Regarded by many as one of the greatest games ever created, Resident Evil 4’s reputation precedes itself. Released during a generation packed with all-time greats, RE4 still manages to stand above its peers, and is credited with several significant game design innovations, such as its over-the-shoulder camera perspective and its cinematic, blockbuster tone.
Over a decade after its initial release, I had the privilege of experiencing this game for the first time. And after my climactic jet ski escape from an exploding island, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It’s not that Resident Evil 4 didn’t live up to expectations; rather, I came to the conclusion that the game’s innovations and achievements have overshadowed some glaring issues that have gone overlooked.
Resident Evil 4 can be divided into 3 acts, and it plays its best hand early. The game’s initial setting of an isolated, haunted Hispanic village is creepy and enticing, and the unsettling tone is helped by the intriguing, if on-the-nose, environmental storytelling. Like most Resident Evil games, your enemies are introduced as supernatural ghouls, but by the end of the game are revealed to be laboratory atrocities rooted in semi-science. There’s a certain purity to exploring a haunted village in search of the president’s daughter, and the game’s biggest missed opportunity is that it doesn’t stay there long enough.
Next is the game’s infamously long castle section, and by its end, Resident Evil 4 fully transitions from survival horror to third-person shooter. Once Leon reaches Saddler’s research island, the military fortresses and gun-wielding Los Illuminados soldiers make it clear that there’s no going back to RE4’s magical first few hours. But to be fair, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different. There’s more emphasis put on the loot collecting, gun-upgrading gameplay loop than on the game’s initial atmosphere-building and suspense. Some might call that a weakness, but even the most ardent survival horror experiences become more combat-oriented as you build up resources.
And rather than a subdued, calculated final act, RE4 chooses to end on bombastic, horror-inspired action, which prophetically would also be the tone the Resident Evil franchise would carry going forward. And although Resident Evil 4 may have created the blueprint for the next decade third-person action games, it isn’t exceptional in the other areas you might expect an all-time great to be.
The plot rarely strays from its predictable arc, and there aren’t any juicy reveals to keep the player invested beyond a surface level. That’s not to say cutscenes are dull, as the delightfully hammy dialogue keeps character interactions entertaining, but I expected more to keep me engaged. The art is also fairly drab, although on a technical level, the game holds up well over a decade later.
These, as well as a few other good-but-not-great aspects of RE4 made me wonder what made the game such a touchstone for those who played it in its heyday. I questioned if RE4‘s cinematic, movie-like quality that we now expect from mainstream video games was so impressive back in 2005, that it made it easy to not notice Leon Kennedy’s meatheaded dialogue. But most of all, beating Resident Evil 4 left me confused as to where the storm of hatred for its successor, Resident Evil 5, would come from.
To me, RE5 improved upon everything that its predecessor already did well. Just like Resident Evil 4, it begins as survival horror, and as your arsenal grows, evolves into a third-person shooter. This time around, the weapon collecting and upgrading system is more involved, and its unique setting of Africa is just as unsettling and visually diverse as Spain.
Of course, that’s not to say Resident Evil 5 is as historically significant. RE 4 deserves immense praise for pioneering the third-person shooter revolution of last generation. Its over-the-shoulder perspective became a staple of the horror genre, and paved the way for games like Dead Space and The Evil Within. The controls haven’t aged a day, and its contributions to game design are undeniable.
But for me, I think those with strong memories of it forget some of its less polished details. It’s certainly a great game, but it’s not the total, complete package like the other games often cited as the “best ever.”
For me, Resident Evil 4 landed in that middle ground between “really good” and “greatest of all time.” It’s not accurate to say I was disappointed; instead, I think time and nostalgia has inflated the achievements of what is still a great, significant entry in gaming history.