Resident Evil 4 (2023) Review
A faithful stab in the right direction
Capcom have been pulling the tentacles of their Resident Evil franchise in two directions. Some tentacles are yanked toward new releases that allow the series to evolve and experiment, like in Resident Evil Village. The others are shaped around the remakes of classic titles, which are great fan service and lets them modernize to attract bigger and younger audiences. To date, the Resident Evil 2 remake from 2019 has been their finest work, but many consider the original Resident Evil 4 to be the pinnacle of the series, so there was added pressure to match that high bar. Not only should a remake be faithful, it also needs to be a good game by modern standards. Well, good news, the remake of Resident Evil 4 ticks both boxes and is a strong entry in the franchise, whether you have played the original or not.
Raise your tentacles if you've played a Resident Evil game before
The story of RE4 begins with Leon Kennedy working for the government after surviving the zombie infestation of Raccoon City (from RE2). He has been given the task of recovering the President’s daughter, Ashley, who was abducted and taken to a remote corner of Spain. When Leon arrives on location, the rabid locals attempt to impale him with axes and pitchforks. Leon’s proficiency with weapons ensures these backwater villagers go down quickly. But some of them get back up, with broken necks or deadly tentacles sprouting from where their heads used to be. The villagers are infected with a parasite called Plaga that has turned them into subservient zombies. Commanded by an evil overlord, who has formed a fanatical cult, the villagers try to stop Leon from completing his objective.
But Leon locates Ashley eventually, and he learns she has been infected with the Plaga as well—the zealots are just waiting for the disease to run its course. Leon was also infected during an early confrontation, and so the parasites are lurking in both of their bodies, just waiting to hatch. The clock is ticking and a simple extraction is off the table. Luckily, a local named Luis knows about the Plaga and can get medicine to suppress it. But the zealots keep taking Ashley away and Leon has to steal her back. Recovering Ashley and fighting the Plaga will take players around a lake, through a castle, and onto an island crawling with soldiers and other horrors.
Leon can shoot his way through hostiles much like in the Resident Evil 2 remake. The third-person combat has been modernized to bring it in line with the recent games in the series, and the action gets more enjoyable as the game progresses. It is still purposefully clunky, requiring careful positioning and high accuracy. You can open the grid-based inventory at any time, which pauses the game and lets you equip grenades or use health-recovery items, and there are shortcuts for weapons so you don’t need to pause when the tentacles are flying. Weapons include pistols, shotguns, sub-machine guns, and a sniper rifle—the latter is great because upcoming enemy groups are visible from long ranges. New to the remake is a bolt-thrower (which doubles as a mine-launcher) that fires retrievable projectiles to conserve precious ammo.
The knife is useful in combat, not just there to make Leon look cool
Guns are not the only way to have fun, as Leon can spin-kick enemies or stab them with a knife. The spinning kick only works against staggered enemies, but it will connect with any who happen to be within reach, so deploying it strategically provides breathing room. Using the knife offers more freedom, as you can stab or slash at any time, but at the increased risk of being grabbed or surrounded. The handheld blade will also parry, giving time for more slashes or a timely weapon swap. Knife attacks instantly kill humans from behind, either during infrequent stealth or when staggered foes turn around. Enemies that writhe on the floor can be finished off with a knife too, to prevent them from growing tentacles and getting back up. But unlike Leon’s spinning kicks, the knives have limited durability.
A reappearing Merchant can repair knives and upgrade weapons. This Merchant will wait for Leon around every other corner, even in the middle of enemy territory, to sell a rocket launcher, buy treasures, or let you practice in a bizarre carnival-style shooting gallery. He is accompanied by a typewriter which lets you save and access weapon storage. Although the Merchant offers various rewards if you finish weird side quests (that ask you to kill rats or shoot blue medallions), he never coughs up any ammunition. Best he can offer are scant resources to craft your own, but you are still heavily reliant on breaking open containers and looting corpses. The mysterious Merchant is a Resident Evil quirk that makes no sense and must be excused to fully immerse yourself in the world, but fortunately this is not hard with so much else happening.
Variety is the game’s best feature and probably why the original was so highly regarded. It regularly introduces new opponents, from villagers to zealots and soldiers. Each of the human foes has diverse gear too, including shields, crossbows, armored helmets, and maces. The non-human threats are just as interesting, from the rabid dogs and insects to the hulking giants and regenerating freaks. There are franchise-typical and tentacle-laden boss battles, which are usually enjoyable although some are prolonged. The game also dials the intensity up and down. Some action sequences are hectic and unrelenting, like when defending a shack. But the heavy action always cuts off before it gets tiring. Then it might slow right down, maybe even by turning into a horror experience, such as when you briefly take control of Ashley during one chapter.
Leon will need eyes in the back of his head to keep Ashley out of trouble
For a large chunk of the game, Ashley joins Leon and can be a burden. Although she can hide in a few lockers, she mostly just follows. You can order her to either stick close or linger back, but the same problems happen regardless. She gets injured, and must be helped up. She also gets grabbed and carried off—if they take her far enough, it is game over. Protecting her is not hard but still a chore that interrupts proceedings. At times it is like a poor escort mission from a decades-old shooter, although at least she never blocks your aim or hampers movement.
Although irritating to escort, the most disappointing aspect of Ashley is that she is not a great companion either. She barely talks, despite following Leon for hours (longer than in the original). The most you will hear is her constant panting, as she is out of breath after running just 10 feet. In rare moments, like when she tells Leon that he would look good in full-plate armor, she temporarily breaks the silence. There are only a few short cutscenes—most are new to the remake—where she becomes human, showing frustration and fear. While Ashley is more of a person than in the original, she is not close enough to be a good modern-day companion when other developers have raised the bar significantly in this area.
Fortunately the remake has made big strides elsewhere. The level design has been given a kick in the teeth. Whereas the recent and excellent Dead Space remake changed maybe 5% of the level structure versus the original, this time the altered proportion is closer to a third. Most of the initial half-dozen chapters are more-or-less copies, but from the castle onward, levels have been overhauled. The castle’s interior is far more cohesive and logical. Set pieces have been shuffled around, so it flows much better. Quick-time events are few and far between. There are no swinging saw blades, tunnel boring machines, or rooms full of magma, and the remake is all the better for it. Memorable parts have been recreated, such as navigating a hedge-maze and fighting a nimble assassin, so long-time fans will still find plenty that is familiar and often done better.
Major boss battles have been recreated with a few good changes
There are good changes to the story too, although most are purely to bring it up to a modern standard. Although a few dry jokes have been lost in the transition, the comical posturing that evil characters showcased in the original has been decreased. Bad guys don’t speak to Leon via contrived full-screen communication anymore and dialogue avoids spelling out the obvious. Luis plays a much bigger role and his arc is interwoven into the narrative quite nicely, even joining Leon for a short time that includes a fun ride in a mine cart. Although the narrative could have used more lore and fewer tropes, it is one of the best in the series from the last 10 years.
The remake looks and sounds excellent too. All the main characters are stunning, and they are animated and voiced well in the detailed cutscenes. With many grotesque beasts and dark tunnels, it creates excellent atmosphere and, although often heavy with action, the slower and tenser moments are where the game shines. As mentioned, the variety is a huge boon towards keeping the game visually fresh over the 15-20 hours it takes to complete. It has good replay value too thanks to the finer aspects of combat and the various weapons and their upgrades. Although the game crashed a few times in the early chapters, it ran well at nearly max settings from start to finish.
A green herb might not help with this particular injury
Resident Evil 4 (2023) is a fantastic game and a faithful remake of the original. It brings the combat up to the modern level set by the franchise and includes a useful knife and a handy spinning kick. Cycling through different enemy types and locations continually refreshes the adventure over its substantial 15-20 hour runtime. The pacing variation, from intense spurts of action to the slower moments, is nearly perfect. And level design and gameplay changes from the original are, in the vast majority of cases, improvements. Perhaps it’s only glaring issue is that Ashley is lacking as a companion for a 2023 release. But even she does not severely hinder one of the finest games of the franchise, recommended for every tentacle enthusiast.