Early in the Resident Evil 4 remake, Leon S. Kennedy walks through a dark, foreboding forest. He traverses a clearing where a dead wolf lies in a pool of its own blood, hind leg still snagged by a rusty trap. A pot of mouldy stew sits in a corner of a rundown shack made of chipped stone, and wooden crossbeams, small beds piled with foetid sheets. A gloomy hallway is hung with now de rigueur horror decorations: a selection of animal bones, rope, and tools, the remains collected and displayed for some unknown but obviously malign purpose.
The aesthetic is strongly reminiscent of Resident Evil 7’s gross-out Louisiana manor: domestic order askew and coated with a thick veneer of rot. Everything the player sees is meant to be unpleasant and, most of all, scary.
The original Resident Evil 4’s Spanish village was run down, too, its mind-controlled, zombie-like populace seeming to spend more time moaning the name of their lord than mucking out the barns or washing up after themselves. But it was also rendered in the blockier models and glossier textures of 2005 videogames, its dirtiness hindered by a lack of fidelity. Along with its B-movie dialogue and the ghost train pace of its scenery-swapping journey from farms to lakes, castle to laboratory, Resident Evil 4 was always more spooky than truly scary. It aimed for the kind of low-stakes fear that excites but doesn't linger or disturb. Because of this, it remains, to this day, one of the best Halloween games for anyone looking to soak in a neighbourhood haunted house kind of atmosphere rather than find themselves subject to real dread. This isn't the case in its new iteration.
The Resident Evil 4 remake’s look is its most noticeable tonal departure, but throughout the game, this same emphasis on a more sober, self-serious sort of horror remains. Many of the original’s best lines are intact—the banter between Leon and Ramón Salazar during their fight, say+, or asking if a group of homicidal villagers are off to bingo after an introductory scene—and Leon is as stoically nonplussed and woodenly sexless as he ever was. But the exuberance that lent the 2005 Resident Evil 4 the effect of an amphetamine-touched cartoon has largely disappeared. The characters look too much like real people, the world they inhabit too close to a place that might actually exist.
Salazar, previously an impish boy in a Napoleon hat, is now just a short, syphilitic aristocrat hiding his bad skin behind a too-thick slathering of make-up. Ashley Graham, Bambi-eyed American president’s daughter, is now a regular young woman. Even the Merchant, a cackling freak who stared wide-eyed at Leon while repeating a limited handful of lines back in 2005, has become a gentler, more human brand of arms vendor. He’ll crack jokes, point Leon toward the shooting range he’s set up, and generally work to ingratiate himself as something more than a trench coat-clad Mechanical Turk.
The rapid-fire pacing of the original has changed, too, slowed in a way that diminishes its sense of energy. Resident Evil 4’s rollercoaster has shed a few loop-the-loops, which mostly works to avoid any section dragging on for too long, but detracts from the effect of jogging through Party City aisles that the original’s shorter chapters and more brightly coloured, garishly rendered levels offered. A mind map of the 2005 game might flash with dead leaf brown for the first chunk of the game and navy blue for its latter half. Now, the prevailing colour is a shadowed, midnight black that reduces the punchiness of even ornate castle interiors. (It goes without saying that the decision to replace the giant, walking Salazar automaton with a single fire-spewing statue is a travesty, regardless of personal taste.) By seeking the scares that come from monstrous realism and dimly-lit tension, the remake loses the bright, memorable spookiness of the original in the process.
These are negative comparisons, but they’re not meant to be read as an outright condemnation of the Resident Evil 4 remake. Other than the lack of properly nasty headshot sound effects—a design touch that previously rewarded players with a sicko-satisfying noise like an overripe melon exploding for landing a shot in a villager’s groaning noggin—the new 4 is a more-than competently made action game whose sense of style and confidence in shooting design makes a modern landscape of weightless open-world time-vampires appear even more vacuous.
It’s just something different from what came before. The new Resident Evil 4 is best understood as an accompaniment to the 2005 original rather than a replacement. Barring the cynical reasons for their existence (and the dead-end culture nightmare that they represent), the Resident Evil remakes have at least worked to justify their existence not as glossy updates of their source material but as alternate versions of what already exists.
In this sense, a game like Resident Evil 4 is an infinitely more worthwhile proposition than what’s offered by the straightforward, workmanlike approach taken by “faithful” recreations like this year’s Dead Space or 2022’s The Last of Us: Part I. While both of those games alter their originals in manners big and small, they’ve also been approached with the goal of replicating an existing experience.
If the remade Resident Evil 4 attempted simply to spit polish the lively, spooky, and cartoonish 2005 version, the result might have been a welcome reason to revisit a fantastic action game. But it also would have been inessential and an even more artistically limp exercise in cultural recycling. Regardless of the new Resident Evil 4’s merits in comparison to its source, its attempts to rethink and reframe an existing game—its willingness to try to scare rather than thrill its audience with familiar sights and sounds—makes it more valuable than it otherwise would have been.
+ SALAZAR: You’re nothing more than an extra in my script, Mr. Kennedy. So don’t get too carried away. Your biggest scene is over.
LEON: Leave me out of your crappy script.
SALAZAR: Well then, why don’t you show me what a first-class script is like … through your own actions!
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.