Remaking Resident Evil 2 made sense. That game feels like an artifact of history. Resident Evil 3 did, too. That was a bad game that could’ve benefited from a retry. (The remake was also bad.) Resident Evil 4 was a masterpiece then—and still slaps. Why, then, remake it?
The answer is money, of course. Resident Evil 4 is popular. What if you could sell two versions of Resident Evil 4? But even if that’s true, the cynicism buckles under the weight of Capcom’s near-flawless track record with the Resident Evil franchise since its creative reboot, Resident Evil 7, where the series shifted remarkably naturally to first-person and firmly re-gripped its survival horror roots. The Resident Evil 3 remake was a misfire with good intentions, but everything else has shown a company with a firm understanding of its past and present, and how the eras can co-exist. The presence of one does not erase the other, as so frequently is the case when game companies choose to cash in on nostalgia.
Few games sit on the same pedestal as Resident Evil 4. Unlike many games from the 80s and 90s, Resident Evil 4 hasn’t aged poorly, or looks and feels so old that it wouldn’t work for a newcomer without the context of being alive in 2005 and witnessing in real-time how Resident Evil 4 reshaped our understanding of action games. Capcom re-releases the game every time a new platform launches, and recently oversaw a surprisingly great VR update.
In other words, perhaps it’s no surprise the Resident Evil 4 remake, too, is spectacular.
It more than justifies its existence, and crucially, does not pretend the past never happened. Besides honoring Resident Evil 4’s unique DNA—a game of many flavors and tones, of which the game oscillates between at will—the original game has not been pulled from physical and digital shelves. The two live in harmony. Electronic Arts took the same approach with Dead Space, another remake that, like Resident Evil 4, sought to embrace the gap between our collective memory of an old classic and what games feel like in 2023. The Dead Space remake feels like what it was like to play Dead Space in 2008. The Resident Evil 4 remake feels like what it was like to play Resident Evil 4 in 2005. Newcomers have a chance to understand what the fuss was all about, and the rest of us jump in a time machine.
Resident Evil 4 was a rarity in sequels: a genuine, if loving, rejection of the past. The parameters that defined “survival horror” were well established, three games into the popular series. It was about being careful and conservative, slowly creeping around hallways and conserving health and ammunition to the point of hoarding. It wasn’t a Resident Evil game unless you made it to the end credits with 30 rounds of grenade shells that you never used. And in the span of a few minutes, Resident Evil 4 cast that aside in favor of something new.
The famous opening scene of Resident Evil 4, where Leon Kennedy approaches an empty village only to be overrun by an unyielding horde, asks the player to recast expectations. No longer can you slowly and calmly line up a shot, nor can you run around a corner and expect peace. You’re constantly on the run, diving through windows, climbing ladders, and praying for a breather that rarely comes. Resident Evil 4 does not dole out enemies in reasonable groups of two or three. It’s crowds, closing in on the player with Jason Vorhees energy. Your focus on the enemies in front of you distracts from the four that, suddenly, are behind you. What good is a pistol when you’re dealing with a swarm? A grenade helps. Maybe two.
Or maybe you’re all out of grenades.
If old Resident Evil games were about savoring every bullet in a clip, Resident Evil 4 was about dumping every last available bullet into the encroaching evil and hoping to survive.
The remake understands this, and instead of reinvention, focuses on ratcheting. More enemies, more intensity, more reasons to reinvent one’s strategy on the fly. The hordes of enemies from 2005 feel quaint, compared to what Capcom regularly throws at you here, but it summons the same overwhelming feeling of dread. It feels comfortably similar to what EA tapped into with Dead Space. Lately, I’ve been replaying the original Dead Space alongside my colleague, Rob Zacny, who’s been playing the remake simultaneously. What you quickly notice, beyond the obviously impressive new visuals, are how quaint the old necromorphs feel. They are deliciously easy to dismember, and rarely pose a threat. I simply clean up a room and move on. Rob, on the other hand, is unloading entire clips and dropping f-bombs.
It’s a similar dynamic here. Same setup, but now, with the energy of a thousand suns. It’s not uncommon to reach the end of an encounter, look at your inventory, and gasp at the lack of options for what comes next. You can’t buy ammo from a vendor, and while the game has storage options, it limits what can be stored. First aid spray? Sure. Extra guns? Absolutely. Extra shotgun shells? Nope. (Thankfully, the game is extremely generous about dropping almost exactly what you need, but praying for the right drop is part of the delicious tension.)
The original Resident Evil 4 had a chaotic energy that was hard to pin down. This is a video game where the player is regularly roundhouse kicking both enemies and barrels, running into a creepy vendor who seems to exist outside of space and time, and hoping the local chickens will crap out an egg that you can eat for extra health. It’s weird, and that’s all before we start talking about the villain with a funny little hat. It would’ve been easy, perhaps even understandable, for Capcom to look at all of this and dispense with a lot of it. Because they’re still selling the old game, what’s the harm in ditching some of this kitsch in 2023?
If anything, the remake doubles—triples?—down on kitsch. There are more obscure puzzles requiring players to rotate blocks in directions that upset the brain. (I solved one horrifying puzzle, involving a series of hexagonal objects, by picking items at random. I cheered.) There are new medallions to collect and place into doors, magically opening them. There are ridiculous puzzle hints arbitrarily written on cave walls in a way that defies any and all logic. These elements are still part of modern Resident Evil, but it’s more restrained than it used to be, because even Resident Evil games feel as though they must adhere to “making sense.”
From the top down, the game is in on the joke. The dialogue has been re-written, sure, but largely in service of improving it. And this level of respect, a plan to honor what came before and embrace what it’s trying to do, is everywhere. In the original, for example, the jacketed merchant with a penchant for snark rewarded players for tracking down blue medallions that arbitrarily hung throughout the game. In the remake, this has become a whole series of side quests involving blue medallions, hunting and selling snakes, killing special one-off enemies, and more. The writing is really funny, too, and pokes fun at their strange presence:
“For the love of god, will somebody please get rid of the blue medallions these religious lunatics left hanging around?” reads one. “A dear friend of mine is gravely ill and I’d very much like to treat them to some delicious vipers before they pass. Is there a snake charmer willing to lend a hand?” reads another. It’s knowing, tongue firmly planted in cheek. I love it.
Which is a good way to describe everything about this remake: knowing. This remake is a celebration of the past, and does not view it, and what hindsight often does to it, with contempt. It stands on the shoulders of a gaming masterpiece, and tries to climb a little higher.
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