Resident Evil 4 is a Genuine Classic
On January 11, 2005, Resident Evil 4 was released for the Nintendo Gamecube. Fifteen years later, age has not dimmed the shock value of this seminal classic. The fourth entry in Capcom’s long-running pivotal survival horror series remains a punishing, unrelenting nightmare that never allows players even a moment of security and no matter how many developers over the years have attempted to recreate the all-out insanity of Resident Evil 4, very few have come close to matching its brilliance. Let’s just get this out of the way; Resident Evil 4 is one of the best games of the 2000s— arguably the best game released in 2005, and one of the greatest horror games ever made. Fifteen years ago, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer genius of what is the best Resident Evil yet.
There are many reasons why fans such as myself consider Resident Evil 4 to be the pinnacle of the franchise. Simply put, Resident Evil 4 was a different beast than what had come before it, introducing fans to a new sort of evil, all while reinventing the wheel. It was a bold move and a huge gamble For Capcom considering that anything could have gone horribly wrong. Fortunately, Capcom nailed it, creating one of the most influential video games to date. Survivor action-horror games don’t get much better than this.
The Opening of RE4 is a Masterclass in Building Suspense
The story marked the return of Resident Evil 2 protagonist Leon S. Kennedy who six years after the events of the second installment is hired as a secret service agent for the U.S. federal government and assigned to rescue the president’s daughter, Ashley, from the clutches of a sinister cult. The opening prologue perfectly sets the stage for some of the most prolonged scenes of sustained panic ever captured in a game— all while providing just enough backstory to fill you in on what’s happened to Leon since we last saw him and what his mission is. After Leon makes his way through an eerie forest on foot in search of his missing team, he is quickly briefed by agent Ingrid Hannigan before being dropped at the edge of a rural Spanish village where he’s left to defend himself against a group of hostile villagers who after becoming infected by a mind-controlling parasite known as Las Plagas, pledge their lives to Los Illuminados.
Dr. Salvador and the Mad Villagers
It was immediately clear from the opening minutes of the game that Resident Evil 4 was a departure from the tight passageways and narrow city streets we came to expect from previous installments. I’ll never forget the first time hearing the church bells ring and watching the villagers retreat into the seedy chapel leaving Leon standing alone and confused. Resident Evil 4 immediately established itself as a game coated in an oppressive atmosphere from which there can be no real escape. With a thick, thick air of intense paranoia and jaw-dropping monsters, Resident Evil 4 quickly became the game that my friends and I couldn’t stop playing nor talking about. It was and still is, exciting, horrifying, and utterly engaging from the first frame to the last.
Every Chapter Feels Fresh
What’s great about Resident Evil 4 is how it feels like a different horror movie with each new chapter. At times, it’s graphically violent, gory, grisly, and frightening— and other times, it’s also wild, gruesome and outrageous that the gore is almost campy. The first chunk of Resident Evil 4 replaces the series’ omnipresent zombies with Los Ganados, a refreshing change of pace from dispatching zombies in the previous five games. The second half, however, feels like an over-the-top action B-horror film directed by John Carpenter. Over the course of a roughly twelve-hour journey, you’ll venture through the European village and fight crowds of pitchfork-wielding maniacs; infiltrate Ramon Salazar’s labyrinthine castle; make your way through dusty mines; explore underground sewers, and take a boat ride through a swamp-like lake where you’ll square off against a giant mutated crocodile before moving on to a military compound to take on an entire army.
Each location in Resident Evil 4 is substantially different from the last in terms of environments and tone and yet every area creates a constant feeling of horror and isolation. In the midst of all the blood splatter and gore, it is ultimately about the psychological impact of a high-stress situation. And to help weave these chapters together are well-directed cinematic cutscenes that help flesh out the story and provide insight on the cast of eccentric characters you meet along the way. Nowadays, gamers will take such things for granted but back in 2005, there were few video games that could match the exquisite visuals and meticulous sound design of Resident Evil 4.
I’ve always loved the lesser-spoken-about moments too— such as the cinematic interlude in which Leon meets Luis Sera for the first time and we learn a bit about the Spaniard who was a trusted servant of Osmund Saddler before he was locked up for betrayal. Another one of my personal favourite scenes unfolds roughly a third of the way through as Leon, Ashley, and Luis, are beset by the angry villagers from all sides while trapped in a small cabin. Given no other choice, you’re forced to hold off the attackers as they storm in from multiple entrances of the two-floor cottage. Unlike the masterful opening chapter in the village which offered a relative amount of open space to move around, this ambush puts you in a confined space with no escape and no choice but to do your best and shoot the infected townsfolk while making sure you don’t waste a single bullet from Leon’s limited arsenal.
So Many Great Boss Fights
Resident Evil 4 was the invigorating semi-reboot the series drastically needed in 2005 and in 2005, I couldn’t help but marvel at the many bosses featured in the game. I think it’s safe to say, RE4 definitely has more boss fights than most Resident Evil games and for my money, RE4 has some of the very best. Saddler, for instance, makes good use of the game’s core mechanics while El Gigante uses his size and strength to whip Leon around a makeshift arena. The mutating Jack Krauser forces you to abandon your guns and fight with your knife, while U-3 (a horrifying amalgamation of many beings all fused imperfectly into a single monstrosity) provides an incredible fight that has Leon jumping across three suspended rigs set to a timer before they each collapse. Then there is the Napoleon-wannabe Ramon Salazar who looks harmless but proves to be one of the hardest enemies to kill due to his one-hit, near-death attacks. And while not a boss fight, who could forget Dr. Salvador, the saw-wielding maniac who sneaks up on you, unannounced, in the thick of the village siege. Dr. Salvador surely left a lasting impression and holds a special place in the heart of every fan of Resident Evil 4. No matter how many times I replay RE4, I’m never prepared for his attack, even if I can hear the distant rumble of his chainsaw slowly approaching. All in all, Resident Evil 4 is a magnificent cabinet of grotesqueries, featuring some truly memorable villains and some of the genre’s greatest scenes.
Bitores Mendez and Verdugo
It’s hard to decide just who the best baddie is in Resident Evil 4 but the village chief Bitores Mendez and the monstrous Verdugo would have to be at the top of my list. Known as Salazar’s right hand, Verdugo (Spanish for executioner) is fast and stealthy and quick to make itself unseen, forcing you to react with split-second reflexes in order to avoid getting hit, if not outright decimated. Needless to say, it takes a lot of precious ammo to bring it down (not to mention the only way to slow it down is by freezing it first with nitroglycerin canisters).
The Resident Evil franchise has a rich history of boss characters going all the way back to the first game, and Mendez stands easily among the very best. The former Catholic priest first appears as a hulking brute with an imposing stature, a dusty trench coat; an artificial left eye and an extraordinary resistance to firearms. With his superhuman strength, he is able to toss you across the room, choke you to death and basically tear you apart, limb by limb. To say he’s intimidating, would be an understatement and yet the first couple of encounters with the fiend won’t prepare you for what lies ahead. By the time Mendez reveals his final form and his body contorts into an abomination, you’ll find yourself in full panic mode. As our very own Mike Worby wrote, “with skin-crawling music, a truly terrifying adversary, and atmosphere to spare, the skin-searing, heart-stopping duel with Bitores Mendez is one that few gamers will ever forget”.qwa
Reinvigorating the Genre
While the boss battles make for stunning set pieces, what makes Resident Evil 4 so great is the blend of action, survival combat, and the tense, almost psychologically upsetting horror of it all. Resident Evil 4 basically nails the delicate balance required to ensure a survival horror game works by constantly making you feel helpless. Bullets are scarce, so you always found yourself counting your shots and conserving your weapons for a later time, and it doesn’t help that Leon’s unsteady aim only further escalates the tension in battle. And with limited ammunition, players will often have to rely on Leon delivering a swift bicycle kick or make use of his short-ranged, but deadly knife. Needless to say, the makers of RE4 understood how to build tension by slowly stripping players of their weapons and ammo, but the game is also more than fair, giving you just the right number of tools that you need to survive.
Much has been written about the look of Resident Evil 4 and with good reason. While the previous Resident Evil entries were survival horror games with fixed camera angles, RE4 was the first game to adopt the over-the-shoulder perspective in a third-person action game. By ditching the static camera angles of previous installments, Resident Evil 4 reinvigorated the genre with its new perspective, as well as the quick-time events which further heightened the tension. Not since Shenmue had a video game experimented with these timed button presses in order to encourage the player to keep the controller in their hands. The quick-time events also provided a blueprint for how the cinematic cutscenes could be handled by simply integrating these scenes into the actual gameplay— and for better or worse, forever changing the way many developers integrated cinematics moving forward.
Resident Evil 4 is a hybrid of action, adventure, and horror and as an action game, it rarely slows down, never allowing Leon a minute to stop and catch his breath. The game is so action-packed in fact, that even some of the cinematic cutscenes require fast reflexes on your part, meaning you don’t want to put down the controller. And unlike most third-person shooters which allow players to use one analog stick to move and the other to aim, Resident Evil 4 forces players to stop dead in their tracks in order to aim and shoot. This coupled with the fact that players can’t see what’s lurking behind them, makes you feel extra claustrophobic and paranoid at all times. Of course, it helps that at the time of its release, Resident Evil 4—and all its cinematic widescreen glory— was one of the best-looking games ever made. In short, Resident Evil 4 did for the action-horror genre what Super Mario 64 did for 3D platformers, paving the way for other games that followed such as Gears of War, Uncharted and Dead Space, to name a few.
Misao Senbongi and Shusaku Uchiyama’s Soundtrack
Complimenting the look is the unsettling soundscapes and textural ambiance courtesy of Misao Senbongi and Shusaku Uchiyama who composed one of the best soundtracks of the entire series. What’s noteworthy about the two-disk soundtrack is that unlike other Resident Evil games, the soundtrack is comprised of all-new material— that means it has absolutely no ties to the other soundtracks. Resident Evil 4 has such a foreboding atmosphere that even backtracking through areas you cleared is unsettling due to the audio which evokes a sense of dread and suspense with every step you take. From the chilling ambient noise, you’ll frequently hear to the roar of a chainsaw, to the perfectly placed musical cues, the soundtrack perfectly amps up the mood at all the right moments. Needless to say, the soundtrack is worthy of an award on its own, and without it, the game just won’t be the same. Don’t believe me, try playing it with the sound turned off.
Horror Movie Influences
Horror films have exerted a major influence on the Resident Evil series and with Resident Evil 4, creator Shinji Mikami looked away from the George Romero’s zombie films which served as his primary inspiration for the earlier Resident Evil games, and instead took inspiration from other filmmakers such as Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter. The most obvious reference is the aforementioned Dr. Salvador who is clearly modeled after Leatherface from Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and wears a burlap sack over his head; identical to the one worn by Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th. Meanwhile, the killer crocodile, Del Lago, could have been inspired by any one of the many killer-croc films including Hooper’s lesser-known thriller, Eaten Alive (although, more likely, Steve Miner’s Lake Placid). And if you look closely, you’ll also notice that the section in which Leon rides the mine cart bears a resemblance to the famous mine cart chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and just like in that movie, Leon is chased by a boulder at the start of the game. Meanwhile, many of the games’ monstrous creations (including Bitores Mendez), clearly took inspiration from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing— more specifically, the special effects by legendary effects artist, Rob Bottin. As for its plot, Resident Evil 4 borrows heavily from Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, a low-budget horror film based on H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos. Like Dagon, Resident Evil 4 takes place somewhere in a Spanish seaside fishing town where the protagonist discovers that the creepy locals belong to a secret society/religious cult before they turn against the hero with pitchforks and machetes in hand. All in all, there’s a fair number of other movie references from Ridley Scott’s Alien to Akira to Dirty Harry and yet despite most of these borrowed elements being wildly different from one another, Shinji Mikami and his team managed to weave them together in brilliant fashion.
Resident Evil 4 Left Quite a Legacy
The original Resident Evil is credited with bringing the survival horror genre to the masses and ushering in a golden age of truly terrifying video games. Originally conceived as a remake of Capcom’s earlier horror-themed game Sweet Home, Shinji Mikami, took gameplay design cues from Alone in the Dark and established a formula that has proven successful time and time again. Nearly a decade later, Capcom would almost tear apart the very genre they had popularized by creating the first truly great modern third-person survival horror game. Resident Evil 4 didn’t just change the series— it changed things for video games in general.
More importantly, Resident Evil 4 stands the test of time. There are few games that age like wine; instead, most are almost unplayable by modern standards and that includes some of the most seminal games ever made— but not RE4. Resident Evil 4 loses none of its intensity as the years go by and perhaps, its greatest achievement is in how fresh and vital it is, 15 years later.
Fifteen years later, Resident Evil 4 stands as one of the best action-horror games and continues to resonate and inspire video game developers and leave an imprinting effect on a new generation of gamers. It’s a cutthroat, unendingly bleak masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror—and while it may not be a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination (what is?), RE4 is an embarrassment of riches that puts other games to shame. Fifteen years later, Resident Evil 4 is still one of my ten favourite games of all time.
- Ricky D