More than six years after my one and only playthrough of Resident Evil 4, I still have the most frightening moment seared into my memory. I had spent two straight days going through this utterly terrifying adventure with two of my best friends at the time. Tired from days sitting idle in front of the television, clenched muscles screaming for a minute's reprieve, I had immersed myself so completely into Leon Kennedy's struggles that I no longer had the barrier separating my reality from the game's fiction.
As it was my turn to play, I had the controller gripped tight in my hand, moving with the steady pace of a particularly slow snail. I was in an underground basement, lights flickering, unseen monsters lurking in the shadows. I didn't want to move forward, but I needed to, so I tapped the analog stick as slightly as I could, rounding every corner with the paranoid temperament of someone who is still fully alive, and wants to stay that way.
I came to a dumpster. It was green and, in ordinary circumstances, would look benign. But after hours of unexpected scares and horrific deaths, I knew better than to trust any container that could potentially house a monster. Slowly, excruciatingly so, I crept forward. Inches away, I tapped a button to peer inside, and, at the precise moment that Leon started to investigate this potential death trap, I felt a vibration in my leg.
I'm not ashamed of my reaction one bit. I screamed. I screamed long and loud, threw the controller across the room, and slid as quickly away from the television as I could. My utterly baffled friends watched my actions with a fear they hadn't experienced before. Had I finally lost it? After regaining my composure, I reached into my pocket, and extracted my cell phone. It was set on vibrate. My roommate wanted to know if I'd be back for dinner.
I tell this story now not because I'm proud of my actions (though I am), but because Resident Evil 4 has just been released (with an HD upgrade) for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. I have long considered this the finest horror game ever created, and one of the best games ever released for the GameCube (and PlayStation 2, for that matter). But after sinking a half dozen hours into this graphically enhanced adventure, I'm left wondering at what struck me so profoundly the first time through.
Before, I was so riddled with fear I couldn't even walk with the confident gait you would expect from a video game protagonist. Now, my pulse never rises above an ordinary, resting rate; I make Leon run the vast majority of the time. The haunting score, foreboding atmosphere, and creepy sound effects have little impact on my peace of mind, because there is little reason to worry about death. Ammunition is plentiful, enemies move in predictable patterns, and Leon is agile enough to dance away from most encounters. Outside of a tricky boss fight with a submerged, demonic fish, I have died only one time, and that was because I had become too cocky for my own good.
Resident Evil 4 is an incredible relic from a past that is worth remembering, but not revisiting. Stiff controls provide an artificial handicap when interacting with this world and straightforward level design requires little thought about where you need to go. Games have changed significantly from when RE4 was groundbreaking, and though many advances have been to the detriment of immersion (regenerating health comes to mind), controls have generally been improved upon, especially in shooters.
The easiest game to compare Resident Evil 4 to is another that I reviewed earlier this year: Shadows of the Damned. Shinji Mikami lent his talents to both games, and they have a similar emphasis on killing the undead from an in-close, third-person perspective. And though the visual design in RE4 is light-years ahead of its modern-day offspring, the moment-to-moment gameplay is far more rewarding in Damned. Both games are action focused and set in a horror universe, but RE4 hides from this marriage while Damned revels in it. Movement is much more satisfying in Shadows of the Damned, the weapons are more inventive, and the puzzle sequences are more intense. Larger bosses that are absolutely grotesque offer an amazing diversion from the typical combat, and an enticing score creates all types of moods. Damned sometimes tries to scare you, frequently tries to make you laugh, and is diverse enough to keep you guessing.
Resident Evil 4, in contrast, has one note: fear. It tries to scare you in the village and the castle, or out by the lake, and it does a fantastic job of making your blood rush. Or, at least it did the first time through. Now that I know what to expect, the anxieties have dissipated, and I'm left going through the motions, spending as much time fighting the controls as I do enemies. And for newcomers, there are certainly surprises to be found, but the core action is not particularly satisfying. The act of killing is rarely intense enough to get your palms sweating, and the clunky controls require too many excuses in this era. Your aiming cursor moves in fits and starts, creating a feeling that you're slightly out of control. The game compensates for these irregularities by snapping on to nearby enemies, but the act of aiming is so arduous that it removes much of the satisfaction.
The action is sadly stuck in the past, but updated visuals do look nice. Well-defined creatures exhibit the pain of battle quite well, holding their wounds or exploding in bloody bits of goo. However, the surrounding textures aren't quite as impressive. Low-detailed textures populate this world, and you don't have to investigate too closely to see how blurry they appear. Still, the visuals look good enough, just don't expect any "wow" moments.
Because the atmosphere in Resident Evil 4 is so expertly crafted, from the enemy design to the architecture to the music, I am still thoroughly enjoying my time with it. But I am not engrossed as I once was. I am not invested in Leon's struggles. Where once I jumped when my cell phone buzzed, now I stare sleepy eyed when an ambling zombie canters through a door. Resident Evil 4 is more of a historical curiosity than a captivating experience in 2011. If you haven't yet played this classic, I would recommend you download it for your preferred system posthaste, turn off the lights, and see firsthand what the hoopla is about. But if you already have fond memories, leave them locked away behind the rose-tinted glass of nostalgia and spare them the scrutiny of the harsh light of day.