Resident Evil 4 is a remake expertly balanced on expansion and retraction. The 2005 original was a landmark for the franchise but it also bore the bruises of a messy development cycle, with old ideas somewhat haphazardly stitched together in its second half. To my mind, this is a feature, not a bug, as the disparate tones effectively make the game the joyous experience it is, but nearly twenty years later, it’s hard to deny the seams. With the remake, Capcom’s Division 1 team (the same people behind the immaculate Resident Evil 2 remake), have been able to craft an experience that leans into its mismatched components from the jump, fully realising certain elements while tapering others, both to great effect.
Leon S. Kennedy (Nick Apostolides) is a man set adrift after the harrowing events of the second game. The Raccoon City incident, which saw a mid-west American city completely destroyed by a bio-weapon outbreak, has left the then-rookie cop with a lot of blood on his hands. Fleeing the survivor’s guilt, and the Umbrella Corporation-engineered horrors, Kennedy is bounced around the US military for several years before ending up on special assignment from the president himself. Ashley Graham (Genevieve Buechner), a precocious college student and daughter of the most powerful man in the world, has been kidnapped, with little leads other than a small village deep in the European wilds. While en route to investigate, chaos erupts and Leon is thrown into a new violent nightmare that pits him against a menagerie of foes, wielding far worse weapons than gnashing teeth and pitchforks.
Resident Evil 4’s environments and art are gorgeous and haunting
Given the ubiquity of the original game, it feels almost silly to dance around the narrative here, but Resident Evil 4 plays fast and loose with its source material, leading to a partially new experience. Resident Evil 4’s villains remain as eccentric and fun as their original appearance, but now with proper gravitas and world-building to support them. The Los Illuminados are felt everywhere throughout the game world, a twisted and gnarled root that has infected the land itself with its grotesque parasites, the Las Plagas. The bigger changes are couched in its second and third acts, most of which I couldn’t spoil even if I wanted to, but I can at least assure you that they are universally for the better.
With certain moments reworked, characters are given time to inhabit a space together now, leading to more organic exchanges that lend the overall story more dramatic weight. The game still revels in the absurd and the camp, correctly understanding that the humour of the original is a core pillar of its appeal, but Capcom has dragged the rest up to modern standards. Ashley in particular has been completely rewritten for the remake, thankfully abandoning the tropey, gendered writing of yesteryear for a warmer, more well-rounded portrait of a young woman thrown into a terrible situation in which bodily agency is lost. This intelligent rewrite is brilliantly brought to life by Buechner, whose voice work, alongside Apostolides, solidifies the new takes on these great characters.
In turn, her dynamic with Leon is far more believable and endearing. This Leon S. Kennedy is a bit of an odd one, settling somewhere between smooth action hero and PTSD twink, a combination that leads to some sincerely moving moments as the two sides collide in real time. When paired with the earnestly afraid but whip-smart Ashley, they both stoke out the best sides of the other, a playful back and forth that plays like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. There are a litany of quips and exchanges I could praise, but one instance sees the two discussing a looming threat, Ashley asking Leon what he will do and the special agent firing back a short, self-assured, “I’ll do my job.” And for all his quiet pain and silly jokes, this is a Leon that most definitely does his job.
Combat encounters are frenetic and satisfying
Resident Evil 4’s combat is effectively flawless, a crowning achievement for Capcom’s run of remakes that have been steadily readying themselves for this exact moment. There was always a danger that the thrill of the 2005 game would be lost in translating it into modern gaming language, that ditching the semi-tank controls for freeform movement and aiming could lessen the claustrophobic horror. Turns out the opposite is the case, as Capcom’s encounter design and core systems interweave to not only recapture the feeling of the original game but supersede it. Perhaps most surprising is the addition of a fully functional stealth system that allows Leon to sneak up on foes, hide from stronger enemies and move through the environment undetected. The knife has also been given centre stage, an enjoyable but only specifically useful part of the original, now it allows an absurdly fun melee system to pivot around it. Timing it just right, Leon can deflect almost any attack coming his way, chipping away the durability of the knife but opening enemies up to a sweeping kick and other contextual attacks.
Leon is also geared out with an expanding arsenal of weapons and equipment, faithfully recreated and enhanced. There isn’t a bad feeling gun in the game, each one packing satisfying impact and responsive controls that let the player approach combat with a unique pace and command of the play space. And you’ll need to feel in control as Resident Evil 4 goes incredibly hard on its encounters, often throwing overwhelming odds at you but always with the confidence of a game that has given you the tools to handle it. While the attaché case inventory (thankfully) returns, Leon can now assign weapons to quick-select slots on the directional pad, a subtle change that majorly impacts the speed of combat. You’ll be whipping through systems in seconds – pop a villager in the knee, round-house him to the ground, use your knife to stab the Plagas before it can grow and then sling your shotgun around to blast the foes who’ve surrounded you in the meantime. It’s frenetic, terrifying, and immensely satisfying.
Ashley and Leon’s characters are expanded in charming new ways
These tools are bolstered by the Merchant, a colourful character who allows the player to sell and trade findable treasures and Pesetas toward incremental equipment upgrades, both passive and active. This micro-economy makes for a very game-y backbone to the core action gameplay, all shiny jewels and damage decimals, a welcome addition that keeps you consistently invested in both world exploration and moment-to-moment combat. Allow me a small aside here, stranger, to say that the new Merchant is one of the best lads video games have ever seen. His iconic status among Resident Evil fans made the recasting a near impossible task but Capcom has pulled it off. He is, somehow, even more Merchant than the original, this time sporting a quasi-Aussie accent as he affectionally calls you “mate” and drops some of the game’s best one-liners. Gun does rhyme with fun, mate, good on ya.
Capcom has also smartly reinterpreted the world of the original game, slimly reshaping certain sections while blowing the hinges off of others. To fans of the 2005 game, this will be noticeable immediately but never failed to give me a strange, giddy sense of spatial vertigo as I expected to round a corner into one thing only to be greeted with another entirely. Memory aside though, Resident Evil 4’s rustic farmlands and extravagant structures present as a perfectly timed extension of 2021’s Resident Evil Village landscapes, itself a game that riffed liberally on Resident Evil 4’s design ethos. In short, this is a truly stunning game world, gorgeously rendered in an engine that grows stronger with each entry, and expertly pathed to keep the player flowing from objectives while engendering organic, rewarding exploration. My only small gripe is the open lake segment in the first act, not for its level design but the boat you use to traverse it feels just a little off to me.
The horror of the cult threat is ramped up in the remake
Resident Evil 4 also exhibits arguably the best of Capcom’s aesthetic and tonal craft. While the corridors of the RCPD building remain iconic, Leon’s descent into the Spanish woodlands is haunting in wholly unique and chilling ways. While maintaining the core action power fantasy, this remake cranks up the horror through evocative environmental design and masterful sound and scoring. It feels like a place infected by evil itself, as signs of the cult’s influence grow from subtle to bombastic the deeper you get into this world. The 2005 game boldly dropped the series’ signature zombies in favour of this headier threat and here we see it fully realised, delivering us a journey that basks in grandiose displays of horror and an ever-present, disarming sense of melancholy.
In 2005, the original Resident Evil 4 represented the zenith of Capcom’s survival horror franchise, a propulsive burst of tonal creativity and mechanical experimentation that solidified the series’ move into action gameplay and the self-serious camp. In 2023, Resident Evil 4 sees Capcom reach that peak once more as years of remake refinement and hard learnt lessons galvanise into the best Resident Evil to date.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5 // Review code supplied by the publisher
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- March 24, 2023