Look upon my cards, ye mighty.
I wouldn’t mind if you called me a bandwagon fan for the Resident Evil franchise, because that accusation is absolutely true. Before I tumbled head-first into the greasy, rust-covered hype machine that’s currently churning for Resident Evil 7, I stood barely on the periphery of gaming’s most eminent zombie empire. My fondest (and only) memory of the series involved 11-year-old me picking up a GameStop catalogue and noticing Resident Evil: Deadly Silence, which both had the coolest title and wickedest cover art I had ever seen. I still haven’t played the original game (of which Deadly Silence is a port), but I figured I might as well get familiar with this Resident who keeps stirring up a bunch of Evil before number seven rolls around.
My desire to do some horror homework resulted in purchasing Resident Evil 4, a title for which I have heard almost unanimous praise. The game is credited with popularizing the third-person “over the shoulder” perspective in shooters, has a top 15 spot on Wikipedia’s “games considered the best” page, and comes with glowing recommendations from at least three other Chooch staffers. Was I the only person on earth who had missed the Leon S. Kennedy train? My wary attitude towards playing potentially overhyped games crippled my faith in Resident Evil 4. I had expected a competent, if not slightly dated, horror-action title which I would play once and move on from. To no one’s surprise but my own, I was completely wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I played through Resident Evil 4 twice in three days. Talk about doing some overtime.
Of course, it’s pretty easy to go to bat for an iconic title which has more or less received its due over the years. I wasn’t only surprised at the quality of the game, however. There were many aspects of Resident Evil 4 which caught me off guard, as I had never heard them discussed. It wasn’t necessarily the game’s scare factor or great gameplay that kept me hooked, as both are features you would expect from an esteemed horror franchise. No, what struck me most about Resident Evil 4, more so than anything else, was the absurd, unapologetic, unbelievable levels of sheer cheesiness that permeate the entire experience. I’m certain anyone who has played the game for any amount of time will know what I’m talking about.
After a short opening trek through a forest path, Resident Evil 4 opens the gates on a white-knuckle onslaught of enemies that can easily overwhelm less experienced players. As the brutal battle reaches its conclusion, a church bell rings and the townspeople, as if in a trance, all shuffle into a church. Catching my breath after finally beating the sequence on my sixth try, the last thing I expected was for Leon S. Kennedy, main character/special agent/dork extraordinaire, to look around in the silence and make a dry crack about it being bingo night, followed by the game’s logo fading onto screen.
Sure, it’s your typical comic relief after an intense confrontation, but this is only the first of countless “so dumb they’re good/so good they’re hilarious” moments that come to define Resident Evil 4. My mind simply reels at even trying to write down a “best of” list because there’s so much to parse through. Almost every line out of Leon’s mouth is instantly iconic, mostly thanks to his constant sarcastic takedowns of the pint-sized egomaniac Salazar (“Your right hand comes off?”) and the looming mastermind Saddler (“Saddler, you’re small time.”). A key aspect across the board is the game’s voice acting, which manages to strike a perfect synthesis between laughably awful and blissfully earnest. There’s no winking at the camera; lines like “Insects’ life doesn’t compare to human lives!” are delivered with total conviction, and the game is better for it.
Of course, a lot of the game’s absurdity comes through in more (or maybe less) subtle ways, mostly in the levels and sequences themselves. A short but unforgettable moment has Leon running away from a massive statue of Salazar as it breaks through the castle’s walls like a giant marble Kool-Aid Man. One of the game’s last boss fights sees Leon facing down a growling, mega-buff former comrade, who appears wearing less and less clothing until he’s nude from the waist up. The final sequence involves Leon and Ashley, the President’s daughter, escaping via jet ski as an entire island explodes behind them. Resident Evil 4 never really draws attention to how ridiculous some of its moments are…they just kind of happen, and although I have no doubt these bizarre moments of humor were planned like any other joke, there’s something about the lack of focus that makes them feel effortless and almost unintentional.
For those of you who’ve never played the game, I might be fashioning Resident Evil 4 to sound like an experience that’s more comedy than terror; more absurd than scary. This is absolutely not the case, as Resident Evil 4 is filled with just as many moments of horror as you would expect. Moments like the aforementioned village battle, or the sequence featuring the game’s invisible bug enemies, or the boss fight between Leon and the xenomorph-like Verdugo, are filled with a creeping tension and sense of alarm that lingers on long after the fact. The introduction of Resident Evil 4’s Regenerator enemies is probably one of the game’s most memorable areas, and with good reason: it’s absolutely terrifying. Scrambling around in the dark to avoid shuddering, wheezing horrors which as far as you know cannot be killed is just as potent as anything in, say, Silent Hill. The fear that crept up my spine any time I heard their telltale sound effects for the rest of the game was undeniable.
It’s become a trend to try and cop the retro feel of ‘80s media, but Resident Evil 4 is one of the only games I’ve played that does it naturally. Many developers have begun using neon colors and synthpop scores as shorthand for the Greatest Decade, but in reality, it’s a rare treat for an ‘80s film to broach the level of stylish excess which everyone seems to remember. With all of its perfectly cheesy action movie story beats and moments of genuine horror, Resident Evil 4 comes across as something more legitimate; perhaps the unmade dream crossover between The Thing and Escape From New York. Sure, the controls come across as a little dated, and sure, maybe there’s the odd Resident Evil fan who doesn’t like this game because of its departure from the larger franchise, but overall, Resident Evil 4 is still an amazing experience that has to be seen, heard, and played to be believed. Even then, playing it once won’t be enough for some people- the game’s exceedingly entertaining narrative and solid gameplay create a package that’s equal parts accessible and addictive.
Everything considered, Resident Evil 4 is a game which shouldn’t work. With all of its disparate elements, the experience should be something more akin to a lopsided, patchwork quilt than one of the best games of the last twelve years. In the end, everything comes together thanks to Resident Evil 4’s ability to juggle the survival horror elements of the older titles in the franchise, and the embryonic action sentiments which would come to define the series by the time 5 and 6 rolled around. It’s a turning point, and the risks Capcom took by putting out a game this different and disconnected from the previous installments paid off immensely. What remains to be seen is whether a similar outside-the-box approach will deliver again with Resident Evil 7. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the President’s daughter needs rescuing…again.