In no particular order, here’s why you should just forget all those other games and give yourself over to Resident Evil 4’s heavenly light (and definitely not because I’m feeling left out…).
1. It’s perfect
It’s indisputable fact that 2005’s Resident Evil 4, developed by Capcom and directed by Shinji Mikami, is a perfect video game. It’s almost too perfect.
2. It sets the bar for modern quasi-reboots
Resident Evil 4’s gameplay as a whole is phenomenal and holds up well. Some may argue that it’s dated and archaic, that it’s a relic of 2005 which should stay firmly in the past – but some people would be wrong.
Sort of adapting earlier Resident Evil titles, Resident Evil 4’s third-person over-the-shoulder shooting is built on a risk-reward system – a mainstay of survival-horror in general, where even fighting back is to take a risk. Players need to stand still to aim and shoot, making themselves vulnerable. Because ammo is limited, you make the most of your ammo by using the environment to your advantage or stunning and kicking enemies (the kicking part is new to the series).
Compared to previous games, the biggest change is in how powerful you are. Where ammo was scarce in previous games and encouraged ignoring enemies whenever you could, Resident Evil 4 gives you the tools to defeat almost everything in your path and expects you to do so.
It turns Resident Evil 4 into a sort of guilty pleasure, branching off from the goofy, B-movie charm of the earlier games to churn out the peerless, eminently replayable action flick of the franchise. It’s still tough when it wants to be, keeping you tense and on edge, but gives you just enough to make you comfortable and willing to push on.
3. It’s got god-tier encounter design and pacing
Of all the things Resident Evil 4 pulls off perfectly (which is everything), its pacing might be the best.
By pacing, I mean that Resident Evil 4 consistently balances its tense encounters with easier, almost leisurely encounters. It keeps this remarkable ebb and flow throughout the vast majority of its runtime. Areas flow elegantly from one to the other and seem endlessly varied and creative, stuffed with new enemies, scenarios and enemy layouts.
The goofy, out-of-place settings, scenarios and enemies actually help in this way, just as they did in earlier games. Moving from the village to the castle to the militant island, each area finds way to almost comically mix things up.
Lava room? Sure. Hedge maze? I dig it. Cave trolls? Invisible bugs? A giant salamander? An homage to Alien? Knife fights? I am down for all of that.
4. It’s got dynamic difficulty
Already outstanding, an ever-changing difficulty system improves Resident Evil 4 that much more.
According to theResident Evil wiki, Resident Evil 4 uses an invisible ‘Game Rank’ system that dynamically changes the difficulty of your playthrough based on how you’re doing in-game. It’s all about preserving the flow and balancing the game on the fly, keeping it as perfect for the player as possible – not too hard, not too easy. The game will subtly ease up if you’re having trouble and vice versa.
For a fairly linear and straight-forward action game, this makes Resident Evil 4 incredibly replayable and worth coming back to over and over again, rightfully ignoring all those other, inferior games to embrace the One True Video Game.
5. Chapter 1-1
There’s enough proof of Resident Evil 4’s brilliant level and encounter design in the very first level, which traps the player inside a small, safe village – that is actually a simmering powder keg.
Once noticed, every villager suddenly turns Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style and the scene transforms into a stressful, claustrophobic test of your own wits and survival instincts. It’s intentionally jarring and, following the plodding, linear section beforehand, pushes players to use what they’ve learned so far to simply survive.
Hard enough that every first-time player will die at least once, it’s a test to continue into the rest of the game. It sounds basic – completing a tutorial before you start – but Resident Evil 4’s tutorial is so strong and innovative that you’ll have no idea you’re being taught anything.
6. The cabin scene in Chapter 2-2
The cabin scene is another stroke of brilliance. Similar to the opening level, Resident Evil 4 traps players inside a cabin that you have to survive. An actual horde of groaning villagers descends on the cabin, beating on the windows and pressuring you to adapt and work methodically to keep yourself from being overwhelmed. You push cabinets in front of windows, you rush around picking up the ammo and herbs available and push down ladders that crash through the upstairs windows.
After a cruisy section that allows players to grow comfortable with the game’s systems and begin to stockpile supplies, it forces them to use up a ton of ammo and herbs as they become increasingly cornered by the onslaught of headpoppers – leading us to:
7. The Headpoppers
Headpoppers (which is what I apparently call them) are brilliant for a few reasons, but it’s how they twist the trope of headshot-ing zombies into something dangerous and stressful that’s so clever.
Normally, including the initial chapters of Resident Evil 4, explosive headshots are both rewarding and kind of calming. That dude is definitely dead. They no longer have a head. They must be dead. But in Resident Evil 4, this is reversed.
After a certain point, headless enemies will suddenly have the chance to spawn a tentacle-monster-thing from their empty neck and initiate a second phase, which can inflict more damage at a greater range than before. From then on, a popped head brings stress and not relief. For just about every enemy, you’re asking whether they’re actually dead before it’s suddenly very much not dead at all and it’s attacking you all over again.
8. Leon’s a jackass
We need more protagonists in gaming who are straight-up nonsense.
For one, Leon Kennedy’s career path is bizarre. Going from a rookie cop from the now-nuked Raccoon City, late on his first day after being dumped by his girlfriend and going on a drinking binge (thoughthe remake waters this down), to being the bodyguard of the U.S. president’s daughter six years later. I don’t care what anyone says: that career trajectory doesn’t make any sense.
Also, why would Leon be the guy to bring back Ashley? How is her bodyguard responsible for that? Don’t they have other dudes for this sort of situation?
Secondly, Leon might as well be a different character altogether. Compared to the naïve rookie cop of Resident Evil 2, almost every line that comes out of his stupid mouth is a terrible one-liner, usually to no one.
“Where’s everyone going? Bingo?”
“Now that’s what I call backup.”
“I’m sure you boys didn’t just tag along so we could sing “Kumbaya” together at some Boy Scout bonfire. But then again, maybe you did.”
Ugh, you’re so embarrassing, Leon. I love you.
9. It literally has the best escort mission ever
Just like it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Resident Evil 4 is perfect, its central escort mission of protecting the president’s daughter Ashley is probably the best there’s ever been. Where games usually take a short cut by making sidekicks invincible and generally unnoticed by enemies, like the most recent God of War and The Last of Us, Resident Evil 4’s Ashley is absolutely vulnerable at all times – she just isn’t stupid.
Instead, Resident Evil 4 simply makes the experience fair on the player. The camera pulls back to frame both Leon and Ashley, keeping her in the player’s sight. She can be told to stay still or follow at a touch of a button, or even hidden away during certain areas. She ducks if you need to aim past or around her, and she even has a lengthy health bar that can be upgraded and healed the same as Leon’s.
Sure, she might be an irritating, dull, unlikable character who I wish had a personality beyond ‘innocent damsel’, but she makes for a great escort mission.
10. It has a ton of rad boss battles
In most Resident Evil games, bosses are almost like check-in points. They’re enemies that won’t necessarily drop anything of value like health or ammo but they still need to be defeated to continue the game. They’re progression blocks that need a minimum amount of ammo from the player to continue. If they don’t have that, then tough. Start over (or jump back to an earlier save.
As part of its action-boot of the series, this is only mildly true in Resident Evil 4. Boss arenas include small amounts of ammo and health, though still push players to use whatever they have to survive. The aforementioned cabin scene and other difficult rooms are actually far better at accomplishing what previous Resident Evil bosses intended to, vacuuming up your ammo and health within a single sequence on a horde of enemies.
Resident Evil 4’s bosses are more like the exciting high points inside the game’s plot, framed superbly within the larger scope and pace of the game. The El Gigantes, the Verdugo, Salazar, Saddler, Chief Mendez, Del Lago – they’re all bosses that aren’t especially difficult once you’ve fought them once and they give you enough space to move and think, but they’re still reliably hard enough to pose a threat. They’re memorable, well-crafted set pieces that don’t skimp on the gameplay.
11. There are roundhouses, backflips and suplexes
Like every good survival-horror title, wrestling moves are a core part of the player’s arsenal. The president of the USA knew that the only way to deal with foreign cultists who kidnap his daughter is to suplex them to death, so he sent Leon to Spain all by himself to do just that. He could kick real good, too.
In Resident Evil 4 though, melee attacks are mainly stun attacks, a small extension of the risk-reward gunplay. Take the risk rushing in for a melee attack or spend more ammo to keep yourself slightly safer. It’s goofy and absurd but, in-game, expands on the already-strong gameplay that much more.
12. The weapon reload animations are gorgeous
Reloading weapons in Resident Evil 4 is straight-up hypnotic once you really notice them, where almost every weapon reload just feels right in their tactile, weighted animations and sound effects. There’s a physicality and strength as Leon pushes a new clip into the bolt-action rifle or the antique-style Red9 pistol, or tosses an empty round of magnum shells over his shoulder to gracefully load a new six into the cylinder, or – oh, and now I’m drooling.
Seriously, Resident Evil 4’s weapon animations are a central part of the game’s ‘feel’. They’re subtle and swift enough to not distract but detailed and charming enough that they’re easy to appreciate.
13. The attaché case
Pronounced ah-tash-ay case, Resident Evil 4’s distinct inventory system is an ingenious metagame laid on top of the in-game action.
It’s a taste of Tetris every time you switch weapon or use an herb, and oddly reassuring and calming to organize as you progress through the game. It gives you a passive space to collect yourself while also emphasizing an element of strategy instead of pressuring the player to act! act! act! all the time. In a genre all about resource management, it’s appreciated.
Also, this system keeps your inventory at the front of your mind, which is a near-perfect way of combining bureaucratic self-management with the revamped action-centric gameplay. Some people may hate the attache case, but again, they simply have the wrong opinion.
14. Upgrading treasure
You find treasure almost constantly throughout Resident Evil 4, either on enemies, in chests, in bird nests you shoot out of trees or jammed into cave ceilings, and some of these can be combined into a single, more valuable treasure. Like the attache case, it’s a masterful little metagame that’s not only a twist on the series-wide ‘combine’ mechanic but turns a basic collectible into a passive scavenger hunt.
15. “Ah… I’ll buy it at a high price.”
Without an actual name or backstory, the iconic Merchant is a seemingly magical ganado fella who follows Leon throughout the game to hock his wares. His design is striking, his handful of lines from Paul Mercier are burned into my brain, and I’m not sure there’s ever been as memorable a store clerk in a video game.
Also, if he’s murdered by Leon on normal difficulty, he’ll be alive at other locations, implying he’s either immortal or part of a Fire Emblem-esque family of identical merchants. My headcanon is betting on the latter.
16. The lack of subtitles
The geniuses over at Capcom knew that including subtitles would only tarnish the beauty of its voice-acting and wisely left it out, even in re-releases.