Saturday, May 18, 2024

Resident Evil 4 is a faithful restoration of an all-time classic

As re-releases of classic games become ever more common, there’s been much debate in recent years regarding the games industry’s definition of what qualifies as a ‘remake’ versus a ‘remaster’.

Despite its name, Metroid Prime: Remastered is clearly far more than a simple up-res of the original’s graphics, even if it has the exact same design. 2022’s The Last of Us: Part 1, meanwhile, could be given the exact same definition, but is marketed as a remake by its creator.

Similarly, Bluepoint’s 2018 re-release of Shadow of the Colossus is also branded a remake, but Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion is apparently a remaster. Dead Space 2023 is a ‘ground up remake’, but Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is not.

It’s easy to see then why consumers are split in their expectations of exactly what a ‘remake’ should deliver. Should it make sweeping changes to the original design, or respect it while making carefully considered moderations?

Resident Evil 4 remake review

Buy Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 Remake (PS5)
Resident Evil 4 Remake (Xbox Series X|S)

This question becomes even more difficult when the subject material is a nearly unimpeachable classic of its genre. Few players of its 10+ platform ports will dispute that Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest, most influential action games ever made. In the years since its 2005 debut, virtually every release has imitated its tight, over-the-shoulder camera and tactical precision aiming, but few have truly surpassed its quality.

Even Capcom has struggled to replicate the success of Resident Evil 4 since, to the point where the game almost carries a stigma with some fans, who blame it for the series’ later descent into generic shooter territory, and further away from survival horror.

What do you change? What do you keep the same? That’s the unenviable task behind 2023’s Resident Evil 4, a remake which by its director’s own admission, he initially did not want to take on.

The solution is a game that incorporates evolutions of the original’s template, rather than attempting to recapture lighting in a bottle. 2023’s Resi 4 sticks incredibly close to the format laid out by the original – more so than any of Capcom’s previous REmakes, which themselves felt far more dated by today’s standards (partly set by Resident Evil 4 itself).

Virtually every major campaign beat is still there; the village, the lake monster, the cockney merchant, and his memorable quips. At points, you can put it side-by-side with the original game, and it will barely deviate course.

But of course, this is only how you *think* you remember the original. In reality, most content has been modernised and expanded upon, especially the downtime moments in between Resi 4’s big crescendos. Everything looks like a considerable leap forward visually, of course, and Capcom has added a significant amount of new content and systems, from merchant side missions, to perk-like charms, new controls, crafting, stealth, knife parrying and more.

The more you play, the more you realise that it would have been sacrilege to rearchitect what remains an all-time classic. Play 2005’s Resident Evil 4 today, and it’s only the quirks that stand out; the sluggish aiming, the odd button formatting and dated QTE segments. The remake rounds off most of these edges, adding the ability to move and shoot (countered by faster enemies), stealth options (offset by less ammunition and the need to craft items) and the ability to parry attacks with your knife (essentially replacing QTEs).

But perhaps the most pleasing element of this new version Is how it respects the original’s famously over-the-top tone, which players will be certain is back from the moment when, after roundhouse-kicking an army of villagers, Leon quips, “Where’s everyone going? Bingo?”

“Virtually every major campaign beat is still there; the village, the lake monster, the cockney merchant and his deranged shooting gallery. At points, you can put it side-by-side with the original game, and it will barely deviate course.”

Many video game remakes in the past have sacrificed the spirit of their source material in the quest for ultra-realistic visuals, but this remake is still absolutely stuffed with wrestling moves and cheesy one liners, despite what surely would’ve been strong temptation to match its tone to the new ultra-realistic visuals.

In truth, no single element made Resident Evil 4 a masterpiece. The game’s success was down to its near-perfect blend of mechanics, pacing and world design, which combine for one the most absorbing 15-hour action games of its time.

In 2023, Resident Evil 4’s is arguably an even more special campaign, simply because of the way in which, unlike most modern blockbusters, it consistently throws new ideas, enemies and environments at the player – a sign of an age when triple-A developers could afford to produce such an incredible number of assets and mechanics without spending hundreds of millions.

Players move swiftly from one intense shootout, to a puzzle section, a monolithic boss battle, then a totally new environment followed by a vehicle chase, creepy stealth section or treasure hunt side mission. Few modern games are afforded this breadth of variety, let alone 15-hour linear single-player ones. Only Nintendo’s Mario games come to mind in terms of a sheer variety of imagination, and a licenseto  bin off ideas as quickly as they’re introduced.

Review: Resident Evil 4 is a faithful restoration of an all-time classic

Thankfully, Capcom hasn’t made sweeping cuts like with previous REmakes. Where it has trimmed content, it feels appropriate for pacing reasons – the stress or excitement some moments feels elevated underneath 2023 visuals, so some adjustments were always going to be needed. Some hardcore fans will bemoan any removals, of course, but there’s nothing here as significant as the changes made in RE3.

As the remake reaches its middle section, the development team even starts to take some license, swapping the order of key events from the original, expanding on others, and introducing the odd original set piece of its own. But it’s the journey that’s been significantly altered here; the destinations are mostly the same, and that feels like a smart decision.

That’s because the real success of the original Resident Evil 4 was how every element felt carefully balanced, so that the player remained absorbed in its utterly immersive loop for as long as possible. When it first released in 2005, it was one of those games I’d happily play until 3am, but barely feel like a moment had passed, and the exact same thing happened with the 2023 remake.

“Thankfully, Capcom hasn’t made sweeping cuts like with previous REmakes. Where it has trimmed content, it feels appropriate for pacing reasons – the stress or excitement some moments feels elevated underneath 2023 visuals, so some adjustments were always going to be needed.”

As expertly noted by my friend Keith Stuart, it’s a game with an almost Tetris-like ability to immerse the player. That ‘flow’ is truly what makes Resident Evil 4 special; the heightened state of skill and focus through the mastery of gameplay mechanics. The game’s flawlessly paced procession of distinct environments, engaging puzzles, and challenging combat archives the phenomenon of total immersion, where everything feels utterly intuitive and seamless, just like the ‘Tetris effect’.

Although it’s a very linear game, the environments are full of side paths or rooms compelling you to explore, meaning you’re constantly engaged with exploration, while always moving forward towards the next attraction. And with the next set piece never far away, it’s nearly impossible to fall into your comfort zone. The story is split into chapters, each ending on a cliffhanger, and enemies subtly change to subvert your strategies as the campaign progresses.

Crucially, Resident Evil 4 is far from on-rails. Surviving firefights can be tough, and if you make a mistake, you’ll often find yourself being brutally chainsawed through the chest in a gratuitous game over scene. This builds a tremendous amount of tension in combat – and great satisfaction when you finally overcome it.

Review: Resident Evil 4 is a faithful restoration of an all-time classic

Would you overhaul a game like this? Not likely.

The Capcom dev team’s commitment to authenticity is a testament to the enduring quality of Shinji Mikami’s original masterpiece, which is still tremendous and now feels thoroughly modern thanks to some subtle but smart evolutions.

Those expecting surprising Final Fantasy 7 Remake-style deviations from the original template should keep their expectations in check because, in comparison, Capcom’s game feels like a more safe reinterpretation. But when the original game still stands up so well, that’s far from a bad thing.