The Resident Evil revival marches on with a vengeance. Early praise for Resident Evil 4 remake makes it sound like the best game of 2023 so far. While not everyone is as impressed as those who think it’s an early GOTY contender, It appears to be a modernized version that’s still true to the spirit of the original, combining beautiful new visuals with the 2005 GameCube game’s focused design.
Out March 24 on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC, the Resident Evil 4 remake updates one of the best entries in Capcom’s long running survival horror series. Following in the footsteps of previous remakes for Resident Evil 2 and 3, the newest game still sees Special Agent Leon S. Kennedy sent to a Spanish village to rescue the President’s daughter from a weird cult. This time things are just much prettier, the controls and UI are more modern, and there’s some new content like additional side-quests.
A number of places like IGN have given the game perfect scores, and it currently sits at over 90 on Metacritic. At the same time, not everyone is under the remake’s spell. “Several smart changes; a few disappointing cuts,” tweeted Edge magazine’s deputy editor, Chris Schilling. “When it’s good it’s brilliant, but largely in the exact same ways as the original.” Here’s what other reviewers are saying about the year’s latest blockbuster:
Capcom took out a bunch of the frustrating elements, added a ton of excellent and surprising new stuff, and I still don’t have enough words to go over all of the little tweaks and additions that I appreciated. Parrying feels incredible every time, whether you’re swatting an axe out of mid-air or stopping a chainsaw blade from lopping your head off. The shooting gallery is expanded upon and offers useful charms for those with good aim. Spinels are no longer random shiny objects in the environment, as they’re now rewards for merchant quests that can be spent on exclusive upgrades and items. Journal entries expand upon memorable boss fights like El Gigante and The Garrador. Even something as simple as slotting gems into treasures has added a fun color-based multiplier system to maximize your sell value.
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There are a few places where the remake of Resident Evil 4 shows its age — but I mean that in a good way. For one thing, this is such a video game. Modern blockbusters love to hide their inherent gaminess under the veneer of immersion, but RE4 harbors no such illusions. This is a game where you kick crates slathered in yellow paint to gather ammo and herbs, and explosive red barrels are everywhere. There’s even a mine cart sequence (with plenty of explosive barrels).
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 also diverges from past games in its linearity. There’s very little backtracking to do here, as the game aggressively pushes Leon forward to new areas and new scenarios. While the same sequence of events is intact from the original, the overall flow and momentum have been both shaken up and smoothed out. Where Capcom has cut, wisely, is in eliminating or reframing the sillier components of the original game. Quick-time events from the original, where Leon would have to outrun boulders or an out-of-place 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 recast the central character of Ramón Salazar, who comes across less like a bleached Chucky doll and more like a distinguished but decaying old man.
The trouble with Remakes is you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t - change too little and players will ask what the point of it all was. Change too much and you risk upsetting long-time fans while thumbing your nose at what made the original game great in the first place. Remaking one of the most influential games of the last twenty years is no small feat, yet Capcom has pulled it off here. Leon is just as dryly sassy, Ada is a smoke show, Ashley is considerably less annoying than in the original (even if her fashion sense has suffered horribly), and the baddies are all given their time to shine and then erupt in a mass of entrails and extra limbs. Oh and the regenerators? Still utterly terrifying. There are a few sequences that fall flat, particularly late game, but overall this is as good as remakes get. Even if the bingo reference is slightly lost on new generations.
This is what the RE4 remake has reduced me to: a pleading mess of unfulfilled nostalgia and frustration. It’s not a terrible game, but it isn’t seamless, either. It adds enemy variety and fresh environments, but Leon’s bullets routinely hit their targets without dealing damage, his movements are clumsy and his new parry ability is only semi-functional. The game clearly establishes combat strategies for each scene, but then its mechanics get in the way, punishing the player in the process. Overall, the word for the RE4 remake is inconsistent.
Cartoonish might be a funny word to apply to a horror game, but scenes from the original “Resident Evil 4” bordered on Looney Tunes-like slapstick comedy. The president’s daughter would get kidnapped via conveniently located traps seemingly placed by Wile E. Coyote. Leon himself is a bit like the Roadrunner, evading obstacles such as a giant robot version of the short-statured castle lord, Ramon Salazar. In the remake, much of this is toned down. Two fire-breathing dragon statues from the original game are now moved into the infamously difficult “water room.” That giant robot is also reimagined to be a bit less silly and is now mixed in with another infamous late-game challenge.
Resident Evil 4 remake is the re-envisioning I wanted, but also not the one I expected to get. As a Resident Evil 4 purist, I feared that messing with the magic of an all-time classic would spell disaster. Instead, the Resident Evil 4 remake deviates from the original in many significant ways, but never compromises anything that made it revolutionary. It preserves that, recontextualizes it, and rejuvenates it in a game that is designed to keep veteran players constantly on edge, toying with what they remember to create fear through subversion. Although I have an intimate knowledge of the original game, the slight tweaks and unexpected additions kept me from ever reaching a comfort zone—I was never fully at ease, even with my knowledge of the original game.
If Resident Evil 4 remake was an original, standalone title, it would be a very great game indeed, and anyone who plays this will have a good time (maybe not on Hardcore though: it really is brutal). But this is not a standalone game, it’s a remake of one of the greatest games ever made and, when it comes to the crunch, it falls short. Where the original felt expansive, this feels cramped, and where the original went on breathless tangents and threw one idea after another at the player, this feels (in the second half especially) like it settles into a groove and isn’t especially interested in breaking free of it.
With all due respect to the likes of The Last of Us and God of War Ragnarok – which are both excellent in their own ways – Resident Evil 4 has no time for dialogue-heavy deep and meaningfuls. Leon’s foppish haircut might scream noughties emo but his stoic attitude is all-out ‘80s action hero, and no matter how much I had to Tetris-swap the expanding selection of guns and ammo to fit his inventory case he always seemed to have plenty of room left up his sleeve for a winking one-liner to whip out after a thoroughly insane action sequence before sliding a fresh clip into his submachine gun and running headlong into the next.
The biggest issue in all this is that it’s very front-loaded. The best section of the game is when you first enter the village, and it never reaches that height again. That’s not to say it doesn’t remain to be a fun time, but I just can’t believe they didn’t put together more complex set-pieces like that.
As great as this remake is – and let me reiterate, it’s incredible – I do not think it will show you why Resident Evil 4 was so groundbreaking. It just can’t. There’s no universe where this game will ever be as important as the game it remakes. It can’t come out in the same time, space, and context as the first Resident Evil 4. Somewhat ironically, it’s only as good as it is now because it exists in a post-Resident Evil 4 world. And so, while I think it can show you why Resident Evil 4 was fun, goofy, and endearing, if you’re someone interested in just why this old game has such an enduring legacy – especially one strong enough to warrant such a massively expensive remake – your best bet is to still play the original, to try and put your mind in a pre-Resident Evil 4 world to understand how that game could change everything.