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Resident Evil 4: retrospective

A bit of background

Resident Evil has a very special place in my heart, a lot of which is dedicated specially to Resident Evil 4. From the first time I found it on a shelf in GAME to the time where I finally convinced my parents to let me buy a copy of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Its creepy box art was intriguing, in fact, the very idea of horror gaming was biting at my soul, digging in and saying “Do it.”

Being a little older once the fourth series entry was announced I had an eye on information surrounding its conception. With access to Nintendo Official Magazine and its free cover DVDs, I discovered the first castle trailer where Leon runs from mist then the following one where he fights off a ghost.

The first Resident Evil 4 trailer where Leon is being chased by fog.

I poured over the many double-page features of Resident Evil which took me from its development right up to the release revealing things like the game’s focus on Ashley Graham. Never having played the second game in the series I didn’t get the hype for Leon’s return to the series. Having played a little Devil May Cry I was definitely shifting my focus towards faster-paced action gaming. It was tantalising and the action looked top class.

First impressions

When it released to great fanfare for the Nintendo Gamecube I got the briefest shot of the final product at my friend’s house. While only a fleeting turn I was instantly sold. The gruff brown environments, creepy sound effects, grim Spanish themed town and violent unrelenting villagers out for blood… it was so new. It contrasted with the other games I’d played in the series and all of a sudden I found myself totally enamoured.

It was actually quite a lot later with the release of the PlayStation 2 version of Resident Evil 4, that I finally got my hands on a copy. A nice steelbook none the less and of all the amazing things that could happen… my copy arrived on a day where we’d been snowed out of school so I had all day to immerse myself in this dingy, crusty, horrid little game world.

Leon arrives in the titular village

Despite owning what people now refer to as the “inferior” console version of the game due to its missing effects (something I’d not have the ability to see until much, much later in life) I was totally in love. Atmosphere drips from each oozy, bug-ridden dining table, all the nooks and crannies suitable mucked up to ensure the world told a nice environmental story. The new camera perspective putting you right in the action was thrilling, terrifying and most of all offering a totally unique style of gameplay. My mind was blown for multiple reasons and I couldn’t get enough, heck, I still can’t.

Story

Instead of talking around the game let’s get stuck in. Leon Kennedy a survivor of the terrible Raccoon City incident, during which he’d just become a cop. Racoon City, a small mid-western town, was beset by biological weapons when a viral experiment went wrong at the nearby Umbrella Pharmaceuticals lab in the Arklay Mountains. Not long after his escape, Raccoon City was sterilised by a nuclear missile, at the hands of the corrupt government officials paid off by Umbrella. This hid the evidence of their misdeeds. Though, eventually, the truth caught up to them and their business crumbled.

Leon was hired shortly after the incident by the President’s secret service and tasked with protecting the new President’s family. Now he finds himself on a mission to recover Ashley Graham who was kidnapped by a cult in rural Spain.

Personally, I think the setup nails everything. Providing us with motivation and giving in-universe reasoning for everything from Racoon City to Leon’s new role to make sure everyone is clued in. From here players are given control of Leon as he brings down the cult while trying to keep Ashley alive. Running into kooky characters both good and bad. All of which receive a bit of backstory and motivation of their own. Luis was one of my favourites with his suave and playful nature. So let’s talk about how the game progresses things.

Resident Evil 4 concept art of Louis and Ashley
Concept art from Capcom

As the game moves forwards the game takes Leon and Ashley to more and more absurd environments. From a huge castle with lave pits and a giant robot to a militarised island facility full of grotesque creatures. However, as absurd as the story, characters and areas get, the game is paced fantastically. Each act has a proper hook, challenging players to try and put the game down and let’s be honest, it’s hard to put down.

Over the 10 – 14 hour campaign, there is very little downtime. The story threads go haywire before being reigned in with only a few left tantalisingly open for a sequel to feed on. Basically, it’s absurd that this is as perfect as it is, I doubt there will be anything else of its calibre even if Resident Evil 4 itself were to be remade.

Encounter Design

Most action games live and die based on their encounter design. Resident Evil 4 is no different. The first scripted enemy encounter is built up to with a couple of short cutscenes. At this point you might have toyed around with the aiming and shooting, walked around a little and antagonised Leon’s terrible chauffeurs who berate him and leave him to go in alone.

Then as you approach a house up the path there is a short scene of a character lingering at the window, no details of the figure are seen except a shadow. When Leon enters there is a man stocking his fireplace who seems rather perturbed and angry with his intrusion. Leon who is busy apologising and stuffing the photo of Ashley into his pocket just glances the man reaching for something. Suddenly! Whoosh, the man tries to cut him down with an axe and this is where you regain control.

It’s surprising, tense and shocking but he goes down easily once you’ve recollected yourself. Just as you might be about to breath a sigh of relief more villagers surround the house and block the door. Trapping you in the house with only one way out, the upstairs window. Smash!, Leon hurls himself out of the window with a mere button click. “Damn,” you think to yourself. “He’s like an action hero!”

Leon smashing through a window
Leon taking a dive

The village encounter

This little opener sets the tone for the rest of the opening chapter over which the game gradually raises the challenge level with more enemy types and traps. However not before entertaining the player at the village down the path from the first house. Leon hangs back, scoping out the villagers whom all seem placid enough going about their daily business. At this point you know they’re hostile so the natural thing to do is to try and avoid the conflict. You cannot. Cleverly Capcom have programmed a variety of ways to resolve the village conflict.

  • First and easiest is just to run and avoid fighting for 7 minutes, once the timer hits that number the cutscene signalling the end of the village fight will play.
  • Second is to kill a certain number of villagers. I think 12 or 14 and then the cutscene will trigger.
  • Third is the one most first time players will do, it is both of the other options but with a twist. Escaping or killing the murderous Chainsaw man.

High variety on offer

The notorious and much referenced Chainsaw Ganado (Oh, the enemies are called Ganados by the way.) He’s a clear homage to the movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his hessian sack mask. He’s terrifying and incredibly tough, taking numerous bullets to take down. In the village, there are actually 2 Chainsaw Ganados. One near the back left exit to the farm and the one who spawns in when players enter the big house in the centre of the village. Yes, it is possible to activate and kill them both to net a good prize but it’s not worth it on the first playthrough from a difficulty standpoint.

The whole village is a golden example of what encounter design should be. It lets you explore and test various methods of resolving the situation, introduces plenty of challenge without overwhelming, Chainsaw Ganado notwithstanding as he’s a beginners trap.

resident Evil 4's resident doctor, El Salvador with his chainsaw
Oh no, here he comes!

After the village, when things ramp up

From this point on the game continues to up the stakes, bigger more complex levels, smarter and stronger enemy types and we haven’t even got to the mutated enemies and bosses. Firstly, however, let’s talk progression. The game is split up into several bite-sized chunks for example the beginning is “Chapter 1:1” with most chapters being three segments with the last segment hosting a boss fight or critical story moment. Each of these bosses poses a unique threat and challenge.

For example, the first boss De Lago (or The Lake) is a huge water creature that Leon has to fight while driving a tiny wooden boat. when the battle begins it gets caught on a rope attached to the boat so Leon is being towed through the water at huge speeds by a raging monster. It’s a gruelling battle designed to challenge you by avoiding obstacles, using the harpoons and also testing reaction times.

It’s gruelling but it is insanely amazing. It feels like the devs had an absolute blast just making up cool stuff and implementing it. Defeating this challenge presents you with a sneaky little trap too. Once defeated De Lago dives down into the water and the rope gets tied around Leon’s leg and if you fail the QuickTime event to chop the rope, you’re going to have to fight the boss all over again!

Press “X” to not Die!

Let’s take a look at Resident Evil 4‘s most debated feature. QuickTime events existed before this game but never in the same capacity as we see here. A QuickTime event is a reactionary prompt for a player to push a button, usually during a cutscene or scenario outside of player control, with the normal fail state being a game over. These are used in several places throughout the story with some being intentionally included as though the devs wanted players to never feel relaxed… which to be fair ramped up the tension even further.

resident Evil 4's infamous boulder QTE
The illustrious QTE boulder scene (So good they used it twice)

Many, many people site this as the reason they stopped playing or didn’t enjoy the game. Yet somehow, for me, the implementation of the QuickTime events, the insistence that you be clued in at all times… is just amazing. For example the scene where Salazar puts up his hand to order the monks to attack you and Leon just tosses his knife through it pinning him to the wall. This is a fun cutscene but then out of nowhere a button prompt flashes on screen. Salazar’s right hand man flicks the knife back at Leon. This split second reaction has you right on the edge of your seat. Miss and it’s a game over, win and the story continues as Leon gracefuly sidesteps.

The feeling of elation when you win these little challenges cannot be beaten. It’s just something truly unique to Resident Evil 4 and in some ways it’s sequel. Never before and never since has something so rooted in chance had this type of catharsis connected to it.

A Melting Pot of Ideas?

Bizarrely, yes! This game has a plethora of insane ideas an it does the unthinkable. It pulls them together into not only a cohesive whole but a perfect, polished whole at that. As many of you will know Resident Evil 4‘s original incarnation became Devil May Cry. That version was lead by Hideki Kamiya who also worked on Resident Evil 2. This led to the creation of the castle environments. Throughout their builds they experimented with things like ghosts and fog monsters, showcasing a variety of indoor environments.

This mixed development and change in direction is the reason why the locals are so varied and why set pieces are so mental. With the giant Salazar Robot in the castle, the Regeneradors, the extremely tense knife fight with Krauser and the cart ride in the mines/ tomb among many, many other things.

El Giante in the caves
You can dump this El Giante duo into their own melting pot!

The creativity was just overflowing. The love and attention to detail in each and every event and area makes every second a joy to behold. It did away with realism and instead leant heavily into the cheesy and surreal aspects of the series. Personally I’d never have it any other way.

Escort Mission

Ashley looking a little mad
Ashley Graham, a much hated character that I love!

You might be surprised, that the main gameplay loop involves escorting the vulnerable Ashley Graham. Being the main focus of the game, the developers have designed the escorting to be as unobtrusive as possible. While still having it offer a challenge, no bloody impervious Elizabeth in this story! Ashley is in essence a mechanic. She can be used to access parts of the map that Leon can’t himself or to activate things while Leon fends off Ganados. Interacting with her is a simple affair with a follow, stay and hide command.

  • Follow: Ashley sticks close by and snaps to Leons back when aiming so as not to get in the way.
  • Stay: Ashley will stand right where she received the command, even if about to be kidnapped by the enemy.
  • Hide: The will make her hide in a container essentially taking her out of the equasion for a hard encounter. The safest way to store your President’s daughter.

These three base commands add some strategy to the escorting and they are really responsive making them suitably un-tedious.

Auto-difficulty

Doing well? Feeling like the ganados are starting to take more of your carefully managed ammo to take down? Well you may be the victim of Resi 4’s adaptive difficulty.

Leon being attacked by a Regenerador
High fiving Regeneradors is highly inadvisable

Adaptive difficulty is something more games should explore. In this game in particular it’s based on progress without dying. For example if playing on normal difficulty the game can boost difficulty up as high as professional making it very hard to come out of combat unscathed. Naturally this feels like the game’s natural difficulty curve however it can make certain areas feel borderline unfair.

This might make adaptive difficulty sound like a bad thing, however, it can also adjust difficulty down if you are struggling. This can go as low as easy when playing normal and lower if playing on easy. Ensuring the game remains accessible without being super obvious about it.

This system is awesome and I think it could be active to a degree in Resident Evil Village. Here’s hoping it’s here to stay.

Leon having just tossed his knife at Salazar
Leon doing… uh… something?

Conclusion: Was Resident Evil 4 really that good?

Resident Evil 4 is an absolute enigma. Never before had such a bonkers experimental shift in a game series happened and never since. Yet it proved so absolutely popular that it influenced the franchise forever. The new gameplay style, crazy QTEs and the shift in story tone didn’t just influence Resident Evil. It spawned many games over the following years in similar veins.

There is nothing like Resident Evil 4 out there even now. Nothing that could garner my elusive 10/10 that RE4 holds. Resident Evil Village is amazing and I will definitely give it a 9/10. So you can imagine how close to the insane melting pot of 4 they got!

I hope Capcom, should they decide to remake 4, make it 1:1 with the original. With supped up gameplay and maybe some new extras and little plot additions linking it into later games. With the promise of new games and the upcoming Resident Evil 4 VR for Oculus it looks like Resi 4’s legend will persist for many years to come.

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