Released in 2005, Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 revolutionized the survival horror genre as we knew it. A masterful blend of intense action, gripping storytelling, and unforgettable characters came together to create a truly captivating experience. At the time, it wasn’t exactly what survival horror buffs wanted, but it was what the series needed. Six years after the last numbered Resident Evil game, this new, action-laden approach was just what the series needed to attract more mainstream players and the first-person shooter crowd, even if it de-emphasized scares for thrills.
With its unprecedented over-the-shoulder camera perspective and focus on suplexes, knife attacks, and run-and-gun mechanics, Resident Evil 4 delivered a thrilling sense of immediacy and tension, while its dynamic enemy AI and inventive weapons kept players on the edge of their seats. Though not every future Resident Evil entry that followed would stick to the same setup, Resident Evil 4 quickly made a name for itself and became a fan-favorite, despite the naysayers’ claims that it should never have strayed from tank-like controls and strict survival horror convention.
Fast forward to 2023, and we’re three remakes in with the Resident Evil games, with Resident Evil 2 and 3 debuting with complete, fresh-faced overhauls meant to revitalize the games for a new generation of players. The last RE-make, Resident Evil 3, was a disappointment that removed or altered content to the point of alienating fans of the original. Given its failures, I feared the worst for Resident Evil 4. After all, a remake of a game that was this influential should be prepared to equal the ambition of the original.
Fortunately, this is the remake that other remakes will be measured against. Everything (sans one minor boss) is intact and expanded. That doesn’t mean things haven’t been adjusted or changed. Capcom made sure not to make things too predictable for fans of the original. But it wasn’t done by cutting content, which was my greatest fear.
One of the significant issues in Resident Evil 4’s expression of horror was the transition from pre-rendered backgrounds to using full 3D models. Its contemporaries in the franchise, Resident Evil (2002) and Resident Evil 0, both represent the zenith of pre-rendered background use, hold up wonderfully in comparison and have been re-released to fanfare multiple times with a minimal upscale required.
In comparison, the original RE4 looks drab, and Capcom’s efforts to create an HD version have been less than stellar. An excellent fan-made HD remaster exists, which is a tremendous upgrade, but you can only do so much without completely remaking the game, which thankfully is the route Capcom decided to take.
The fruit of the studio’s labor is tremendous. The original Resident Evil 4 is lauded as a great game, but it also marked the point where the series transitioned away from its pure survival horror roots into horror-tinged action adventure. With this reinvention, Capcom has finally merged the dark and desperate tone of Resident Evils 0 – 3, Code Veronica X, and the Outbreak duology with the gunplay-heavy, bombastic gameplay of later entries (4 – 6).
While the environments will be intimately familiar to veterans of the original, the remake transforms the Ganado village, Salazar’s castle, and Saddler’s island into horrific lairs of depravity. The decay and violence that the cult, Los Iluminados, brought when they infected the village with the mind-controlling Plagas is writ large, with blood and sacrifice being apparent everywhere you turn.
The most noticeable aspect of the visuals is the interplay between light and darkness. The original was relatively bright and didn’t feature much variation between illumination. As a result, indoors and outdoor areas were indistinguishable. This time around, a feeling of dread moves with you from the dreary outdoors to the cramped confines of a building in which darkness is only pierced by Leon’s meager flashlight.
The amount of added detail is also incredible. Not only do the environments look lived in, but they also look died in. The game takes place in an area that’s been inhabited for centuries, and there’s nothing sterile about it. It’s easy to imagine the inquisition storming through the countryside and generations of families living in the decrepit homes that litter the area. In contrast, the majestic, tapestry-bedazzled halls of the castle betray Ramon Salazar’s contempt for his people, and the torture chambers below make it evident why things ended up the way they did.
Most importantly, the game retains its identity despite every asset being remade from scratch (or borrowed from a recent RE title). While it has a more serious tone overall, it retains its campiness. If anything, the humor and horror complement each other better this time around. After all, it’s much easier to digest Leon kickflipping off a wall and quipping when it’s balanced against the highly-detailed aberrations that haunt the game.
What isn’t haunting the game anymore are some of the more annoying aspects of the original — specifically buddy character, Ashley — who as both a character and gameplay mechanic is much more enjoyable in the remake. She’s not a completely different person, but Capcom toned down her bratty behavior making her much more likable. Of course, she’s still a damsel-in-distress trapped in a place filled with psychopaths, brainwashed cultists, and grotesque monsters, but she comes across as a bit more mature and pleasant in general.
Unfortunately, I do have to address a dress (or lack thereof). Ashley’s redesign is puzzlingly bad, which is shocking compared to how great the other character designs are. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the picture of beauty if I had been kidnapped and whisked across the Atlantic to some creep’s hideout, but damn. I would hope the president’s daughter could do better than a Party City wig (which admittedly looks much better with the “Hair Strand” option on) and her positively geriatric blazer and scarf combo.
I’m aware that Ashley’s weird plaid skort has to exist so dirty boys can’t creep shot her (despite the perception that women make up half the gaming population), but I would have rather her have a complete redesign than a weird schoolmarmish facsimile of her original costume. It’s all too much a reminder that the promises of the sexual revolution have faded away in recent years. Ashley’s design adheres to the school of thought that women can own their bodies and sexuality until a man dares to gaze in our direction, and then we’re back to bloomers and petticoats.
Aside from those few grumbles, however, Resident Evil 4 is a masterclass in what it means to remake a game. It’s a complete, loving overhaul of a beloved title that adds more meaningful moments than it subtracts and weaves pure magic out of the template set before it. While the original still retains its charm, it’s easier now to view these two titles as separate entities and enjoy them for their own unique merits. You should absolutely go back and play the original Resident Evil 4 for its action-oriented take on the story, but die-hard survival horror fans have finally gotten the game they wished they had been given in 2005. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Resident Evil 4 releases for Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 & 5, and PC on March 24.