Ahead of our Resident Evil 4 Remake review, a thought occurs. It’s the 2005 Resident Evil 4 that gets all the credit, and is regarded as having changed the whole series, but really – long before the Resident Evil 4 Remake release date – the RE franchise was always more an action than a horror game. Starting with the very original, all the way back in 1996, the survival elements were mostly illusory – zombies, hunters, and even the bosses in that game are simple and stupid, and you have more than enough ammo to clear the Spencer mansion perhaps twice over.
On the contrary, the action elements are all overt. The cover of Resident Evil is a hyper-muscular Chris Redfield holding a machine gun. The opening title features a cast of characters posing, checking weapons, and smoking cigarettes, accompanied by heavy rock music and a Don LaFontaine-style voiceover: “Jill Valentine. Chris Redfield. Resident…EVIL.”
I never viewed Resident Evil 4 – from this day forward, to be known as ‘Resident Evil 2005’ or ‘Resident Evil 4, the first one’ – as Capcom pivoting to action, in abandonment of horror. Instead, the achievement of RE4 was in harmonising and striking a perfect equilibrium between Resident Evil’s many creative influences.
Now, some 18 years later, when it comes to the Resident Evil 4 remake I feel that there are two central questions. The first – is it any good? – is simple. Yes, it’s very good. The second, however – is it better than the original? – is more difficult to answer and perhaps, now that I’ve played the game, kind of irrelevant.
From transforming the identity of Resident Evil as a series, to inspiring games like Gears of War, Dead Space, and The Last of Us, RE4 – the first one – represents a pivotal moment in the history of mainstream shooters. By contrast, the revolutions of Resident Evil 4 Remake are harder to distinguish. It achieves things that have been missing from shooters perhaps since their invention, but it is not, like its namesake and progenitor, the type of game that will transform a genre.
If the nature of remakes bothers you – if you’re disheartened by the recent trend towards reviving old games rather than investing in fresh and riskier concepts – Resident Evil 4 Remake will not be the game to change your mind. Smarter, prettier, remixed, and refined, it is nevertheless, in structure, precisely the same game as almost two decades ago, and perhaps less commendable in the way it represents a dour, closed loop: all the games that Resident Evil 4 2005 inspired now become the inspirations for Resident Evil 4 Remake.
But look closer. Pay close attention to the way Resident Evil 4 Remake handles its small moments, its fine details, its micro as opposed to macro elements, and I’d argue you have a game that is, if not as transformative as the original, at least the new watermark for games of its kind. In terms of the experience of shooting – of aiming, firing, and witnessing the resultant blood and carnage – this is the best game I’ve played since The Last of Us or Max Payne 3, and perhaps even better.
Every single combat encounter in Resident Evil 4 Remake, whether it’s against a horde of enemies, an end-of-chapter boss, or just a single, hapless Ganado, feels like a set-piece; like all of the systems that compose the game’s combat have been honed, reworked, and exaggerated until even the most incidental moments feel spectacularly choreographed.
Every gun sounds fantastic. The squib hits and gore make attacks feel authentically devastating. Most of the big, scripted moments – the minecart shootout, the cabin stand-off, the dreaded water room – are simply reheated from the original, but the intense work that has gone into making every pull of every trigger into ‘a moment’ makes Resident Evil 4 feel almost completely brand new.
And it’s scary – or if not outright scary, then at least intense and with such a feeling of hardship and ardour that it feels scary. Your various confrontations with Garrador, the blind, Wolverine-clawed monster that dwells in the castle dungeons, feel like good examples of this, as does a late-game boss battle, which I won’t spoil but is perhaps the outright best boss fight that Resident Evil has ever done.
This is a game in which you feel out of breath, where, at certain times, the prospect of even rounding a corner or opening a door is loaded with apprehension. It’s not going to make you jump or give you nightmares, but like a truly powerful horror experience, be it a film or another game, Resident Evil 4 carries you from moments of fierce action and drama into quieter sections of grateful relief – but always with a foreboding sense of having to go back out there. This is the sweet spot between action and horror that Resident Evil has always strived to locate – Resident Evil 4 Remake in fact does it even better than RE4 (the first one).
Its other victories are subtler. In a time dominated by sandbox and open-world games, when it’s beginning to feel like in order to even justify itself as a mainstream release a videogame needs to be 50+ hours, a couple of hundred square miles, and come prepared with a five-year ‘content roadmap,’ Resident Evil 4 manages to be both contained but rich – narrow but deep.
There is exploration. There are sidequests. Crafting now goes beyond simply mixing herbs or combining the butterfly lamp with a green catseye. But the game is still diligently, studiously paced, with virtually every minute spent doing something that feels exciting or interesting. In the same way that it flawlessly blends action and horror, Resident Evil 4 Remake offers choice and player freedom, but without ever sacrificing the thrust of the narrative and the momentum of the creators’ work.
And it looks terrific. Playing on a comparatively mid-range PC, and using the game’s default settings, I can achieve a solid 110fps, dipping maybe to around 70 when facing a lot of enemies at once. You’ve got a lot of presets here, from ‘recommended’ to ‘balanced’, and an option to include ray tracing. Even on the ‘prioritise graphics’ setting, my run-of-the-mill rig handles Resident Evil 4 just fine, without any stuttering, crashes, or input delay.
There’s also a vast quantity of customisable settings, covering everything from anti-aliasing, shadow detail, corpse physics, bloom, terrain, field of view – and even an option to alter the detail of Leon’s trademark hair. And this is just the technical side. The variety of Resident Evil 4 Remake’s action sequences and set pieces is matched only by its range of environments. From the murky village lake to the grand castle halls, and the dirty, gloomy labs on the island, this is the best-looking Resident Evil game to date, consistently greeting you with new, stunning vistas, before inviting you to scrutinise its finely drawn minutiae.
The only real miss is Ashley. In the original game, she personified essentially every problem with videogames and female characters – if not a helpless, shrieking damsel, she was an obedient robot that we shouted orders at, or otherwise, when climbing a ladder or crawling under a desk, a sex object. The remake improves on Ashley, no doubt, but still patronises and condescends to the idea that a woman – a woman! – could be of some use to the player.
In one sequence, she hands Leon a map, where she’s circled a possible route for their escape. “You did this?” Leon asks, incredulous. “Wow, keep this up and I’ll be out of the job!” There’s also a moment where she has to turn a valve – just turn a valve – and she chirpily exclaims “leave it to me, I’m good at this stuff.” It’s as if Resident Evil 4 wants you to know that it’s thought about and tried to change Ashley, but at the same time, still doesn’t really give her anything to do or to be except a thing for us to protect.
I hoped Resident Evil 4 Remake would tackle this particular aspect of the original with more vigour. Despite all its other improvements, the fact that it doesn’t makes the remake feel that much more redundant.
Resident Evil 4 Remake review
Resident Evil 4 Remake improves on the visuals, mechanics, and moment-to-moment experience of one of the best games ever made, but the source material casts an inescapable shadow, both in its renown and its treatment of its leading woman.