible parasitic fleshy attachments and attack, making the enemy 10x more dangerous. It’s still a good strategy to aim for the head to allow for melee strikes and potentially kill your foes in one hit, but now there’s a risk that the parasite will show up when you do so, making combat once again feel extremely tense. As you progress through the campaign their weaponry and tactics evolve too, going from using simple farm implements to crossbows, shields, scythes and even rocket launchers.
The game is also jam packed with amazing AI and plays fully into the limits of the system to make the game feel amazing. The fact that you have to stand still to shoot may sound like a bad thing, but the game has been designed perfectly around it. The enemy AI is intelligent but fair. They will sprint to get close to Leon but once they get within a certain range their movement slows and becomes methodical to balance out your lack of maneuverability when aiming and ensure they keep up the pressure without feeling overwhelming or unfair. They will occasionally sidestep and crouch when Leon aims at them to throw off his aim.
The sound design is another great aspect that keeps the game fair. Enemies have distinct sounds they make during many of the various actions they can take. Even when an enemy is off screen you can identify exactly what action they had just taken and know how to adjust your current game plan. Forcing the player to stop also creates a tense dynamic in constantly making you decide “do I stand and fight or do I run”.
Another piece that makes the pacing so great is its dynamic difficulty. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Dynamic Difficulty refers to when a game adjusts its difficulty based on how you play the game. The game always feels just the right level of stressful because it subtly manipulates the game to ensure you are always fairly challenged without it feeling frustrating. If you perform particularly well the enemies will hit harder and become much more aggressive, and the game will drop less ammo and healing items. If you are struggling and dying a lot the game will lower the damage enemies deal, modify their aggression, give more ammo and health, and in extreme cases can even remove entire enemies from encounters for players that are really struggling.
The weapons in RE4 are also perfectly designed. There isn’t a massive arsenal at your disposal, only 13 guns (14 if you count one time use rocket launchers) available in the base game, but each weapon has clear strengths and weaknesses when compared to both other weapons of the same type and to the other weapons as a whole. You can upgrade the stats of weapons like firepower, reload speed, capacity, and upon purchasing all upgrades for a weapon you unlock a final upgrade that drastically alters the way the weapon functions. For example, the first shotgun you gain access to when maxed out gains the unique property of having no damage falloff at distance, making it a solid weapon for any range that can feel like a swiss army knife. Every single weapon in the game is completely viable from start to finish and offers a lot of variance in playstyle and application. To illustrate this let’s discuss the handguns in the game.
There are four different pistols you gain access to over the course of the game. The standard Handgun you start out with has good handling, is the cheapest weapon to upgrade, and its unique upgrade grants it a massive increase in its chance to instantly kill enemies with a headshot (5x chance). The Punisher is the second pistol you gain access to and it handles almost identically to the starting pistol with slightly less damage, but it has the unique property that its bullets pierce the first enemy hit and does full damage to the target behind it. This becomes extremely useful when enemies gain access to shields that normally fully block damage until destroyed; the Punisher bullets pierce shields and damage the wielder with each shot making one of the tougher enemy types to deal with a breeze. Its unique upgrade lets it pierce five targets per shot instead, letting you even damage three shield enemies with a single shot. The next handgun you get access to, and my personal favorite, is the Red 9. It has the worse handling across the board than the other pistols. It has less ammo capacity, reload speed and has bigger recoil and weapon sway, though it can have the least sway/recoil if you buy a stock unique to it. What it lacks in handling though it more than makes up for in firepower, having over triple the firepower of the other two handguns when upgraded with its unique upgrade giving an even bigger increase in damage. The last pistol you gain access to is the Blacktail, boasting the highest capacity, rate of fire and reload speed, as well as having the second highest damage of the pistols with its final upgrade increasing its firepower to be over double the power of the standard pistol. It is the best handling pistol overall with great damage but is quite expensive to upgrade and doesn’t have any special qualities to it. I’ve used all of these pistols as the main focus of a playthrough several times each and they all promote different playstyles that are fun and feel unique to one another. With the Handgun I’m going for precision, but with the Punisher the goal changes to creating angles and chokepoints that help maximize its piercing value and get multiple kills with a single shot.
Resident Evil 4 also has tons of awesome unlockable content. Firstly you unlock the Professional difficulty mode once you’ve beaten the game once. You also can unlock up to 5 new and awesome weapons to use from the Infinite Rocket Launcher and Hand Cannon, to the incredibly strange P.R.L. 42 (Parasite Removal Laser) that instantly kills almost every single enemy and boss in the game when charged up and can be tapped to function like a flash bang. You can also get two sets of new costumes for Leon and Ashley, one of which puts Ashley in a suit of armor and makes her impervious to all damage. It also causes enemies to instantly drop her whenever they attempt to pick her up and has a funny detail where whenever Leon catches Ashley he groans and rubs his back for a moment afterwards. There are also extra game modes to unlock. Assignment Ada, which is admittedly the least interesting, is a short non canon adventure where you play as Ada and attempt to get five Plagas samples from the final area of the story. Separate Ways has you playing as Ada again but is distinctly much more interesting and is canon. In it you play as Ada throughout the story as Leon is trying to save Ashley and it gives context to many of the unique scenarios and actions that happen to Leon as well as help flesh out her enigmatic character more. It also has unique weapons exclusive to Separate Ways and includes one of my favorite bosses in the entire game. Lastly there is ‘The Mercenaries’, a purely combat focused game mode where you try to rack up as many points as possible in the time limit by chaining kills together. You start with only Leon available and can unlock Ada, Krauser (a major villain from the story), HUNK (a secret agent from the franchise) and Wesker (a recurring villain from the franchise and minor character in RE4). They all have preset loadouts but have pretty distinct playstyles and Mercenaries is overall a really fun game mode.
Now to address the elephant in the room and no I’m not insulting her physique with that statement. Ashley, who is the whole reason Leon is even in Spain at all, and her escorting mechanics. It’s a well established fact that escort missions in gaming are some of the worst creations of all time. One can only imagine the joyful glee Satan must have had as he whispered it’s foul design into the imaginations of creators. There are several sections of the game where you will have to escort Ashley through dangerous areas of the game. She has no combat capabilities to speak of, has her own health bar that both enemy and your attacks can damage, and enemies will frequently pick her up and attempt to carry her away which results in an instant game over if they succeed. She also can’t jump down drop offs or long ladders on her own, requiring you to manually catch her at the bottom. Boy howdy that sounds like a recipe for disaster, how can this game possibly be good if it utilizes something like that? Well here’s the truth; while yes it’s a popular meme in the RE community to make fun of these sections, this game is one of if not the best examples of how to do an escort mission to this day.
For starters Ashley always follows directly behind Leon, and since this is a 3rd person game and she would obscure the normal camera angle they slightly alter it to ensure your view is always obfuscated. Whenever Leon aims she gets behind him and if she is ever in the direction Leon is aiming she will duck out of the way. You have to actively try to hit her with your weapons. You can also tell her to wait in safer areas while you push on ahead to clear the path and she won’t move a centimeter from that spot. They also add containers and bins she can hide in where she’s invulnerable to enemies; they can’t damage her nor attempt to kidnap her even if they saw her enter them. The game has made it so easy to take care of her that if she ends up dying it is entirely your fault. She also is useful in many moments, able to grab supplies in areas you can’t reach, unlock doors that have secret weapons by piggy backing her into a high window, and can be told to operate devices that take a lot of time to activate like cranks that lower a bridge whilst enemies are constantly swarming you. The game’s masterful pacing also applies to Ashley as well. The story and game flow so naturally that you’re never stuck with her for an unbearably long amount of time. As soon as you might start feeling fatigued from protecting her she gets separated from Leon, ensuring the escorting mechanics never overstay their welcome.
The last thing I want to discuss is performance. We live in an era where bugs are so commonplace that many games will just call them features *cough cough* Bethesda *cough cough* Cyberpunk 2077 *Violent Cough* League of Legends. Resident Evil 4 is extremely well polished and well coded. In all of my playthroughs of the game I still have yet to encounter a single bug. That’s 22 full playthroughs, not to mention all the time spent on extra content, without a single bug, glitch or even weird graphical error where textures didn’t load properly. It’s a welcome relief whenever I go back and play through RE4 again knowing I won’t have to worry about a gameplay breaking bug that ruins my progress or even an entire playthrough like can often happen in more modern games. It also still looks great over 15 years later; all the care they put into the motion capture, facial animations and rendering is quite amazing for its time, and with the cutscenes using the same models as the gameplay. Oftentimes games will have extremely higher graphical quality for cutscenes than it does for the gameplay which can be a bit odd and even jarring at times, but RE4 has amazing quality cutscenes that don’t look out of place.
And… that’s a wrap! Man I love revisiting this game, and just writing about it has given me a desire to start up playthrough 23 again! I know this was a bit longer than a lot of my other posts and honestly there was a lot more I wanted to cover like the story, the amazing humor, the incredible voice acting, the lovable cast including the world class ‘Merchant’ character, and so much more, but this has already gone on for a really long time. I hope this has made you wanna try the game out if you hadn’t before, made you appreciate it on a deeper level if you already have, and helped you learn something new even if you’re a big fan already! Next time I’ll be discussing a criminally underrated online game and my favorite multi-player game of all time. Thanks so much for reading, I hope you enjoy, and as always stay healthy!