Resident Evil 4 combines two of my least favorite things in the world: shooting and horror. But with the remake out, and nearly twenty years passing since my initial adverse reaction to it (you can’t expect an elementary schooler to adequately handle their character being axed in the head), I thought I was ready to give RE4 another go. Boy was I wrong.
The game starts off innocuous enough. Sure, a woman gets decapitated in a human sacrifice, and a cop is stupid enough to walk into a “missing persons” forest by himself. But the game is kind enough to hold my hand through its core concepts of “looting ammo from painted crates” and “shoot a zombie again after you blow its head off.” I marvel at the sleepy Spanish landscape, which looks charming and not at all sinister thanks to the maximum brightness that I set at the very beginning to avoid some scares. It’s almost like a vacation in zombie land. And then RE4 sets hell loose on me.
Right after the protagonist Leon Kennedy discovers that the aforementioned cop was brutally murdered in a hunter’s lodge, he gets a radio transmission that indicates that the dead cop’s partner isn’t faring too well, either. He walks into a village right in time to see the inhabitants set the poor bastard on fire. ACAB and all, but burning someone alive is several steps too far—it’s clear that these are not people whom I want to be breathing free air any longer. So I charge in and unload Leon’s bullets into their squishy heads.
It’s immediately clear that I am not adequately prepared for all the challenges that go beyond “shoot at the head of anything that moves.” The game sends dozens upon dozens of angry villagers at me, following it all up with a man wielding a chainsaw. And because I don’t know any better, I haven’t been conserving bullets in my previous fights, so my ammo dwindles fast. I run out of pistol bullets while there are still five enemies left, and then the chainsaw man bursts into the scene
Besting the Resident Evil 4 chainsaw man
I fucked this up so bad. At this point in RE4, all of the major wooden gates look the exact same to me. So when a cutscene plays of chainsaw man bursting through the familiar double doors, I assume that he had come from where I had just pushed through—meaning that he could have been behind me. I didn’t think that I could hold off five zombies in front and a chainsaw murderer in the back, so I reload my save, discouraged. Only later would I run into his spawn gate and realize that the final boss actually appeared from the opposite of the village—the north.
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I perform much better when I charge into the village square immediately. It feels like I know exactly what to do: Aim precisely and mow them down one by one. Yet once again, I start panicking when I realize that I don’t have enough ammunition—and then my confidence drops. I find out quickly that RE4 isn’t just about hand-eye coordination. It’s about being calm, aware, and analytical when some of the most nightmarish shit is trying to grab ahold of me. I can shoot steady when I feel that the odds are on my side. I miss more frequently when I’m dejected, when I feel like there’s no reliable way to win.
To be clear, it’s not just me flunking any tutorial level. This is a level where I don’t have access to a merchant. I’d wasted all my bullets trying to headshot the earlier tutorial enemies, and hadn’t realized that I’d need to conserve them for a whole village of people. I wasn’t concerned with running out of ammo while I was still trying to learn early gameplay strategies. Unfortunately, all I’ve got going into this fight is one flash grenade, a dozen bullets, and a single health potion. I can’t change the past unless I feel like redoing the entire tutorial. And I don’t.
So I try to be creative instead of skillful. Instead of charging directly at the villagers, I take the side corridor at the village entrance. That allows me to swipe a few more bullets, but it only prolongs my fate. I die to the mobs of zombies anyway. But I’m not without options. After all, I work with a team of pro gamers. This is a universal constant: Whatever game I struggle with will be Zack Zwiesen’s bread and butter. As soon as I find out about the existence of a shotgun tucked away within the level, I ask him whether he used it on the groups of villagers or the chainsaw boss. “I don’t,” he wrote in Slack. “I just Rambo them all and the chainsaw guy. I’ve done it so many times at this point.” Ah, right. I forgot about the ultimate hack: Play this level so many times that I remember the location of every enemy on the map.
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We discuss other strategies. He tells me that I have to shoot the kneecaps so that I can kick the enemies to death, and in fact, headshotting the zombies is a waste of ammunition and time. This goes against everything that I know about first-person shooters: Shoot the head first, ask questions later. “Where in the tutorial did it say that,” I later tweet. And that’s the problem with trying not to die in RE4: The game doesn’t explain the core winning mechanic. It just throws waves of enemies at you and expects you to figure things out while someone’s coming at you with a chainsaw.
I identify another personal weakness: I’m often so focused on one scary looking villager, I’ll completely lose sight of the others circling behind me. So when Zack tells me about the two-story house, which is located near the center-left of the village, I feel like I’ve been given a safe haven. So I’d have to dash straight into the crowd of enemies, but it’d be worth it to get some elevation on those fuckers. Sniping from the roof is so easy, even I can do it. Or so I thought.
Guys, the villagers can break into the house. I watch Leon bolt the front door shut, and I completely let my guard down, thinking zombies can’t undo deadbolts. This is a fatal mistake, and not even kicking down the ladder can save me from the number of uninvited guests who manage to barge in unimpeded. I’m used to fictional zombies being bullet sponges, but American zombie horror is typically a power fantasy in which the most powerful guns eventually win. Not so in Capcom’s RE4, where it takes genuine cunning, patience, and resource management in order to survive.
I’ll forget this fear when I have better weapons. But for now, I’m trying to kill as many villagers as I can before my knife shatters. Did I mention that the knife can break? Why are we arguing about the ethics of Breath of the Wild weapon durability when it’s knife breakage in RE4 that can get you killed? Nothing is more crushing than facing off against eight enemies only to be out of any weapons you could use against these zealots. I think I’m supposed to find more ammo in the village. I’ll go do that as soon as I can bring myself to charge past the two freaky dudes with the axes. Getting over that primal survival instinct is a higher barrier than teaching myself how to shoot straight.
I’ve gotten Leon axed and pitchforked in the head, strangled to death, and eviscerated with a chainsaw. I know that I have to pay the blood price in order to gain access to the rest of RE4. I just wish I knew how it ends. If you have tips, fire off in the comments.