In 2001, four years before the original Resident Evil 4 was released, Capcom knew it had a problem. The Resident Evil series was stuck in a cookie-cutter mold, producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi said at the time. “The whole concept of RE4 was to reinvent the game,” he said. “We wanted to give the gamers something new.”
The result was a combat-forward reboot of the series that reconsidered its survival-horror roots, pitching Resident Evil 2 co-star Leon S. Kennedy as an international action hero on a mission to save the U.S. president’s daughter from a cult. Resident Evil 4 was hailed as a masterpiece, injecting new life into the franchise that would only become even more action-focused in ensuing sequels — ultimately prompting yet another reinvention of the series with the back-to-basics horror game Resident Evil 7 Biohazard.
Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 4 reimagines the series’ most beloved and highly influential entry with lavish detail, modernizing the game from top to bottom. Developers have reframed Leon’s adventure through the lens of other recent Resident Evil remakes, bringing new levels of beauty and squishy gore to Resident Evil 4 while also updating its controls and story. The result is a clear demonstration that the developers understand their source material, and want to make it sing by fleshing out every possible detail.
The game also strongly signals that Resident Evil may be in need of a reinvention once again.
Resident Evil 4’s core elements are present in the remake. Leon S. Kennedy, now a dashing government agent, is dispatched on a covert solo mission to Spain, where he searches for a target codenamed “Baby Eagle” — real name Ashley Graham, the daughter of U.S. President Graham. A group of cultists have kidnapped her in a plot to infect her with a parasite, and ultimately make her their puppet. As Leon searches for Ashley, he encounters a remote rural village overrun by the parasite. Its angry residents — and a series of ultra-powerful men and monsters — stand between Leon and his rescuee.
Leon is no longer the rookie cop of his previous game, and he no longer faces danger in the form of one or two shambling zombies at a time. Instead, he is well armed and combat-ready, and faces swarms of armed, infected humans known as Ganados. While resource management and ammunition scarcity was core to the gameplay of early Resident Evil games, in 4, players concern themselves more with crowd control and — specifically in the remake — parrying attacks from all sides. Resident Evil 4 presents a new type of challenge: surviving against overwhelming odds.
In the remake, the dance to avoid death can be daunting. Ganados and burly men wielding chainsaws or giant hammers can quickly surround Leon. But Leon can parry or dodge just about any attack. He can roundhouse-kick or suplex bad guys, before finishing them off with a knife through the skull. Or he can approach encounters with stealth, creeping up behind unsuspecting enemies and dispatching them with a quiet execution. All these options make every combat encounter exciting and flexible in their demands; occasionally, they can be frustrating, as the game pours waves of enemies on Leon in set pieces that feel more like an exercise in trial-and-error than puzzling out a solution.
As in the original, Leon must also protect Ashley from harm in multiple, albeit brief segments where the two team up. Ashley is totally vulnerable in these moments, and Leon must not only fight for his own survival, but hers as well. This time, she’s a far less complicated babysitting assignment; her health system has been greatly simplified. Ashley’s presence was a famously divisive element of the original, but she’s less of a nuisance here, and can be commanded to stay close to Leon (during chase sequences) or to keep her distance (during combat). The two work well together, and it’s fun to watch them flirt.
In between RE4’s action-heavy set pieces is a series of puzzles, many of them inscrutable and ornate in the classic Resident Evil style, along with fetch quests. These lock-and-key tricks still take a back seat to the combat, and after all this time, still feel perfunctory in the grand scheme of the game’s design — even the puzzles specific to the remake feel like an afterthought on the developers’ part.
Players will probably spend more time puzzling out how best to equip Leon, as a mystical, ever-present merchant offers a huge array of upgrades, new weapons, armor, repairs, and recipes for Leon to purchase. (The Merchant quips, as fans would demand him to, “What are ya buyin’?” but only sometimes, in a great and rare display of restraint from the designers.) Capcom has added a new layer to Leon’s upgrades in the remake, letting him not only increase the size of the attaché case that stores his items, but also the case itself, with variants that offer varying perks, and attachable charms that offer even more buffs. Players can earn these charms at the shooting range minigame, an amusing, highly replayable diversion that appears at several locations in the game — I lost far too much time there trying to unlock the best charms in RE4, which are based on RNG.
Resident Evil 4 also diverges from past games in its linearity. There’s very little backtracking to do here, as the game aggressively pushes Leon forward to new areas and new scenarios. While the same sequence of events is intact from the original, the overall flow and momentum have been both shaken up and smoothed out. Where Capcom has cut, wisely, is in eliminating or reframing the sillier components of the original game. Quick-time events from the original, where Leon would have to outrun boulders or an out-of-place mechanized giant statue, only to potentially fail in a matter of milliseconds before doing it all over again, have been recontextualized. The most striking and welcome example is how Capcom recast the central character of Ramón Salazar, who comes across less like a bleached Chucky doll and more like a distinguished but decaying old man.
For all of the rough edges that it smooths over, RE4 pulls off the same trick that RE2 did in 2019, making a groundbreaking but now dated game feel brand-new again. But after four Resident Evil games in as many years, even the current incarnations of the franchise are starting to feel a bit familiar — there are hints of the cookie-cutter mold that Kobayashi set out to shrug off more than 20 years ago, even in Capcom’s slick and gorgeously produced remakes. This latest one is no anomaly.
Resident Evil 7 Biohazard and Village showed, just like the original RE4, that Capcom can adapt and reinvent. After completing 4 once again, the most obvious question the remake left me with was: Where do they go from here?
Resident Evil 4 will be available on March 24 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 5 download code provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.