Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 is not great simply due to how it takes a big leap and lands successfully; it is excellent because whether it is daring players to shoot up the place or challenging them to face the impending horror on screen, it is always generating an immeasurable level of tension

As revealed by the number attached to its title, by the time Resident Evil 4 came out, players already knew what to expect out of the franchise. This was, after all, a property that popularized the survival horror genre and, for that reason, one was sure to find a creepy atmosphere, horrifying monsters, dark corridors, and tense moments whenever booting up a game which carried that name. However, this installment, which was originally released for the GameCube in 2005 and that would make its way to many other platforms in the following years, became widely recognized due to how, rather than being more of the same, it opted to radically alter the established formula. And given its status as a classic still holds up to this day, it goes without saying that Capcom did an incredible job when messing with the core elements of one of its most popular creations.

The shift presented by Resident Evil 4 made sense in a couple of ways. For starters, before it, the property had already received six distinct chapters in home consoles: four mainline entries, one spin-off, and one remake. Therefore, the fact that all of them did not play very differently from each other, at least not too blatantly, meant that change was overdue. Furthermore, although the GameCube had seen the release of Resident Evil Zero by that point, this would be the first time the series’ overarching plot would be moved forward in a significantly more powerful console, since its three prequels had been made with the PlayStation in mind. As such, the time for fresh ideas was ripe and Capcom by all means took it, because Resident Evil 4 feels like a grand evolution in comparison to what preceded it.

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It all starts when Leon S. Kennedy receives quite an important mission: rescuing the daughter of the president of the United States. Originally showing up in Resident Evil 2 as a rookie police officer in the doomed Raccoon City, Leon is now a much more experienced, laid-back, and amusingly confident character; and as an agent of the federal government, he is sent to Spain, where Ashley Graham is being held by a mysterious cult. As it turns out, the decision to make him infiltrate the area ends up being very appropriate, because while there are no zombies in sight around the rural vicinity to which he travels, there is definitely something biologically dangerous going on, as a shady religious figure appears to have total control over once normal villagers that are now ready to murder anyone who crosses their path.

Although it is correct to call Resident Evil 4 an evolution in relation to what came before it, truth be told, the change that was implemented was not seen as unanimously positive; that is because, here, there is a notable shift away from the survival horror grounds in which the franchise made its name and defined a genre to a more action-focused experience. Naturally, fans who liked the former format better did not appreciate the move, at least not entirely. Yet, it is safe to claim the new focus was a net positive, and not solely due to how modifications were overdue; Resident Evil 4 feels like a step forward because it is generally more enjoyable to play and also thanks to how, despite the changes, the game does not lose sight of its core.

Much of the improved gameplay stems from a change in perspective. Where previous Resident Evil games were seen from fixed camera angles that shifted in every room, this GameCube installment uses an over-the-shoulder third-person view; one that, likely due to the title’s popularity, would go on to be applied to many action games for years to come. Sure, it could be argued that the unmovable cameras of the prequels were perfect for survival horror, as they allowed designers to wear the hat of movie directors and usher in fear by controlling what players could see and what was kept out of their sight. But the fact that the view changed in each room meant that the directional commands also did so, leading to frustrating confusion when one was either being chased by zombies or trying to aim.

Thanks to its perspective, Resident Evil 4 has no such problems, and both moving around as well as shooting are as straightforward as they can be. Actually, there is even a laser pointer that always indicates where Leon is aiming at, therefore allowing players to easily target specific parts of enemies’ bodies according to the situation they are in. And, wisely, the game takes advantage of that by making sure some foes will only go down effectively if they are hit at precise locations. All in all, especially from a contemporary point of view, there are punctual problems with the controls. Firstly, Leon infamously moves like a tank, meaning that pressing down on the control stick causes him to take steps back rather than turn around. Secondly, there is no way to move sideways, making it impossible to approach blind corners in the most effective way. Finally, it is equally impossible to move while aiming since the second analog stick is not used and the shoulder button that makes Leon ready to shoot also locks him in place. Nevertheless, Resident Evil 4 still qualifies as having great controls because one should get used to these quirks rather quickly.

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As for not losing sight of its core, this is the area in which Resident Evil 4 achieves what is likely its greatest victory. Undoubtedly, compared to its predecessors, this is a quest that has far more shooting than the norm. A counter that shows up whenever one of the game’s chapters ends reveals that, by the time the whole fifteen-hour journey is concluded, players will have killed at least two hundred enemies, if not double that amount. As such, if in previous Resident Evil games one was as likely to run as to stand their ground and blast away, here the answer is almost always to send bullets flying.

As a consequence of this shift, which is in great synergy with the over-the-shoulder perspective, there is no shortage of action-packed moments in Resident Evil 4. Leon will get stuck in a house that is overwhelmingly surrounded by angry infected villagers trying to break in, he will ride mine-carts while enemies jump aboard to murder him, and he will suddenly get locked inside rooms brimming with foes quite frequently. This thrilling vein is also reflected in a handful of nice boss battles that are built rather traditionally; that is, they involve shooting either weak spots or any part of the body of big bad, and often very ugly, monstrosities.

Yet, survival horror still leaves its mark. Differently from what would happen in Resident Evil 5, this is not a game that verges so heavily into action that it loses sight of what made the series great in the first place. Checking all corners of the scenarios for ammo and healing items remains a must, because the game does not hand these out in excess; the same applies to looking for treasure, which can then be sold at the merchant so that Leon can purchase new guns and upgrade those he already owns. Likewise, managing the hero’s inventory is also key: the space in his suitcase is limited, so players often need to physically arrange items in it so as many goodies as possible can fit inside it; furthermore, if bullets are not used wisely, running out of them and having to flee for one’s life is a looming possibility.

But, more important than all of that is the fact Resident Evil 4 should be able to make players feel tense with astounding frequency, with some of these moments verging on good-old horror. The highlights of the bunch are a few scripted enemy encounters that have the creatures popping out of nowhere, a couple of bosses that focus on survival rather than straightforward killing, and one particular type of foe that is rightfully remembered as absolutely horrifying by most who have gone through the game.

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Via this mixture of action, tension, and horror, Resident Evil 4 manages to keep surprising players throughout its quest. And although the maps of the three areas that make up the game are intricate, with some sessions involving the exploration of branching paths, the way forward tends to be linear, making the whole experience come off like a sequence of cleverly designed scenarios that shift gears constantly and that, as such, should hold one’s attention as well as amuse.

Part of that variety comes from the presence of Ashley herself. Rescued by Leon in a relatively early moment in the game, from that point forward, the girl will accompany him as he tries to get her to safety. At first, it might not seem like an appealing premise; after all, defenseless characters that need to be escorted around are often infamous within the gaming universe, as their stupid behavior can lead to failures that are not within the control of players. Ashley, though, represents a rare good implementation of that staple, and not just because her bonding with her savior works as the emotional center of the story. With the X button, one can tell her to either follow Leon or stay where she is; two commands that she will respect with flawless efficiency. Moreover, the A button can be employed in certain contexts to have her perform actions such as hiding in dumpsters, pulling switches, and so forth.

Mostly, though, Ashley clicks because she is simply very cleverly used by the game. The moments when enemies come at Leon while she is close to him can be safely managed if players think strategically; if they are not, the game over screen will appear as soon as the girl is carried out through the closest door. Furthermore, scenarios where the hero has to protect her while she performs a task that will open the way forward are some of the most thrilling parts of the game. And finally, many of the interesting situations gamers are thrown into are a result of her being taken away at scripted moments, such as a sequence when Ashley must, on her own and armed with nothing but a flashlight, navigate through dangerous dark rooms.

Technically, Resident Evil 4 is pretty much a flawless effort. Its subdued soundtrack masterfully generates tension. Its voice work hits a wonderful sweet spot between acting competence and a wonderful campiness that matches some exaggerated elements of the script. At last, its visuals push the then-powerful GameCube to its edge, possibly representing the very best the system produced in terms of realistic graphics. When paired with the excellence that oozes from its gameplay and the perfectly executed reinvention of the franchise’s framework, it is easy to see why the game ranks as a classic.

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Nonetheless, a few complaints can be made. Firstly, and qualifying as a nitpick, its plot features a couple of moments that will leave those who did not play some of the prequels in the dark; albeit relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, it feels like the script could have clarified these points without too much extra effort. Secondly, and also being a tiny issue related to plot, the game reveals part of its lore in documents that are scattered around the scenarios, but while this type of active storytelling, which has players looking for information, tends to be rather immersing, here it emerges like a bit of a missed opportunity since the letters seem to have been placed in very random spots.

The really big problem of Resident Evil 4, however, lies in its love for quick time events. Multiple times through the adventure, Leon will engage in cinematic struggles against foes, and players will have to press one or two buttons at the right time for the hero to strike back or avoid damage. Sadly, failing to do so will often lead to immediate death. Truth be told, most of these are not too frustrating: Resident Evil 4 is a decently challenging game that is, fortunately, pretty great at checkpoint-placement, and that means players will usually be returned to the point right before the event happens. However, there are some particular sequences and even a couple of boss battles where a multitude of quick time events will be triggered in succession, and messing up any of these will force Leon to start the cutscene from the beginning so players can try to get all button presses right. Needless to say, these moments are utterly absurd, but they do represent a relatively small fraction of a very meaty quest.

Perhaps Resident Evil 4 did not even need to go so far out of its way in order to reinvent the franchise’s gameplay. Maybe the title could have gotten away just fine by neatly replicating, with better visuals, what its predecessors had done. But the bottom line is that the bold decision to throw a considerable dose of action into the series’ well-established survival horror formula paid massive dividends, and thanks to that, the game is a rare case of a property that essentially defined a genre also finding a way to reinvent it significantly. However, ultimately, Resident Evil 4 is not great simply due to how it takes a big leap and lands successfully; it is excellent because whether it is daring players to shoot up the place or challenging them to face the impending horror on screen, it is always coming up with engaging scenarios as well as generating an immeasurable level of tension.

FINAL SCORE: 9 – PHENOMENAL

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