When it comes to single player games, I very very rarely replay them. Heck, it’s not unusual for me to never beat many games that I claim to love. I tend to play a game until I “get what it’s doing”, after which I’ll put it down and maybe never pick it up again. When deciding what game to play, especially single player games, I like to seek out new experiences. That said, there are a few games that break this mold: Bloodborne, some Final Fantasy games, and all the Metal Gear Solid games. But the game I always come back to, the one I’ve replayed not once, or twice, but many many times, is Resident Evil 4. With this blog post, I want to examine what it is about RE4 that makes it so memorable and repayable. What puts it above almost every other game* in my mind?
One aspect that doesn’t factor in is a fondness for Resident Evil as a series. RE4 was my first Resident Evil game, and the only other one I’ve played is the Resident Evil Remake. While I liked it, I didn’t love it. Even when it was the free game on PS4, I only played it for an hour or two before putting it down again. I’ve never played the next two direct follow ups because they look like they lack RE4’s charm. I did play the RE7 Demo, which I really enjoyed. I never got the full game because 2017 has been a stacked year for games, and it’s fallen through the cracks.
For those who haven’t played it, Resident Evil 4 places you in the shoes of Leon Kennedy. His mission is to save the president’s daughter from a mysterious cult in Spain. The gameplay is defined by it’s over the shoulder camera angle and precision aiming. This game is one of the most influential games made in the 2000s. Notable games with RE4 influence include Gears of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Dead Space**.
[Combat & Enemies]
Combat in RE4 is defined by its, at the time, unique control scheme and enemy behavior. The camera sticks close to Leon’s back and is slightly offset, always providing a clear view of what’s in front of you. To fire your weapon, you must hold down a button to aim, during which you stop moving. Each gun has a laser pointer to assist you while aiming, allowing for very precise shots. This scheme creates some interesting tradeoffs. You can see very well in front of you, but are susceptible to back and side attacks. To attack you must stand still, leaving you vulnerable.
The most common enemy you will encounter in the game are Ganados, parasite infected cultists. They like to attack in groups, running near you before slowing down to a walk as they prepare to attack. Most Ganados will try to strike you with melee weapons, although some utilize ranged attacks like thrown axes or dynamite. Enemies are not just bullet sponges, hitting specific body parts trigger different reactions. Shoot them in the knees to knock them over, or in the hand to make them drop their weapon. You can also try for a head shot, which could instantly kill the enemy. But sometimes it could also cause the parasite to manifest from the stump into a more horrifying form like a scythe tentacle or head crab.
Your advantage in combat is generally range and firepower, theirs is in numbers and movement.
You have a lot of options in combat, do you want to go for headshots for quick kills, but risk parasite manifestations? Conserve ammo by using your knife? Pop them in the knees to slow movement, lure them into a large group, then take out the whole group with a grenade? With many different weapons, enemies and environments to fight in, the combat presents an extremely in-depth system that is fun to explore over and over again.
[Progression & Mastery]
As you go through the game you will acquire Pesetas, the currency of Spain before switching to Euros. These can be exchanged with a friendly merchant for new items, weapons, and weapon upgrades. These open up new options in combat and increases your characters overall strength. This feeling of growth and progress is very engaging, like leveling up a character in an RPG.
It’s not just your weapons that get stronger, your skill improves as well. The combat system has a lot of depth, maybe more than what appears on the surface. As the game goes on you will learn how to use different weapons, predict enemy behavior, and use the terrain to your advantage.
A critical moment for me was when I finally figured out how to properly utilize the knife. I always assumed knives in games that feature guns were for back up, challenge, or maybe a joke, so I ignored it. But its permanently tied to the L trigger, so it must be important. The first trick was to kneecap enemies to the ground with your pistol, then run up and knife ’em. But eventually I realized that Leon swipes his knife in a quick wide arc, making it effective against large groups of close standing attackers. It’s risky, but when you pull it off you feel really badass.
The inventory in this game takes the form of a big briefcase segmented with a grid layout. Each time you acquire an item it is placed into the briefcase and takes up a certain amount of spaces on the grid, similar to Diablo. There are some advantages and disadvantages to this system. What I like about this system is that I can see their size and shape, pick them up and moved around within the inventory. This makes the items feel real and tangible. The disadvantage of these systems is clutter. Inventory management becomes a minigame in and of itself. Personally, I don’t mind that aspect, but I can understand why others may not. In my opinion making in game items behave more like real life items makes them more fun to discover and use.
[Environments & Challenges]
We’ve got in depth combat, progression systems, and fun items, now we need places to utilize them. The structure of RE4 is fairly linear. You are placed into an area; your goal is to reach the exit. Each area brings a unique challenge with different combinations of enemies, puzzles and environmental features. An early example is the initial village. There are swarms of enemies, but it’s a large area with many small discrete buildings. You can run away from the villagers, and into these houses. Enemies will bottleneck at doorways and staircases, allowing you to pick them off one at a time. This area allows for a lot of control over the flow of combat for the player. Later there is a fight along a bridge, restricting movement for you and the enemies. The only way to run away is to go backwards, but they are also funneled across the bridge, preventing back and side attacks.
These areas are contained within larger overarching zones: Village, Castle, and Island. Each has their own look, feel, enemies and challenges. The village is dark and grimy all around, even the sky looks dirty. You will primarily encounter villagers and mutated animals here. Since this is the first area most of the gameplay revolves around aiming and combat, to help you learn the primary systems. I feel like each zone is personified by their final boss. The village’s is the chief, Bitores Mendez, a large and quiet man who tends to throw Leon around when they meet.
The next zone is my favorite, the Castle. What makes this area stand out to me is the tonal shift. While the village was primarily creepy and brutal, the castle is kinda campy. This is most evident in its boss, Salazar. He is the 20-year old castellan of the castle, with the body of a 10-year-old, the face of a 70-year-old, and he dresses like Napoleon. He likes to throw tantrums and hurl insults at Leon, who can dish them out as well as he receives them. The villagers mostly become replaced with Zealots, while kinda scary, are also pretty goofy looking with their bright white heads. Challenges in this stage become less realistic, taking the form of nonsensical puzzles and mazes. Why would a cult with world conquering ambitions have a hedge maze with 2 halves of a stone to unlock a door to the next area? I don’t know, but it’s extremely fun to play. I really appreciate that the game doesn’t need to pretend to be a simulation of these events, willing to just be a game when it needs to. This area is just pure fun. While campier, this it still maintains a very creepy atmosphere. It’s impressive how well they managed to mix the two, seemingly opposing, moods.
Finally, we have the Island, my least favorite. Not that I hate it, I just generally don’t remember much from it. The main problem with the island is that it becomes more of a typical shooter. Most of the locations are some kind of military facility, and the enemies are mostly soldiers. Now these aren’t normal soldiers, most don’t have guns, but they do have armor and stun batons. Encounters become more combat focused, testing all the abilities and upgrades you’ve acquired over the game. The boss of this area is Saddler, the leader of the cult. He maintains fun banter with Leon over codec, but his final boss fight is easy and boring. Its unfortunate that after the moody island and campy castle the game ends in a relatively bland area.
Lots of games have good combat, environments, and progression systems, but RE4 has something most other games lack, a solid sense of humor. This doesn’t overshadow the horror theme, but it adds some personality. Like I said above, the entire castle area carries a current of campiness running through it. But tone extends beyond just Salazar’s antics. Leon can be a pretty goofy dude with his weird one-liners (“you’re small time Saddler”). I think its best exemplified through the game’s most iconic character, The Merchant. Nothing about his presence makes much sense. Why Is he in this remote location, carrying all these items around, just to sell them to Leon (and maybe Ada)? The game provides no hints of explanation or background. He is essentially an anthropomorphic game mechanic, but his amusing personality makes him memorable.
This dash of personality extends throughout the game. Everything about it was already a cut above other games at the time, but for me, it was the little bits of humor, the sense of fun along with horror, that elevated it from a great game to a classic.
*My guess is that Bloodborne will exist alongside RE4 as a game I will revisit every so often. It’s only been out 2 years (RE4: 12 years), and I’ve already logged in additional hours after beating it.
**In my mind, Dead Space is the true successor the RE4’s gameplay. It maintains and builds upon the slow, coverless, precision based combat elements by forcing you to target enemy’s limbs to destroy them. The environments and puzzles are immersive and diverse as well. The only thing holding it back is an overly grim and humorless tone that makes it kind of a slog to get through.
8 thoughts on “What makes Resident Evil 4 so special?”
Awesome overview of the game! I think, like you say, that the humour is really important, and this reminded me of my fave RE4 quote: (Salazar) “I’ve sent my right hand to dispose of you” (Leon) “your right hand comes off?”
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Oh yeah the right hand line is pretty funny, he is a cool boss as well.
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Yeah I’ve beat the game without a doubt over ten times so I know how good it is. The 5th one is also pretty good. Between the 4th and fifth I go with the 4th for the first half of the game. Both are good
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I got to play a little bit of 5 with my old roommate. Playing multiplayer was my favorite part of that game.
I seldom replay games, but must admit to completing RE4 multiple times. Mowing down enemies with the tommygun is fun. I agree that Dead Space could have used more humor. Poor Isaac doesn’t get to peek on panties when climbing a ladder haha.
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Nice retrospective, and so true about the Merchant – it makes no sense for him to pop up in the middle of the carnage, but he is great fun!
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