If you know me, you will know I am not a fan of horror. I know a ton of people that have this undying love for horror, but I can’t seem to rally behind the concept of watching people get killed over and over again in gruesome ways, or being repeatedly jump scared until my heart wants to stop. I would only be dismayed by the genre further with the release of Resident Evil back in 1996. “A horror movie in a video game form,” I say to myself in the most sarcastic of tones, “how compelling.”
Over the years, more horror titles would drop, and I would continue to be too scared to play pretty much any of them. That was until someone I knew introduced me to Resident Evil 4. Perhaps it was the fact that I owned a Nintendo GameCube and craved something new to play. After multiple recommendations that forced me outside my comfort zone, I picked the game up. The next day (because I fear playing horror games at night) I jumped into the weird, archaic, nonsensical world of Resident Evil (RE4). Everything about the game, from the combat, to the controls, to the quick-time events, I absolutely hated. Constantly dying, managing my inventory, going into fights without any ammo and having to restart; I hated all of this. I will roll one thing back, I absolutely loved managing my inventory.
The tank-like controls from the previous titles makes a return in RE4 but the camera placement is much different from the voyeuristic style from the previous games. Leon is unable to shoot or reload while moving, ensuring proper shaky aim while being cemented into the ground. As the village people and crazy cultists continue to meander towards me, I would fire my gun with “expert precision” into the Kevlar fabricated skull of an enemy. I would barely break a sweat as I welcome the flying hatchet into my equally durable face. Off in the distance, I can see a man wearing a potato sack over his head (for the additional anti-bullet padding I assume), revving up a chainsaw, and holding it in blatant disregard of the safety of his fellow villagers. As he runs towards me with the tenacity of myself when someone points me in the direction of free cheese fries, I notice my inventory consists of four bullets, a can of hairspray that somehow heals me, and eight chicken eggs. Note that this is the “tutorial” part of the game.
As the game continues to grow from that moment, and assumes you know how to control Leon like he is an M4 Sherman tank, you are thrown into situations that really test your meddle. You’ll go down hallways that are too short and barely give me enough room to take out regenerators and iron maidens with a sniper rifle from ten feet away. I know, moments like this are supposed to help build up tension but there is a part of me that wonders how Leon never heard of duct tape before. You can see just how bad the controls get when you face off against the dogs. These quick, agile monsters scamper around so quick and then burst tendrils out of their backs and endlessly lash out if they are not on top of you, attempting to rip your face off.
It would not be a game from 2005 if it didn’t feature the cheapest tactic in gaming used to help give a cinematic feel minus any sort of actual satisfaction: quick time events. These randomized button presses show up many of times through the game, from running away from boulders, to fighting Krauss eight million times. Have you even really listened to his speech during the clusterfuck of button presses? It makes no goddamn sense, and you can’t really pay attention to it because you are eagerly awaiting the next button prompt. “Like you, I am an American,” Krauss says confidently as I am confused by what he even means in the first place within that scene.
Immediately we are pelted with a nice dose of deus ex machina of Ada Wong appearing just in time before Krauss continues to ad lib me to death. Convenient situations like that happen throughout the entire game too, from the moments the game thankfully takes Ashley away so I can go on my cultist killing spree, to when I have a special rocket launcher to take care of the final boss. I know I could choose not to use it but at this moment, why make it drag on even longer? I must escape this island on a jet ski!
Can I also briefly mention the amount of ammo and weaponry sprawled through the entire area? I know that having these items is important to the survival aspect, but it is funny thinking about these folks putting a grenade in one box, and a live snake in another (that’s where I got so many eggs). It doesn’t make sense for these villagers to give me the tools that will meet their demise.
The problems with RE4 continue forth in the tradition of modern gaming semantics. Yes, to fully understand the bigger picture you should play the other Resident Evil games. Yes, you should absolutely read the extra shit and collectibles sprawled all over the place. Yes, you should make Ashley a priority even though you absolutely do not want to.
Yes, bringing Ashley around is a huge escort quest, which is yet another cliché that I absolutely hate in games, but it also brings that additional tension. To bring more context, caring for another character and knowing that your mission ends if she dies also adds another fail state to the game, making you actively working hard to save her. I absolutely hate it. I have never found an escort quest interesting, but in this case, it works for me.
For some reason, I can overlook almost every issue I have with RE4 and there is a legitimate reason why. Tank controls are awful, but you get used to them very quick. You can’t reload and walk but about halfway through the game you don’t really need to worry about the reload time nor trying to create distance. Quick time events are not hard, and I can get over the weird story elements quickly because the rest of the game just feels very good and rewarding.
I can get over the “survival horror” elements of RE4 because it stops becoming a survival horror game and becomes an action game with some inherently horrifying elements within it. But as I played, my mentality changed from “I’m locked in here with these guys” to “these guys are locked in here with me.” And that is incredibly rewarding, especially much later in the game where enemies will throw themselves at you, and you are so used to the game where you are shooting axes out of the air and roundhouse kicking cultist’s heads off with ease.
Resident Evil 4 is one of those games that has so much right, mixed in with so much wrong. It strikes a perfect balance between annoying and adoring. I want to keep on going back, but I also dread thinking about the Ashley-centric, running from knights bit. It makes me think a lot about modern games and how we are so hyper-critical over what is in them.
Returnal has been a major topic lately and people have focused on how it is incredibly difficult. I have not played the game and I do not know exactly when I will get around to it, but with everyone discussing how the difficulty is a bad part of the game, I often think about the grand picture because of titles like Resident Evil 4. Sure, it might be difficult but there must be a reason why it is designed that way. And in this case a lot of elements roll into each other to make it more bearable. From what I am told, by the end of Returnal, you have this neat package that rewards you for the time you put into it.
Resident Evil 4 is not like Returnal in the least, but they both have aspects to them that turn people away while also openly welcoming those who might have any semblance of interest. You can look at some of these titles and have that feeling of caution and anxiety because these might be titles that are so different in comparison to what you typically play that it can be a bit scary. Despite consisting of everything I hate in games; Resident Evil 4 is my favorite game of all time. In 2020, I gave Hades, a game from the roguelite genre which I also dislike, a personal GOTY award. If we do not occasionally build up curiosity outside our traditional tastes and refuse to give in to these odd moments of sporadic compulsion, there is a chance that we could be missing out on our favorite games of all time.