This week, Yahtzee reviews Resident Evil 4.
So, at E3, everyone saw that Resident Evil 2 was getting remade, and everyone hopped smartly onto their backs and began squeezing out great big fruity woofers to express their glee. But my woofers stayed resolutely where they were - and yes, it was actually very uncomfortable - because I am aware that the Resident Evil series follows a pattern: they put out one good game and then they proceed to churn out inferior sequels until they can churn no more, making what was once a perfectly straightforward standalone horror plot into a nightmarishly convoluted mess of canon ever expanding like fresh vomit on a tile floor, making everyone in the room nauseous and creating vomity spinoffs to make the matter worse, until finally, someone takes a self-awareness pill, locks themselves in a vomit-proof basement, and makes another good one, usually by stripping things down to core concepts and keeping the shit-smeared hippo of established canon out of its virgin waters. And then, the moment it does well, Capcom goes, "Phew! Time to get back on track!" and the shit-smeared hippo promptly belly-flops straight back in to ruin things anew.
This process has already begun with Resident Evil 7. The piles of DLC have already done a marvelous job of ruining all the base game's subtlety and mystique; it's like we had a lovely dildo that had a nice, smooth glide action in our tender butthole, but for some reason, they insisted on taping a Lego astronaut to the end. And I knew this would happen, because it happened after Resident Evil 4, as well! And it occurred to me recently that for all my years of trumpeting Resident Evil 4, of wafting its delicious farts around like I'm making smoke signals, I've never done a full retro review of it. So as the summer drought crawls ever onwards, I thought I might as well do one, if only for cataloging purposes.
So, here we go! Resident Evil 4 was very far from the fourth Resident Evil game; it was around the ninth or tenth, depending on what counts. The straightforward numbering of 1, 2, and 3 gave way to a sort of toxic soup of Code: Veronicas, Survivors, Outbreaks, Dead Aims, until no one really knew what Resident Evil was, broadly speaking; just that it wasn't something you wanted close to your nose. The time for change had come; away with tangled backstory, unfix that camera from its lofty perch, and let it breathe free as it hovers about our shoulder, demanding pets and bits of cream cracker! But this is misleading; Resident Evil: Dead Aim was using a third-person chase camera and free-aim shooting before Resident Evil 4 did, but Resident Evil 4 possessed the additional innovation of not being complete dog shit.
You see, the series had a problem with shilly-shallying between its original methodical, claustrophobic tone and a more action-oriented focus, and Resident Evil 4 was the first to decisively shake off the scraps and turn the "action" dial all the way up. Right from the word "go", you can tell things are going to be different: we're not starting the game in a spooky mansion or a ruined city at midnight or any other enclosed, foreboding environment; it's a nice, bright day, and we're in a forest in Europe. Europe is about all the information we're given as to where we are: some mysterious, remote region of Europe where they speak Mexican Spanish and still use pesetas as currency. But the point is, Resident Evil 4 is where the shilly-shallying ended. "Ooh, I just can't decide!" flounced the Resident Evil series. "Am I about survival or action? Monsters or conspiracies? Am I serious or camp?" Resident Evil 4 silenced the room by loudly slinging its knob onto the table. "I don't know about you, but I'm about action, I'm about monsters, and by all the damned souls in Hell, I'm camper than Dale Winton on a caravanning weekend."
The story sees Leon S. Kennedy - protagonist of Resident Evil 2, but practically unrecognizable as a smirking secret agent who thinks ladders are for pussies - on a mission to rescue the President's daughter, him being the only dude bad enough, you see. His chosen method is to burst into a random house with his gun drawn and start jabbering questions at non-English-speaking locals, so obviously, he gets chased through the woods with scythes and pitchforks, but then it turns out they're all in an evil zombie death cult on top of being offended by Leon's people skills.
Compare the quality of story and dialogue to any previous Resident Evil game, and there isn't that much difference - it's all on a level somewhere around "Syfy Original Movie recreated for the school Christmas pageant" - but with the slightest turn of the heel into self-awareness, Resident Evil 4 makes it work. Leon's dry bravado in the face of heads exploding into seafood platters, squeaky midget Napoleon, the merchant with the pirate voice who constantly talks like he's rubbing himself through his trouser pocket; it's all of that, combined with the sheer sincerity of the voice acting. What Resident Evil 5 got wrong was forgetting that all the ingredients were essential; it had the terrible dialogue, it had the sincerity, but it didn't have midgets dressed like Napoleon.
And yet, simultaneously, RE4 is still an unnerving horror game. There's this perception nowadays that horror has to be subtle, and that what you can't see is always scarier, a perception encouraged in no small amount by ME and my storybook marriage to Silent Hill 2. But if you're going for action-horror, your best approach might be complete fucking relentlessness; RE4's combat is designed to hound you on all sides with angry European football hooligans until you can't back up any further 'cos the big pile of poo that came out of your bum is getting in the way. It's not a constant barrage like your RE6 or your Dead Space; that's just mind-numbing. Downtime is used very effectively, but it can ramp up in a second.
And like a well-written essay, this is summarized in the very first paragraph, when you arrive at the village and have to fend off an endless horde of smelly foreigners for a fixed amount of time. Maybe you'll survive until the bell rings and watch nonplussed as the entire horde fucks off for pancakes, or maybe you'll meet the bloke who came to the costume party as a potato who instantly chainsaws your fucking head off. Either way, I've come to appreciate how RE4 goes from 0 to 100 and back again in an instant, like a bipolar dad on a long car journey.
I don't think one can overstate the impact RE4 had; it was a landmark title in the history of third-person action games. Play it now, and you'll note a few niggles, like the way you can't freely look around and the movement's a bit tanky, but the camera positioning will feel familiar if you've played basically any bloody third-person game that's come out lately, including God of War, despite hanging around on Kratos' shoulder being an excellent way to get a hipbone lodged in your eye socket. Even RE4's worst features, like those wonderful mid-cutscene quick-time events that, as stimulating gameplay mechanics go, were right up there with the little sound on the children's storybook tape that tells you to turn the page, ended up sticking around too long for my liking. And in the ways it shook up the franchise, you can see some obvious parallels in the way RE7 did it: the cut back to basic "rescue princess" plot, the starting us off in a quiet forest, and the sudden ramping from 0 to chainsaws.
So you can understand why the RE2 remake makes me concerned about history running in cycles: not only has a lone success primed Capcom to start pouring the old Resident Evil bullshit back in; it's going to be literally the exact same bullshit as before! You going to remake 3 after this? Code: Veronica? Dead Aim? Probably not that last one, if only 'cos there isn't enough raw material in the septic tank.
- Well I hope that clears it all up: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And after Dead Aim do they remake Resident Evil 4 again and open up some kind of world-destroying singularity with dodgy writing
- And I notice no one talks about Resident Evil Gaiden anymore