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Resident Evil 4 remake is a modern blockbuster with an old-school heart

The updated version looks incredible, plays well, and has a level of focus that’s rare in modern games. Also, there are lots of explosive barrels.

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A screenshot of Leon in the remake of Resident Evil 4.
Image: Capcom

We might be approaching a point where there are, in fact, too many video game remakes and remasters. Off the top of my head, there’s The Last of Us Part I, Demon’s Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, Metroid Prime, Dead Space, and soon, Silent Hill 2. But no one has gone as hard into this trend as Capcom. Part of the resurgence of Resident Evil has involved bottom-up remakes of games like Resident Evil 2 and 3. Those made a lot of sense, translating the clunky early PlayStation gameplay for modern audiences and resulting in some of the best games in the entire franchise.

With the remake of Resident Evil 4, the benefits of a remake aren’t so obvious. The original game still holds up well, a mix of high-octane action and classic survival horror, and it’s not like it’s inaccessible in 2023. RE4 launched on the GameCube and, since then, has been ported to a huge range of platforms, even virtual reality. So a big-budget remake doesn’t need to exist at all — and yet, I’m so glad it does. RE4 remains a hallmark of action game design, and this new facelift updates it just enough to turn it into a modern blockbuster — but one that retains its old-school soul.

Before we get into the remake, a little history lesson is in order. It’s important to know how much of a turning point RE4 was for the series. The original trio of Resident Evil games helped pioneer survival horror as we know it today, with slow methodical gameplay that was accompanied by a control scheme lovingly — and sometimes decidedly not lovingly — referred to as “tank controls.” It could be frustrating, but it also added to the terror, as you struggled to get away from slow, shambling hordes of the undead.

The fourth entry takes many of the franchise’s hallmarks — intricate level design, creepy environments, puzzles that require ornate keys, limited resources, bosses that transform with lots of glowing eyeballs, a completely nonsensical story — and infuses them with the DNA of a full-out action game. Instead of standing there in terror while firing off a flimsy pistol at shuffling zombies, you could now run, dodge, and wield all kinds of weapons without having to also fight against the controls. It changed the direction of Resident Evil for years, shifting the balance from scares to shooting. It wasn’t until Resident Evil 7 that it got back to classic survival horror (but from a terrifying new perspective).

The villagers are a lot scarier in the remake.

This shift in tone and style is evident from the very beginning. Resident Evil 4 puts you in the role of federal agent Leon Kennedy, tasked with rescuing the president’s daughter from a remote Spanish village, where you’ll eventually encounter a murderous cult, monsters with too many tentacles, and plenty of other things to shoot at. Very early on in the game — like, before you’ve even fired a bullet — you’re thrown into the town square, which is filled with residents who want to murder you for some reason. One of them has a chainsaw. You have no choice but to fight.

This bold opening sequence is important for a few reasons. It shows just how action-oriented the gameplay is; you can’t survive without running, hiding, and getting off a lot of headshots. It also makes it clear that the enemies aren’t the slow zombies from the previous games. They’re fast, and they can think. One of my strongest memories of playing for the first time in 2005 was knocking down a ladder so the villagers couldn’t climb up to get me, only to see them pick it up and put it back in place. I had to put my controller down for a bit.

Despite being nearly two decades old, it feels like a mostly modern experience

In the remake, that village sequence is much more terrifying than I remember. At its core — narrative, gameplay, and design — the remake is the same as the original. But it has a number of upgrades, primarily in terms of visuals and controls, that elevate the experience and make things like the familiar opening battle more intense and dynamic.

It looks incredible, for one thing. The environments are packed with small details that make the world feel alive, from the nauseating, glistening trails of blood to the brushstroke textures on the oil paintings. During the quiet moments, it’s a lot of fun to soak in the atmosphere and just look around. The more realistic visuals naturally make things a lot scarier, particularly when it comes to the enemy designs. Classic creatures, like the towering giants or pesky bugs, now look truly terrifying. Even the standard villagers and cult members have a much more unsettling edge to them.

These scares are balanced out by the fact that you feel more powerful than in almost any other Resident Evil game. Leon is fast and strong, and the controls feel streamlined to the point that, even toward the end of the game when I had six different firearms to swap between, I never had a hard time switching in the midst of a firefight. When I died, it was usually because I did something silly, not because I hit a wrong button. It’s hard to put into words, but the Resident Evil 4 remake just feels good: the movement, the shooting, the impressive set pieces. It all gels into a game that, despite being nearly two decades old, plays like a mostly modern experience.

A screenshot from the Resident Evil 4 remake.
Mine carts and explosive barrels: now that is a video game.
Image: Capcom

There are a few places where the remake of Resident Evil 4 shows its age — but I mean that in a good way. For one thing, this is such a video game. Modern blockbusters love to hide their inherent gaminess under the veneer of immersion, but RE4 harbors no such illusions. This is a game where you kick crates slathered in yellow paint to gather ammo and herbs, and explosive red barrels are everywhere. There’s even a mine cart sequence (with plenty of explosive barrels).

Leon makes goofy B-movie quips constantly, and characters appear not when it makes the most sense but when the plot demands it. Perhaps the best example of this is the ever-present shopkeeper, who has storefronts all over the abandoned, ravaged town, despite seemingly only having a single customer. These choices usually don’t make a lot of sense narratively, but they’re fun. They make the game more straightforward to play, and overall, the experience is better off for them. I don’t want to smash up all of the scenery to get those shotgun shells. Just tell me where to go with some bright yellow paint.

This is such a video game

Similarly, Resident Evil 4 has a level of focus that has become increasingly rare. While the remake expands on some things, particularly with more elaborate boss fights, it’s still a fairly straightforward experience. There are no open-world elements. (There are some optional quests, mostly carried over from the original, but it’s simple stuff like killing rats and shooting blue targets.) For the most part, RE4 pushes you down tight hallways that connect larger areas where you’ll do all of the fighting; you’ll know when you reach a fight sequence because of all of the cover and exploding barrels. Its world still feels large and complex, but it’s not the kind of place you get lost in. I only ever found myself lost lost once thanks to a very well-hidden wrench that halted my progress. It also changes things up every so often so that it doesn’t feel overly repetitive. You play much of the game solo, but there are various points where, much like in the original, AI companions join you for a time, adding a nice change of pace, including a very scary sequence with the first daughter.

When you really think about it, the Resident Evil 4 remake is a strange combination of things. Full-blown action merged with survival horror; modern controls and graphics with old-school level design. It’s a contradiction at times. But all of those elements are balanced in a way that makes them work together. The fun moments offset the scares, like when you’re walking down a creepy, dark cave only to see the welcoming purple glow of the shopkeeper’s torch. And the new visuals and streamlined action make the thrilling set pieces stand out even more. It’s particularly impressive when you compare this remake to something like Resident Evil Village, which attempted to mash RE4-style action with the series’ new first-person perspective, and realize just how much better the original still is.

When Resident Evil 4 first came out, it was a game unlike anything Capcom had made before. And it turns out that, almost 20 years later, it’s still as refreshing as ever — even if it’s yet another remake.

Resident Evil 4 launches on March 24th on the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S, and Steam.