Has anyone ever explained how the heroes of the Resident Evil games use herbs and plants to heal themselves? Are they all keen botanists? They must be botanists. I know it’s not the most important issue here but I think it needs addressing. I’ve never seen even one of them with a pestle and mortar, so god knows what they’re doing to unleash the healing properties of various brightly-coloured weeds.
Game: Resident Evil 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided by publisher)
Either way, Capcom continues to mark 20 years since the original Resident Evil by remastering the entire series in reverse order. While there hasn’t been much distance between the newer reworkings and their original release, this fourth instalment marks the point where things could get interesting. Released in 2005, Resi 4 was widely seen as the zenith of the series; far enough away from its horror roots to snare the action crowd, but still retaining a powerful sense of atmosphere and suspense missing in later entries, while also experimenting with jarring tonal changes and unbridled silliness that would become more pronounced as the franchise progressed.
In terms of how polished things are, the difference is indeed far more noticeable than it was with Re5i, re-released earlier this year. Graphically, the game is a good jump with crisper HD textures. As you trek around in relative silence, every rustle and movement sounds terrifying. Even the crows that scarper around pecking at remains sound as though they could rip your arm off and beat you down with it. The inhabitants of the Spanish woodland village create impressive throat-tearing noises and groans in between curses and frequent shouts of ‘Cabron’ (which means ‘male goat’, for fans of foreign insults). The atmospheric, background part of the soundtrack, and sometimes lack of it, suits the uneasy setting perfectly. Approaching an area populated with villagers who aren’t yet aware of your presence is a real lesson in tension. The only real issue is how abruptly it stops when you eradicate all the threats in a given area, rather than petering out as you’d expect.
As curtain-haired, muscular boyband reject Leon Kennedy, you’re packed off to pre-Euro Spain on the POTUS’ orders. Far from this being a nice package holiday to Majorca, you’re chaperoned to a rural village by two caricatures, who say things like “you crazy Americans”, to save the president’s daughter. Marking the first time the Stars crew ventured outside of Racoon City, the game even begins to distance itself from the ‘z’ word in this story; while it is used, it’s only to emphasise the difference between these and your new foes, fairly normal looking villagers who occasionally fire foliage out of their heads. They’re a sort of plant-zombie, presumably craving equal parts blood and fertiliser. The enemies get even less predictable, much like the rest of the game; starting as the sort of tense first act you’d expect in a low budget horror, the silliness is slowly but seriously ramped up as you’re drawn in. The campy charm of Leon and the other colourful characters sets the game far apart from other horror rivals, making most seem po-faced and dour in comparison.
The real clincher for this being the finest example of the RE series is that despite this new expanded world view and occasional silliness, you still feel perennially underpowered and under threat. While later games had the feel of dropping Rambo into Dawn of the Dead, everything about Resi 4 leaves you concerned that something very bad is about to happen to you. It’s not even especially hard as such; I found I was able to blast through the first few hours on normal mode with a minimum number of deaths, and I am terrible at videogames. Whenever ammo feels scarce and the numbers are against you, you’re happily fond that afterwards you’re given breathing space to restock and heal before the next encounter. What also adds to this is the way the game controls. Based around a third person viewpoint rather than the fixed camera style of the earlier games, your perspective on the gaming world as Leon is limited, especially when it comes to what’s lurking behind you. Turning around mid-fight to discover there are four plant-zombie things creeping up behind you is a simple staple of the horror genre that never gets old as you scramble for your weapon.
The pesky Resident Evil inventory system rears it’s head again, but provides you with a little more time than Re5i; bringing up your suitcase of death-tools on the screen essentially pauses the game, allowing you breathing space while you dig out first aid sprays and combine ammo with guns. This was oddly dropped in the next instalment, and you were vulnerable to attack whenever you were considering your inventory. This usually just made things difficult and raised irritation levels, rather than just upping the difficulty, and was a step in the wrong direction following this entry.
Resident Evil 4 was also the first time the game introduced the option to move bookcases and other furniture in the way of doors and windows, meaning you could barricade yourself in the villages houses and buildings George Romero-style to buy yourself some time until the walking plant things eventually burst through. This siege mechanic is an excellent addition to things, and the extra tension from throwing objects in front of entrances then waiting for them to inevitably get smashed while plant-zombies poke their heads through makes you feel more in control yet more pinned down at the same time. Ultimately, its adding to what the game does best; making you feel at huge risk while having enormous amounts of fun.
Resident Evil 4 presents a problem of sorts, because it feels wrong to award such a high score, and one of the highest I’ve given all year, to a polished version of an old game. Yet from the first few seconds of the story, I was compelled through the adventures of Leon and his Spanish zombie amigos in a way that no game had gripped me for some time. This is not a revelation, though; upon its release many acknowledged this as one of the best games not just of the series but on the PS2 in general.
While there are holes in Resident Evil 4 (add to those mentioned above the odd Quick Time Event and occasional messy animation during those), I was sincerely surprised at how much enjoyment I found in a game over ten years old. Not being one for nostalgia, finding myself sinking hours and hours into a game I had already played was a huge surprise. But here we are; a franchise at its very peak, combining survival horror and action in the most perfect quantities, reanimated and coming right for you. Tense and unnerving yet strangely comical at the same time, it marked the first time a Resi game aimed beyond Raccoon City, fixed camera angles and a universally serious tone. More than that, it’s just a huge amount of fun.
Botanists of Resident Evil 4, I am lichen you.