Resident Evil 4 always felt like an El Gigante-sized hurdle for Capcom to clear before this remake was even announced. Perhaps even more influential than the very first game and considerably longer and more ambitious than any Resident Evil game before it, 2005’s Resident Evil 4 remains a survival horror masterpiece that took massive risks. While not as big a risk with the framework to work off of and prior experience on remaking classics to lean back on, 2023’s Resident Evil 4 is still something of a gamble for Capcom. What do you cut? What do you add? Just how many right hands do you make come off?
Those who were worried about Resident Evil 4, especially after the good but too brief Resident Evil 3, can rest easy. This is a faithful remake that streamlines some antiquated edges, tightens up some of the original’s more meandering moments, and even adds enough of its own ideas to make it one of 2023’s best horror games, as well as a worthy companion piece to one of the greatest games of all time.
You play as Leon S. Kennedy, who returns from the second game as a more jaded, almost haunted special operative as he hunts down the President’s kidnapped daughter in rural Spain. This being a Resident Evil game, she isn’t just off watching Barcelona, but is instead being held captive by strange villagers with an odd glow in their eyes. It’s up to Leon to save her, one roundhouse kick and cheesy pun at a time, which gladly both return in this remake in all their mid-2000s glory, only this time in glorious 4k. While this remake doesn’t have quite as much gonzo daftness as the original, even though Leon isn’t afraid to crack wise at times and there’s plenty of absurd moments, it definitely feels like it turns up the dial in the gothic horror stakes.
The most obvious way it does this is by offering some of the most jaw-dropping visuals ever seen in horror, carrying the baton left by the original game. Resident Evil 4 uses dark spaces remarkably well to ratchet up fear, while the sound design (particular for late-game enemies that I won’t spoil here) sends shivers down the spine. The RE Engine is truly superb tech, and Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the most grotesquely sumptuous game created with it yet, especially with ray tracing enabled. It’s also a game full of brilliant attention to detail, as Ashley will physically react to the sound of whichever gun you’re using, both characters will visibly pant after you sprint for a while, and character’s hair moves and sways so granularly that it’s almost indulgent. Seriously, if you remember how much developers used to go on about hair physics in the seventh generation, Resident Evil 4 has finally perfected it.
While it’s not as scary as Resident Evil 2, owing to the fact that deranged villagers ultimately just aren’t as spooky as zombies and tyrants wearing funny hats, Resident Evil 4 still offers plenty of pulse-pounding tension as Plagas-infected villagers circle in on you, whether it’s your ordinary farmer or chainsaw wielding psychopath. They’re relentless, too, as they’ll soak up your bullets and just keep coming, even when you think they’re out for the count. You can seldom just depend on one weapon during an encounter, as you’ll have to constantly be scraping all ammo together you can, whether that’s by finding it on enemies or crafting it with Resources and Gunpowder. Different weapons are also better for dealing with different enemies, so there’s always a balancing act of using what you can vs. what you should.
The way the enemies visibly change because of the Plagas is a considerable step up from the predecessor too, as they’ll still come after you with exploded heads and broken necks, meaning that you’ll have to scramble to finish them off with a knife (in a somewhat fiddly fashion, it must be said) when they’re down. Good luck when you’re getting swarmed, though — finding breathing space in amidst all the chaos is easier said than done. I often found my whole body tensing up through sheer stress, my hands basically throttling the controller as I tried to line up my final rifle headshot, only for the stress to increase even further when Las Plagas sprouted from the hole I’d just created. That’s the sign of some good survival horror.
Speaking of knives, Resident Evil 4 has made them the chainsaw-parrying star of the show this time out. As ridiculous as it may look at points to be able to deflect sword strikes, a well-timed parry can open up enemies to a follow-up attack, like a roundhouse, knee to the face, or the iconic returning suplex that’d make Kurt Angle wince. However, they have limited uses before they need to be repaired, meaning that you can be left defenseless unless you get your hands on a temporary solution like a Kitchen Knife. Considering how hectic things can get, having a knife on hand is at points like having a get out of jail free card, but use it as a crutch at your own peril as it needs to be upgraded before they can be really relied upon.
Upgrading weapons in Resident Evil 4 feels like a game all its own, and it’s something that I really never tired of grinding through. The merchant makes a very welcome, very British return in Resident Evil 4, and as well as offering a variety of weapons and items, he can also upgrade your weapons as long as you have the pesetas. Currency is easy to come across in Resident Evil 4, but the best way is to find exotic treasure and insert gemstones in them to increase their value. Once you’ve farmed enough for max upgrades on a specific weapon, you can then unlock an exclusive upgrade that gives some huge buff to the way it works. I loved dumping money into upgrading my weapons to see just how effective they can become, as the relatively naff peashooter is barely similar to the cannon you can end up with if you put the time into it.
That’s not all players can do with the Merchant, as they can also complete an expanded array of blue request missions to earn Spinel and unlock special trade gear, including new weapons, parts, and treasure maps. Then there’s charms, which while perhaps a bit odd to have something so RPG-esque in a Resident Evil game, do give good percentage buffs to certain things. There’s a good amount of meaningful side content for players to enjoy here, especially if they’re looking for 100% completion. Resident Evil 4 is pretty sizeable, clocking in at roughly 17 hours for my first playthrough, but there’s also tonnes of extra items and achievements to unlock that demand multiple playthroughs — as someone who rarely ever replays games, I didn’t hesitate before jumping back in for a second playthrough. It’s a real pity, though, that there’s no Assignment: Ada, Separate Ways, or Mercenaries, though the latter will be coming as free DLC at some undetermined point in the future.
It’s also a slight shame that more of a leap wasn’t taken with the remake overall. While it’s absolutely a fantastic update to a stone cold classic and also just a great game in its own right, Resident Evil 4 feels scared to innovate more in some places, mainly exploration. This year’s Dead Space remake managed to connect all of the USG Ishimura into one explorable map, but the Resident Evil 4 remake adheres to the chapter format of the original, meaning that you can’t backtrack past certain points in the story. Not making one connected sandbox feels like a missed opportunity, especially when there are collectibles to be found that you will have to then start all over again to find if you progress past a certain point.
Even Leon and Ashley’s relationship could have done with a bit more of a leap into the unknown. We’ve seen plenty of pairings inspired by their dynamic in games since the 2005 original first released (BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, God of War, A Plague Tale), but while there are a few charming moments between the pair and Ashley is much more likeable, the game perhaps fails to make the most of their relationship.
Even if Resident Evil 4 is perhaps too faithful in a couple of ways, it’s faithful in most of the ways that count while also contemporizing the experience for a whole new generation of terror. Boasting some of the best visuals ever committed to the horror genre, a level of depth that you rarely ever see outside of an open world, and arguably the best combat in any Resi game to date, Resident Evil 4 is a game you’re going to want to put some serious overtime into.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review
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Resident Evil 4 is a worthy companion piece to survival horror royalty that's sure to go down as one of the year's best games.
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