Ten Years On: Resident Evil 4
It's often remarked that Resident Evil 4 is an action game rather than a horror game. Almost universally regarded as the best of the series, the game which revitalised its ailing fortunes did so by fundamentally departing from the conventions that originally made Resident Evil successful. While this proved to be enormously beneficial in 4, for the later sequels the greater focus on gunplay and action-sequences has ultimate proved destructive, possibly beyond the point of salvation.
How did Resident Evil 5 and 6 get it so wrong after 4 handed them a blueprint for getting it so very right? Was it the lack of Shinji Mikami's guiding hand? Or was it simply because the innovations made in 4 had become cliché by the time 5 and 6 rolled around? I think both played a role, alongside another, even more significant factor. 5 and 6 may have gone full-blown action, but for all the reworking done by Shinji Mikami, Resident Evil 4 remains a horror game.
It's a different kind of horror, sure. Despite the heavily desaturated aesthetic, Resident Evil 4's terror is far more vivid and immediate than its predecessors, less about what might lurk around the next corner, and more about what's right in front of you, and usually behind you and flanking you from either side as well. Both Leon Kennedy and the threats he faces are faster and more athletic than in any previous title, and both sides bring considerable numbers (be it bodies or bullets) to the fight.
In keeping with that theme of vivid immediacy, Resident Evil 4 demonstrates its divergence from series convention within the first few minutes. Before Leon has met his enemy, the colour scheme and camera angle are clear statements of intent. If that isn't sufficient, Leon spells it out mere minutes later, after his initial encounter with a lone villager in a woodland shack. "He's not a zombie", he mutters in surprise. It will transpire to be a most unpleasant one.
Next comes the game's most fondly remembered sequence, the opening fight with the Ganados in their dilapidated village square. I love how the horror is layered in this. Prior to this moment, the game lulls you into a false sense of security with a couple of easy skirmishes. Most action games give the player a big gun and a bigger monster to fight, while most horror games go heavy on the monster and light on the weaponry. Resident Evil 4 differs in both cases. It hands you a pistol, and demands you gun down a bunch of peasants armed with pre-industrial farm tools.
The power relationship is all wrong, and it's offset further when you pull the trigger against one of these villagers. Instead of absorbing the impact as a zombie would, they stumble violently backwards, clutching at their wound and squealing in agony. Whatever inclines these people to be so aggressive toward you, they're still people, with bright eyes and vulnerable bodies.
Resident Evil 4 cleverly builds your confidence, to the point where you question your actions as the blonde, broad-shouldered American intruder planting bullets into the bodies of some disgruntled locals. Then a pallid woman wielding a butcher's knife cannily sidesteps your shot. Clever girl. Moments later a woodsman's hatchet wheels through the air and slams into your shoulder. You stumble, and by the time you've recovered, there are three men sporting pitchforks advancing with worrying speed. You turn to run, but there are more coming down the path behind you. Panicking now, you fire a few wild shots into the crowd, and dive through the window of a nearby house. You bar the doors and windows with furniture, but on they come regardless, dozens of them, shunting against those hastily arranged barriers. At this point that flicker of doubt you had when you first encountered these simple-seeming folk couldn't be further from your mind.
From here Resi 4 ups the ante with impressive speed, handing you bigger weapons and challenging you with more powerful foes. Chainsaw-wielding Ganados wearing sackcloth masks, twelve-feet tall "El-Gigantes" who can crush your ribcage using just one hand. Throughout the game, though, the message is the same. Despite all your firepower, all your skill, all your bravado, these primitive cultists have you matched blow-for-blow, and everything you can throw at them might not be enough.