Resident Evil 4 remake review: an exceptional return to one of the greatest action games of all time
In the run-up to its original 2005 release, Capcom was refreshingly – and publicly – clear about their intentions for Resident Evil 4. Feeling that the classic top-down formula that had seen the series thrive during the 90s had grown stale, this follow-up was to be a total reinvention of survival horror as a concept. Something fresh. Dynamic. Exciting. The slate was wiped completely clean, and from that blank canvas, something exceptional was created. A game that not only redefined the franchise, but third-person action games as a whole.
For eighteen tumultuous years, Capcom has tried to surpass the success of Resident Evil 4. The fifth and sixth entries doubled down on the action to mixed results, while seven and eight focused on scares as seen from a first-person viewpoint. Meanwhile, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake looked to the past for its inspiration, delivering a masterful retread that blended responsive third-person combat with the exquisite production values of the series’ more modern titles. But with the release of Resident Evil 4 remake, Resident Evil has finally come full circle. Whereas the original release was a rejection of the games that came before, this remake is instead a celebration of where the series went next. Action-focused combat. Photo-realistic environments. Gooey monsters, hammy characters, ridiculous storylines. What better way to remake the highest peak of the series, than to build it upon the foundations of the very games it went on to inspire? Resident Evil 4 is a rambunctious thrill ride that is as good – if not, dare I say it, a bit better – than the original game.
Six years after the events of Racoon City, government agent and nice-jacket-liker Leon S. Kennedy is dispatched to the Spanish countryside to investigate the disappearance of the President’s daughter Ashley Graham. Cursed to never have a day at the office that won’t add another decade onto his time in therapy, Leon quickly discovers that the local population have been infected with a parasite administered by a sinister cult that makes their guts all wiggly. With Ashley in danger, Leon is forced to fight through hordes of violent locals to make sure she gets home OK.
Resi 4 is extremely silly. The silliest in the franchise, which is saying something. Capom has made no attempt to ground Leon’s Spanish adventure in realism, choosing instead to relish in its nonsense with a reverence that comes only from revisiting something this beloved. Leon is a handsome goofball, responding to incomprehensible awfulness with a quick quip and a flick of his impeccable fringe. Both the enigmatic cult leader Osmund Saddler and Thatcher impersonator Ramón Salazar have the same stage presence as pantomime villains, albeit ones that at any moment could explode into a slithering tangle of goo-covered tentacles, traumatising a bunch of toddlers in the process.
Balancing this all out is Ashley, a drop of sincerity in an ocean of wacky. A world away from her interpretation in the original game, this Ashley is kind, competent and likeable. She stumbles into old tropes once or twice, but she is largely a solid hook that the game clings hold of as it swings wildly in a dozen daft directions.
With the tone floating above the clouds, combat has been secured firmly down to earth. There is a surprising sense of weight to shooting in Resident Evil 4. Leon isn’t necessarily slow but he certainly isn’t quick to the draw. His aim drags slightly as you position your weapon. A slight sway to his stance can cause a precious bullet to skim past the head of an approaching villager. Punches hit hard. He is viscous and moves like a man capable of causing damage.
Enemies, on the other hand, have no such disadvantages. They are quick. Dangerous. They charge towards you the second you wander into their domain, eyes bulging, arms outstretched. They are a flurry of flesh and steel, of axe swipes, pitchfork lunges and rogue fists. Combat is frenzied and strained, an exercise in crowd control as you desperately try to prioritise the most immediate threat to ensure your continued survival. More lucid than the undead enemies of previous titles, these Ganado are smarter and more capable than before. They will cut you off. Twist away from the barrel of your weapon. They are a formidable and exciting challenge to overcome, even on the game’s standard difficulty setting.
Blades, bolts and even chainsaws can now be parried with your knife, with a perfectly timed deflection leaving a gap for a follow-up melee attack that pushes the crowd back for a moment of brief respite. But be careful – parry too often (or use it to finish off downed enemies before they become a tougher, dribbler, parasite-infused monster) and your knife will snap leaving you open to those close-quarters attacks. There is an intoxicating ebb and flow to combat. A rhythm. A shot to the face. A follow-up kick. A shotgun blast pushes back a group. A flash of your knife sends an encroaching sickle flying. A pitchfork sinks into your back. You keep fighting. Blood. Metal. Skin. Bone. It’s visceral. It’s brilliant.
Thankfully, sections that involve escorting Ashley have been altered to accommodate this increase in tension. Ashey no longer has her own health bar, and although she can be incapacitated, she can be pulled back onto her feet with a simple button press. Her behaviours have been vastly improved, too. Instead of asking her to wait, Leon can now request she “gives him space”, which causes her to scurry to safety and out of reach from grabby enemies determined to steal her away.
Interestingly, it’s only a small evolution from the combat featured in the Resident Evil 2 remake. It’s immediately familiar. Leon’s weight. The heft. The force. It’s a system that was originally designed for shooting fewer, slower-moving foes but translates surprisingly well to Resi 4’s more dynamic groups. It’s fascinating, really, to feel that lineage in each pull of the trigger and kick to the teeth. After all, Resi 2 adapted the combat of Resi 6 to function within the claustrophobic hallways of the RPD, while Resi 6 did the same with the original Resi 4 to make it more fluid and cinematic. This remake feels different, then, but in a way that’s tangibly richer and more organic thanks to the preceding eighteen years of refinement that led to this exact moment.
It’s an incredibly handsome remake, too. Perhaps that doesn’t need to be said considering the RE Engine’s reputation, but this is a particularly good-looking game. Resident Evil has quietly become the industry leader when it comes to vividly rendered worn-down rural villages and opulent European castles, to the extent that you have to wonder if all that work was in preparation for this precise use case. Sodden dirt stains the ground of a gently smouldering village square. Cave systems drip with trickling moisture. Vacant castle halls feel tangibly cold. It’s all enhanced by a lighting system that casts a softness over everything, adding warmth to a world that doesn’t necessarily deserve it.
It’s just a shame that some areas aren’t as up to scratch. Rain is particularly miserable, its heaviest form smothering the screen with thick white blobs that can be politely described as “Bad-GTA-Remaster-Like”. And whereas RE Engine is usually capable of producing exceptional-looking faces, Leon in particular appears plasticy and hollow in a way his co-stars just don’t. It’s very odd.
But of course, for returning players the most important questions are about similarities. As a remake, Resident Evil 4 proves once again that Capcom understands the balance between old and new better than most. Every major set piece you remember from the original game is here, polished to a sheen and if not reimagined in some way then recreated exactly as it was before. But it’s the bits in between that are more exciting. Playing through Resi 4 is to imagine the designers in their offices, scribbling down moments from the original onto post-it notes and taking great pleasure in mixing up their order and filling in the gaps with a fresh sense of excitement. This is a more cohesive adventure, less linear than the original and features a stronger sense of place than I expected.
There is one notable omission, but by the time I reached that point, I suspected it would have felt unnecessary anyway considering how much had been added elsewhere in the game. There is no bloat, here, basically. It is impeccably paced – better even than the original, which I’m aware is no small claim – whisking players from one exhilarating section to the next with a break-neck speed. The addition of side quests provides a small respite from the main story’s rollercoaster clip, but other than providing you with an excuse to linger within familiar locations they’re largely a useless endeavour.
Goodness. What a fascinating thing this game is, then. A lavish remake, in turn both a total reimagining and a dutiful modernisation. The scale of what Capcom has achieved here is remarkable. Almost like the team responsible were well aware of the gargantuan task they had given themselves to remake a game as beloved as Resident Evil 4.
And it turns out, the only way to do so is to create something separate. Something unique. A remake that reinterprets the source material with as much artistic licence as the Resident Evil 2 remake before it, even if the 2005 release was more complete in terms of combat, visuals and scope than the PS1 game its predecessor aimed to recreate. It’s very much Resident Evil 4 as it would have existed had it been first released today, a game that exists comfortably among its siblings in a way the original game simply didn’t. Silly, bold and brash – sure – but unashamed of its past and happy to relish in its inspirations. It’s certainly aware that it’s a retread, and will occasionally wink at the player in a way that I found very satisfying, but it’s determined to be its own thing.
It succeeds. This is not a replacement of the original game. Far from it. In my mind, it occupies the same space as its (exceptional) VR version. A retelling of a classic crafted on its own terms. A brilliant action shooter that is big and daft and brilliant. When asked what my favourite game of all time is moving forward, my answer will remain the same, only richer and more complex as a result of this excellent remake. Resident Evil 4, I’ll say, and whatever interpretation they think of will be entirely correct.