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Can the ‘Resident Evil 4’ Remake Redefine the Franchise’s Tone?

The new remake of the influential GameCube title is a chance to reestablish whether ‘Resident Evil’ wants to be schlocky B horror or self-serious action

Capcom/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The mission briefing for the old-school beat ’em up Bad Dudes, released in arcades in March 1988, didn’t mince words. The president has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?

Such frankness was, for a long time, the essence of video games—brawlers or otherwise. But the medium has matured rather self-consciously in recent years. Some games have grown up. Some, such as Capcom’s Resident Evil, have refused to do so. The first Resident Evil, released in 1996, was a tense title set in a mysterious mansion filled with locked doors, cryptic riddles, and furniture puzzles, but it was also a loud and senseless B horror about supercops fighting super mutants. The rest of the genre would spend the next couple of decades trying to grow out of these silly are-you-bad-enough formulations, but not Resident Evil. And certainly not Resident Evil 4.

The plot of Resident Evil 4 is relatively straightforward and self-contained. The swaggering American cop Leon S. Kennedy—returning from his earliest appearance in Resident Evil 2—is dispatched to rural Spain on a solo mission to rescue the U.S. president’s daughter, Ashley Graham, from a zombie cult with a hidden connection to bioterrorists. The cult leader, Lord Saddler, and his mutant henchmen, Salazar, Méndez, and Krauser, chase Leon and Ashley into the night; Leon must escort Ashley through a deadly series of booby traps and zombie villagers, referred to as “Ganados.” The original game was an action movie spoof, punched up with one-liners and meta jokes about the story’s many clichés and absurdities. How exactly does kidnapping the daughter of the U.S. president serve the cult’s mission to spread its infected parasites to the rest of humanity? Why did the U.S. government send a guy who doesn’t even speak Spanish? This isn’t the time for such eggheaded questions! The president’s daughter has been kidnapped! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue her?

Last week, Capcom released its long-anticipated remake of Resident Evil 4, which was first released in 2005 and has gone down as one of most influential video games of the past 20 years. To date, Capcom has remade three of the numbered entries in the mainline series: The remakes of Resident Evil 2, 3, and now 4 have been released within four years of each other and share the same acclaimed game engine (with all the mechanical and stylistic continuity this implies). But remaking Resident Evil 4, while exciting, struck many as a misguided use of time. In contrast to the original Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3, which have long been unavailable to play legally on more modern hardware, Resident Evil 4 has been consistently ported to every major platform in the years since its release on the Nintendo GameCube. The game’s never left, really. It isn’t that old. It’s still great to play. So a remake seemed to be less a question of “How can we breathe new life into this timeless and massively influential game? and more a question of “How will Capcom manage to go out of its way to fuck this up?”

With these remakes, Capcom has tended to smooth out some of the localized comedy of the originals in favor of a more severe, self-serious tone. That may have worked well enough for the earlier remakes, but the back-of-class wit of the original Resident Evil 4 was a huge part of its appeal. What is this game if not Leon sucking his teeth and asking a mob of Ganados in retreat, “Where’s everyone going? Bingo?”

The remake is, in some stretches, a substantial reimagining of the original Resident Evil 4: Some sections are streamlined, some set pieces are overhauled, and one caballero in particular is given a bit more screen time. But the remake is still a very familiar game, rewarding the map knowledge and muscle memory of returning players. Leon is often fighting mobs of Ganados in complex spaces with multiple floors and dead ends. The Ganados in the remake are oppressively effective in outflanking Leon. Leon in Resident Evil 2 could spam his knife in a pinch, but he wasn’t much of a close-range fighter. Here, Leon supplements his gunplay with roundhouse kicks, suplexes, and knife parries. Leon is most effective when he’s shooting close enough to quickly follow his critical hits with melee knockdowns and knife finishers to prevent dead Ganados from immediately reviving as more powerful enemies approach. This conserves ammo in a game all about resource management, but more importantly, it makes Leon look cool as fuck.

This is the game that, for better or worse, transformed Resident Evil into a proper shooter. The original version was rather linear compared to the earlier games in the series, which favored recursive exploration. The remake encourages the player to take things a bit slower and revisit some areas. Leon can now take on contracts for side quests and earn rewards from the merchant upon completion. This incentivizes some recreational backtracking but doesn’t always play well with the level design. The subsections of the village, castle, and island are simply too spaced out and also too empty and uneventful once you’ve cleared them. Resident Evil 4 simply isn’t meant to be an exploration game. Resident Evil 4 is a rush.

Characters in escort missions are typically tough to implement well and hard to love, as they turn the player into a babysitter of sorts. But Ashley Graham in the original Resident Evil 4 was one of the earliest AI partners to more or less pull her weight. She wasn’t invincible, but she also wasn’t constantly getting herself kidnapped or killed. She wouldn’t pick up a gun—but hey, she could drive a bulldozer. She let you be the hero, assuming you were a bad enough dude. She plays similarly with Leon in the remake, though the remake greatly improves her solo sneaking section in the castle. She adds a great deal of tension to any ambushes she’s involved in, since she’s unarmed and can only survive a single hit, but the game still gives the player plenty of tools and time to rescue her from a potential kidnapper or recover her from a knockdown. This has always been a rather lopsided partnership, with the hero, of course, doing almost all of the work, but Ashley is still more asset than liability in Resident Evil 4. Together, in their goofy banter and panicked coordination, Leon and Ashley make the most of a ridiculous premise for a video game.

The finale was always the most disagreeable stretch of the original game given its full-tilt emphasis of militaristic action over survival horror. The remake streamlines and skips quite a bit of these later segments. Ashley still gets to operate a wrecking ball, but sadly, she no longer drives a bulldozer. U-3—who sucked, sorry—is gone and so is the whole subterranean slog to his boss fight. These cuts better emphasize the stronger stages of the island, such as the laboratory and the battlefield. This latter area stages Leon’s showdown with his former commanding officer, Jack Krauser, turned mutant mercenary. This is a decently exhilarating confrontation in the remake, but it also reinforces some of the common complaints I’ve seen about the new controls and mechanics. Krauser harrasses Leon with booby traps, flash grenades, and knife slashes, much as he did in the original game, but here, in reacting to Krauser’s relentless think-fast shenanigans, Leon’s controls are somehow even more sluggish than his admittedly tanky movements in the original game. For this particular knife fight, I might’ve preferred the old quick time events.

It will be interesting to see where Capcom’s enthusiasm for producing these remakes will go now that we’re getting to a couple of the roughest entries in the Resident Evil series and now that survival horror is all in on this trend, with EA’s acclaimed remake of Dead Space—itself a proud clone of Resident Evil 4—and Bloober Team’s forthcoming remake of Silent Hill 2. Resident Evil 5 is a worse game with a much weaker reputation than its immediate predecessor, and Resident Evil 6 is often ranked as one of the worst video games of its generation. Capcom has been otherwise busy developing new entries, with the most recent release being Resident Evil Village, and those have been about as successful as the recent remakes. Village, released in May 2021, was itself an homage to Resident Evil 4. We’re still playing that game to this day in some form or fashion: some old, some new.