In 2001, four years before the original Resident Evil 4 was released, Capcom knew it had a problem. The Resident Evil franchise was stuck in a cookie cutter, producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi said at the time. “The whole concept of RE4 was to reinvent the game,” he said. “We wanted to give the players something new.”
The result was a combat-forward reboot of the series that revisited its survival horror roots, Resident Evil 2 co-stars Leon S. Kennedy as an international action hero on a mission to rescue the US president’s daughter from a cult. Resident Evil 4 was hailed as a masterpiece that injected new life into the franchise that would only be equaled more action-focused in subsequent sequels – ultimately prompting yet another reinvention of the series with the back-to-basics horror game Resident Evil 7 Biohazard.
Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 4 recreates the series’ most beloved and highly influential feature with lavish details that modernize the game from top to bottom. Developers have reframed Leon’s adventure through the lens of other recent Resident Evil remakes, bringing new levels of beauty and squishy gore to Resident Evil 4 while updating its controls and history. The result is a clear demonstration that the developers understand their source material and want to make it sing by fleshing out every possible detail.
The game also strongly signals that Resident Evil may need a reinvention once again.
Resident Evil 4‘s core elements are present in the remake. Leon S. Kennedy, now a formidable government agent, is sent on a covert solo mission to Spain, where he searches for a target codenamed “Baby Eagle” – real name Ashley Graham, daughter of US President Graham. A group of cults have kidnapped her in a plot to infect her with a parasite and ultimately make her their puppet. While searching for Ashley, Leon comes across a remote village overrun by the parasite. Its angry residents – and a host of ultra-powerful men and monsters – stand between Leon and his rescuer.
Leon is no longer the rookie cop of his previous game, and he no longer faces danger in the form of one or two rogue zombies at a time. Instead, he is well-armed and battle-ready, facing swarms of armed, infected humans known as Ganados. While resource management and ammo scarcity were core to the gameplay of early Resident Evil games, i 4players are more concerned with crowd control and – specifically in the replay – parrying attacks from all sides. Resident Evil 4 presents a new type of challenge: surviving against overwhelming odds.
In the remake, the dance to avoid death can be terrifying. Ganados and strong men with chainsaws or giant hammers can quickly surround Leon. But Leon can parry or dodge pretty much any attack. He can roundhouse kick or suplex villains before finishing them off with a knife through the skull. Or he can approach encounters with stealth, creeping up behind unsuspecting enemies and dispatching them with a silent execution. All these options make any battle encounter exciting and flexible in their demands; sometimes they can be frustrating, as the game pours waves of enemies over Leon in set-pieces that feel more like an exercise in trial-and-error than finding a solution.
“I guess that’s their idea of a warm welcome” – Leon S. Kennedy
As in the original, Leon must also protect Ashley from harm in several, albeit brief, segments where the two team up. Ashley is totally vulnerable in these moments, and Leon must fight not only for his own survival, but hers as well. This time she is a far less complicated babysitting task; her healthcare system has been greatly simplified. Ashley’s presence was a famously divisive element in the original, but she’s less of a nuisance here and can be ordered to stay close to Leon (during chase sequences) or to keep her distance (during combat). The two work well together and it’s fun to watch them flirt.
Sometimes RE4‘s action-heavy set pieces are a series of puzzles, many of them inscrutable and embellished in the classic Resident Evil style alongside fetch quests. These lock-and-key gimmicks still take a back seat to the combat, and after all this time they still feel redundant in the grand design of the game – even the puzzles specific to the remake feel like an afterthought on the part of the developers.
Players will likely spend more time figuring out how to best equip Leon, as a mysterious, ever-present merchant offers a wide variety of upgrades, new weapons, armor, repairs, and recipes for Leon to purchase. (The salesman says, as fans would demand of him, “What are you buying?”, but only sometimes, in a great and rare display of restraint from the designers.) Capcom has added a new layer to Leon’s upgrades in the remake, not letting him not only increasing the size of the attache case that stores his items, but also the case itself with variants that offer varying perks, and attachable charms that offer even more buffs. Players can earn these charms in the shooting range minigame, an entertaining, highly replayable diversion that pops up in several places in the game – I lost way too much time there trying to unlock the best charms in the game. RE4which is based on RNG.
This is where the fun begins.
Resident Evil 4 also differs from previous games in its linearity. There is very little backtracking here as the game aggressively pushes Leon forward into new areas and new scenarios. While the same sequence of events is intact from the original, the overall flow and momentum has been both shaken up and smoothed out. Where Capcom has wisely cut is in eliminating or reformulating the more silly components of the original game. Quick-time events from the original, where Leon would have to run from boulders or a misplaced mechanized giant statue, only to potentially fail in a matter of milliseconds before doing it all over again, have been recontextualized. The most striking and welcome example is how Capcom recreates the central character of Ramón Salazar, who looks less like a faded Chucky doll and more like a genteel but dilapidated old man.
For all the rough edges it smooths over, RE4 pulls the same trick as RE2 did in 2019, making a groundbreaking but now dated game feel brand new again. But after four Resident Evil games in as many years, even the current incarnations of the franchise are starting to feel a little familiar – there are hints of the cookie-cutter mold that Kobayashi set out to shrug off more than 20 years ago, even in Capcom’s smart and beautifully produced remakes. This latest is no anomaly.
Resident Evil 7 Biohazard and Village shown, just like the original RE4, which Capcom can adapt and reinvent. After completing 4 once again, the most obvious question the remake left me with was: Where do they go from here?
Resident Evil 4 will be available on March 24 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 5 download code provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.