In 1996, Capcom released the first game in what has since become one of their most well-known franchises: Resident Evil. Though it was not the first of its kind, Resident Evil served as an introduction to the survival horror genre for many video game fans. In spite of, or possibly even owing to, its laughable voice acting, the game became a hit, incentivizing Capcom to do what they do best: make sequels. By the time of the PlayStation 2’s debut in 2000, there were three installments in the main Resident Evil series. Plans for a fourth game were already being made for this new console. The scenario writer for the second game originally intended introduce supernatural elements to the new installment and make it more action-oriented. The series’ creator Shinji Mikami eventually overruled these decisions when the concept strayed too far from the franchise’s survival horror roots. He instead encouraged the director of this project, Hideki Kamiya, to make an entirely different game with these ideas in mind. The result from this project became the first installment of another hit series: Devil May Cry.
Meanwhile in 2001, Nintendo had launched the GameCube, the successor to their 64-bit console. Unfortunately, the console failed to capture market share, largely owing to its lackluster third-party support. In 2002, Capcom unveiled five new games slated to be console exclusives; the apparent goal being to boost Nintendo’s hardware sales. One of the five games was the long-awaited fourth installment to the Resident Evil series. After many more scrapped ideas and development shifts, Resident Evil 4 was finally released in 2005 for the GameCube, receiving widespread acclaim from both fans and critics alike.
Playing the Game
Up until the series’ fourth installment, Resident Evil adopted a design style similar to the classic 1992 DOS game, Alone in the Dark, which employed fixed camera angles and expected players to manage their resources carefully. With ammunition and health pickups being rarities, it was often better to avoid combat altogether, thus living up to the genre’s very name: survival horror.
Resident Evil 4 marks a radical change in gameplay from its predecessors. The camera is always positioned behind the player character’s shoulder, allowing you to easily see in all directions while making it easier to aim your weapon at enemies. Moreover, ammunition and health pickups are far more plentiful, meaning that you don’t have to worry as much about conserving them. It is because of this shift that, in the strictest sense, Resident Evil 4 is not a survival horror game. While your character isn’t exactly a near-invincible superhuman, and at the beginning of the game, he can only take a few hits before dying, Resident Evil 4 is an action game at heart. This is demonstrated further by having a merchant character who show up in random places to sell you ammunition and different weapons to help you along.
The inventory management system is similar to the one that features in Diablo. Leon, the main protagonist, carries an attaché case which can hold various firearms, ammunition, healing items, grenades, and other useful items. Each item takes up a different amount of space. Because of this, it is often necessary to rearrange items as you see fit; thankfully, you can rotate items to make them fit more easily should the need arise. While using the case, you can also combine items. As an example, littered throughout the game are herbs that come in three different colors: green, red, and yellow. Red and yellow herbs do nothing on their own, but when combined with green herbs, they can restore all of your health or increase the length of the meter respectively.
Every now and again, I’ve experienced a work that received overwhelmingly positive accolades only to be left underwhelmed. In extreme cases, I would witness something that turned out to be downright bad. Because of this, I have become increasingly appreciative of works which actually live up to the hype. After having played Resident Evil 4, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it does.
Why is Resident Evil 4 so good? For starters, the action sequences are intense. You always get this rush whenever a horde of monsters appear and you’re desperately seeking choice locations to fire back at them. It helps that there’s such a good variety of monsters – it’s on the same level as other excellent game series such as Half-Life and Metroid. What I find truly remarkable about this is how a third-person shooter with so few enemies that can shoot back can be so exciting.
There are also enemies that can kill you with a single attack. Usually, it’s jarring to include them in games with life meters, but Resident Evil 4 handily avoids the problem by successfully broadcasting the idea that you shouldn’t get near them. You shouldn’t need someone to tell you that getting close to a gigantic bug-like creature erupting out of a person’s head is a bad idea. Poorly implemented examples of this phenomenon would have them barely distinguishable from normal enemies, making it easy for them to get the jump on you and send you back to the last checkpoint.
Whenever the action quieted down, I found myself wanting to explore every nook and cranny for valuable items. This is exactly what a game with superb level design should accomplish. There are only three major areas, yet all of them are memorable and contribute to the game’s oppressive atmosphere. Once you’ve reached the end of the game, you get a sense of satisfaction, knowing that your quick thinking is what helped the main character survive to the end and complete his mission. This is why Resident Evil 4 is such a great game; the individual pieces are sound, and when put together, they add up to something grander than the sum of its parts.
Having said that, there is one flaw I feel obligated to address: the presence of quick-time events. Occasionally, when an otherwise non-interactive cutscene is playing, the main character will get attacked and graphics of buttons being pressed will flash onscreen. You must push the buttons as they appear – failure to do so will result in instant death.
Regardless of the medium, when a work becomes a hit, people are going to want to capitalize on that success. Contrary to popular belief, Resident Evil 4 was not the first game to include quick-time events, as Shenmue, the game whose creator is credited with coining the term, predates it by six years (and even then, one could consider Dragon’s Lair, a 1983 arcade game, their prototypical implementation). Instead, Resident Evil 4 was arguably the first game to both feature them and achieve mainstream success.
For whatever reason, it was concluded that the game was great because it had quick-time events; they have been cropping up in many AAA games ever since. However, the notion that people like Resident Evil 4 because it makes players press buttons during cutscenes is completely absurd. It’s perfectly fine to include one-hit-kill enemies as long as you can make dealing with them tolerable, but all quick-time events do is allow the game to ignore its own rules just to make the player lose. Taking into account the myriad other reasons why somebody would enjoy Resident Evil 4, it’s strange to me that even the laziest of developers would take inspiration from the worst aspect about it. Thankfully, the quick-time events aren’t as bad as they would get in other games; most of the time, you just need to push a button once to avoid dying. It’s only nearing the end of the game that they become an issue, but even then, they didn’t come close to ruining the experience for me.
Analyzing the Story
A Midwestern American community known as Raccoon City was devastated by the t-Virus. Anyone infected with the virus eventually turned into mindless, violent zombies. Nearly a week after the initial outbreak, the United States government ordered to the city destroyed using an experimental missile. Shortly thereafter, word got out that the virus was a biological weapon manufactured by the Umbrella Corporation, a giant, international pharmaceutical conglomerate. Combined with the government’s suspending of their trading license, it didn’t take long for the once-proud corporation to go bankrupt.
Six years have passed since that incident, and now a former police officer from Raccoon City, Leon Kennedy has been sent on a mission to rescue Ashley Graham, the daughter of the U.S. President, who was kidnapped by a mysterious cult. Accompanied by two police officers, Leon travels to a rural village in Spain to question the locals of her whereabouts. Unfortunately, the villagers’ intentions prove less than friendly, as they attack him on sight and mercilessly slaughter the two officers when he is separated from them. It is from there that Leon must use his wits to survive and escape the village with Ashley.
Outside of the Ace Attorney series, Capcom isn’t exactly known for their stellar writing. The same principle applies here. No, the villain’s plan does not hold up under scrutiny |– especially because he would have won had he simply allowed Leon to rescue Ashley without alerting either of them to his plan|. It’s also never explained who this merchant is, why he’s willing to sell and upgrade weapons for Leon, or how he appears in all of these improbable places. Furthermore, why are these cultists who have never been shown to use firearms (other than crossbows) dropping bullets like penny candy? In summary, the story of Resident Evil 4 is campy, cheesy, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I love every minute of it.
I think it’s mostly because the idea of a zombie apocalypse is inherently rather silly – there are too many ways in which it would fail quickly in the real world. This is what makes the story in this game so enjoyable. Rather than using zombies as a soapbox for the author to prattle on about the nature of mankind, Resident Evil 4 takes the absurdity of the genre and has fun with it. Nowhere is this more obvious than with its protagonist, Leon. Rather than making him a tortured soul, he’s a professional snarker who has an endless supply of stinging one-liners for the various situations he finds himself in.
A complaint that gets thrown at this game every now and again deals with Ashley. Once Leon rescues her, the game becomes something of an escort mission, for you now have to keep her alive while fending off enemies. Luckily, Mr. Mikami and his team designed the game in such a way that protecting her from harm rarely becomes a hassle, almost making the experience a strange spiritual successor to Ico. For starters, Ashley ducks whenever she’s in front of your line of sight, making it easy to avoid hitting her. Secondly, her pathfinding was well-programmed, making it unlikely that she will get separated from Leon and wander into an ambush or trap. Finally, in many areas, you can have her stay behind or hide somewhere while you clear the area.
If nothing else, I have to say that I appreciate how the enemies acknowledge her existence. The alternative of including the character only for her to not be in any real danger may seem more appealing as it could alleviate what is invariably considered an annoying mechanic, but in practice, it ruins immersion, which is especially important in an action or horror game – even if the story isn’t the main selling point. I will yield that escort missions, much like quick-time events, are one of those bizarre aspects of games developers insist on clinging on to despite historically being liked by an estimated zero people (thus demonstrating what the definition of insanity is), but in the case of Resident Evil 4, I don’t think it had a negative impact on its quality whatsoever. Sure, Ashley yelling if she gets caught by a cultist is irritating, but I think it just adds an extra incentive to keep her safe. As an actual character, she’s likable enough that you want to see her and Leon survive to the end. It may seem like an unnecessary thing to point out, but considering how many works have completely unlikable protagonists (often because the author tried to make them morally ambiguous, but overestimated how sympathetic they actually come across as), it’s something one should never take for granted.
Drawing a Conclusion
Capcom’s philosophy concerning video game development seems to involve constantly throwing stuff at a wall until something sticks, thus making their masterpieces come across as happy accidents. Whatever the case may be, Resident Evil 4 is a classic and one of the best games of the 2000s. Indeed, one could make a strong case that it’s Capcom’s greatest 3D game.
In some ways, this game also accomplished the impossible. It’s peppered with quick-time events and centers around an escort mission, yet still manages to be an amazing experience. The writing may not be particularly great, the antagonists are a little more than cartoon bad guys, and making cultists’ heads explode from simple gunfire can be considered crass – possibly even outright stupid. At the same time, it also displays a level of self-awareness that the zombie apocalypse genre lost somewhere down the line and is about as far from pretentious as one can get. Play this game if you haven’t already – even if you’re not a fan of horror games; it’s easy enough to get as a digital download on modern consoles (despite Mr. Mikami promising to chop off his head if a port was created). I firmly believe that games such as Resident Evil 4 will always be a more meaningful statement than the one from the artistically driven director who desperately wants to prove the naysayers wrong.
Final Score: 8/10