Resident Evil 4 is the greatest survival-horror game of all time. Or is it? The genre of survival-horror is a rare case in the video game world; rather than being named after its most salient gameplay mechanics, it is based on aesthetics. Regardless, in the years since the debut of the original Resident Evil, many have assumed that a survival-horror game is beholden to certain traditional tropes and stylings: scarce ammunition, atmospheric though uncooperative camera angles, etc. In other words, where action games are designed to make players feel like unstoppable badasses, horror games are intended to do the opposite: to make them scared. And then came along Resident Evil 4, which is able to accomplish both. Some have taken to calling it an action-horror game or a scary action game, or even just an action game. I believe that the horror moniker suits the title just fine as its polished gameplay does nothing to neuter any sense of creeping dread and dizzying tension. Fuck genre; Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece.
In the early 90's, Alone In The Dark arrived, and with it survival-horror. However, gamers weren't properly introduced to the burgeoning genre until they played Resident Evil on the Playstation. A creepy mansion viewed from a cinematic camera and populated with the ravenous undead deeply frightened gamers and introduced them to a new digital thrill. Resident Evil's tank-like controls and B-movie vibe were acceptable in the face of such startling novelty, but as the series shuffled into the new generation of consoles, its flaws became less tolerable and its scares turned stale. Konami challenged Capcom in the late 90's with the cerebral Silent Hill, whose aesthetics were much more mature and disturbing. To chase the psychological sophistication of its competitor would be to abandon Resident Evil's zombie-flick essence in exchange for pale imitation; needless to say, Shinji Mikami and his team were facing a serious challenge. After years of development, Mikami boldly restarted the Resident Evil 4 project with a new vision: behind-the-shoulder camera, manual aiming, Spanish village setting, no zombies. Fans were nearly as scared of the change-up as they were when receiving their first zombie hickey, but once they began playing in 2005, the angels sang. Resident Evil 4 was a rapturous breath of fresh air for the series, the genre, and action gaming in general. Its balance of innovation and tradition revitalized horror video games while somehow still feeling like it was fit to bear the Resident Evil name.
In the first Resident Evil, pushing up moves your character in the direction he is facing. Left and right rotate him in those respective directions while down walks him backwards. This has not changed in RE 4. What has changed is the camera, which is now located behind protagonist Leon's right shoulder instead of at a constantly shifting, awkward, threat-obscuring angle. This makes a world of difference, and I'm honestly astonished at long it took before the designers came to their senses and realized what a head-slappingly elegant (read: simple) solution it is. Coupled with the updated view is a fluid targeting system. Most of Leon's weapons are generously equipped with a laser sight. By depressing the right trigger and aiming manually with the left stick, players trade mobility for deadly precision. Targeting in RE4 is practically a game unto itself, as a careful aim can incapacitate and decapitate enemies as well as blast thrown weapons like axes and dynamite out of the air. It's great fun, and if you choose to call Resident Evil 4 a third-person shooter, it's the best I've yet played.
We're all tired of QTEs by this point, but if you will, let's hop in the time machine and travel back to 2005. Dreamcast darling Shenmue was one of the first games (excepting Dragon's Lair, if that counts) to really push quick-time events, which are button prompts that flash on the screen and allow players to perform feats not possible within the game's usual mechanical confines. 2005 saw the QTE make a comeback in God of War and Resident Evil 4. Kratos would spam the circle button after beating on an opponent long enough (by spamming square) to engage in some particularly brutal dismemberment, e.g. ripping the head off a Gorgon, etc. It was an exciting and rewarding way to finish fights, but RE4 practically turned the QTE into an art form, in a way that has yet to be surpassed (probably a good thing, admittedly). That big, beautiful Gamecube A button is used for contextual actions such as pulling the claws of a bear trap off your leg, roundhouse kicking stunned enemies, knocking down and raising ladders, and much more. These A-button abilities are typical of RE4's gameplay, but contextual prompts even bleed into the cutscenes, where failing to press a certain button combination will result in a gruesome and untimely death for Leon. Resident Evil 4 dares you to put the controller down, and whether you accept or despise quick-time events, that's pretty cool.
While most fans were probably fine with the new controls, many were predictably upset at the absence of the living dead, Resident Evil's trademark. Some ardent old-schoolers are still bitter about the decision, but I for one believe that it was an evolutionary step for the series. You see, RE4 is, at least according to yours truly, a horror game. Zombies are slow and dim-witted and predictable, and features like those do little to instill genuine fear. Their replacements, Los Ganados and Los Illuminados, respectively parasite-infected peasant farmers and hooded cult zealots, are much more effectively frightening and surprising than the undead ever could be. These SOBs dash, dodge, duck, strangle, stab, swing, and surround. There are the common pitchfork-wielding grunts, the suspender-wearing axe-tossers that just beg to be knocked off the roof they're standing on with a well-placed 9mm, the burlap-headed chainsaw bastards, the red-robed priests wearing deer skull masks, the blind and bondaged Wolverine impersonators called Garradors, and "Iron Maidens"... I'll just leave that last one to your imagination. There's a brilliant opening scenario in which Leon is surrounded by a village full of hostile Ganados and has to hold them off for a certain amount of time. He can enter buildings, push dressers in front of doors, toss grenades out the windows, and pick off assailants from a tower. However, if you stay in said tower for more than maybe 30 seconds, the townsfolk will start tossing molotov cocktails into your comfy little sniper's nest. The blood-soaked intensity of this first major centerpiece never dulls; thank RE4's intelligent and wonderfully designed shotgun fodder for that. While the normal enemies are delightfully evil, the game's bosses are even more impressive. El Gigante is a giant ogre straight out of the Lord of the Rings. In your first encounter with the hulking brute, there are a few small cottages that Leon can enter to pick up some healing items. Foolish players may believe that they're safe with a wooden roof over their heads, but just like in the tower, stay too long and El Gigante will tear that roof right off. To go into the details of other bosses would spoil a good deal of the game's surprises, but I feel the need to touch on the late-game duel with Krauser; at one point it came close to dethroning The End as my favorite boss fight. Leon is chased around desert ruins by the machine gun-toting Krauser, searching for stone engravings that will help him unlock a door to the next area. All but one of these artifacts can be found by navigating the environment and fending off Krauser's attacks. You guessed it: the German mercenary is holding the last of them. What follows is a cinematic stand-off atop a tower that has been rigged with explosives. You have but a few minutes to take down the brutal warrior Krauser before it all goes kablooey, and let me tell you, it is intense. Although in my numerous playthroughs I've developed a successful rhythm in combat and what was once surprising is now expected, there are still few games out there that get my blood pumping like Resident Evil 4, zombies be damned.
A small European village tucked away in the woods may not seem like your usual video game location, and thankfully it isn't. I'm not sure how Shinji Mikami ended up with the setting for Resident Evil 4, but it was a fantastic choice. The murky, desaturated browns of the rural Autumn environment lend a sense of realism and melancholy to the possessed hamlet, leading the player to contemplate its downward spiral into madness. Perhaps more striking is the medieval Spanish castle, full of deadly traps and ancient horrors, that is explored in the second half of the game. Abandoning the cheesy George A. Romero aesthetics of the previous three Resident Evil entries, the art direction in RE4 is stunningly cohesive and eerily beautiful (the graphics positively blew my mind 5 years ago). The creepy environs play host to some much-improved level design as well, featuring claustrophobic dungeons along with wide-open graveyards, and just the right amount of backtracking.
I love RPGs. There's a certain feeling you get when a new sword is bought, a new skill is learned, or a new level is upped. It's addictive, it's rewarding, and it plays into the power fantasy that video games are oh so good at supplying. Resident Evil 4 has taken a few ideas from the role-playing game, and it's better for it. While some don't appreciate the lack of a quick and easy weapon wheel, I am personally a big fan of RE4's inventory system. Leon carries an invisible "attache case," which can be viewed and managed at the press of a button. He has limited space with which to hold all of the healing herbs, incendiary grenades, ammo boxes, and chicken eggs that he finds, requiring the player to either make room by moving things around, trading one item for another, or upgrading to a larger suitcase. This, as well as buying, selling, and customizing, can be done with the help of RE4's mysterious traveling merchant ("Got a selection of good things on sale, stranger!"). The merchant is a welcome addition to the series, a vibrant character and useful mechanic all rolled into one. Selling precious treasures in exchange for the Broken Butterfly revolver just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and helps to improve Resident Evil 4's most perfect aspect: it's pacing.
Resident Evil 4 is The Godfather of video games when it comes to pacing. I've never played a game in which the timing and sequencing of events felt so unbelievably right, and in which every one of those events was unforgettable. As a piece of interactive entertainment, RE4 requires that you not only witness these ridiculously tense, nightmarish scenarios, but that you survive them. It's definitely exhausting, but the game also has the decency to let up and allow for some breathing room; the flow from challenge to reward is unsurpassed.
I've spent years trying to convince my friends to play Resident Evil 4. They complain about the bad controls and the slow crawl of survival-horror games. I do my best to explain that RE4 is and isn't one of those. Call Resident Evil 4 whatever you want. I call it perfection.