You’re Leon Kennedy, survivor of the nuclear incident in Raccoon City six years ago. You’ve worked your way up through law enforcement and are now a part of a highly trained section of the secret service. But as luck would have it, much like how his first day as a cop ended with an entire city being nuked, Leon’s first real assignment is to rescue the president’s kidnapped daughter from a group of people in an unnamed but Spanish speaking European country. When you get there, you’re met with resistance from the locals, who immediately attack you. You make your way to a village after dispatching a few more along a rural trail, where one of the cops that drove you in is impaled on a burning pyre. And yet, everyone seems to be just going about their daily lives. But then they attack. You run into a nearby house and barricade it with bookshelves and drawers, scrounging around for supplies. Then you hear it. The rev of the chainsaw. Not only must you deal with the homicidal villagers in a seemingly relentless onslaught, but now you must deal with a chainsaw wielding psycho who can take more punishment from a shotgun than should be humanly possible.
It’s an all-time great video game opening, one that throws the player in the deep end and forces them to adapt to the game’s rules. Crowd control is paramount, but so is keeping an eye on your ammo and health. At the time RE4 was first released back in 2005, it blew most people away. Gone were the tanky controls of the original RE games, replaced with an over the shoulder camera that has come to define third person shooters, for better and worse. Gone were the days of backtracking to solve comically unintuitive puzzles in an entirely unrealistic setting. In its place was a relentlessly intense campaign with some of the finest action seen in gaming up to that point.
It should come as no surprise, but I’ve always loved RE4. Everything from its expansive arsenal to its nonstop barrage of creative and interesting set pieces is extremely well designed. It used to be a game I played through at least once a year. However, with college and subsequently graduating, I left the Gamecube behind and hadn’t had the chance to pick it up in a while until it dropped on Switch. I was initially worried that maybe it isn’t as great as I remember it being in my head, but as soon as I booted it up and heard that opening monologue, my fears were laid to rest. Certain elements of the game are for sure dated (mainly in the controls) but once you get used to the game’s rules, this is still an unrivaled horror action game filled with too many memorable aspects to count.
The synopsis I presented in the first paragraph is classic B movie fodder through and through, and it only gets schlockier as the story progresses. You come to find out the reason for the villager’s hostility is a parasite known as Las Plagas, essentially alien creatures that act with a hive mind. And as you uncover the villains’ plot, it kind of falls apart at the seams. The stylish cut scenes go a long way toward making you not think about the seemingly infinite number of plot holes that the story presents, but still, the villain’s motivations and schemes fall apart when even the slightest amount of real world logic is applied to them. Still, there’s an air of self-awareness to the story that makes it more silly than some of the self-serious earlier games, and the mocap and voice acting are pretty good. You really need to turn your brain off to enjoy the story, but at the end of the day, it provides a framework to hang up the fantastic gameplay and set pieces on. Plus, Leon’s attempts at one liners and snarky comebacks are absolutely hysterical due to how bad they are.
As mentioned above, this game pioneered the over the shoulder perspective that has since become the industry standard for most third person shooters. Every gun you get has a laser sight that lets you target different parts of enemies’ bodies. And it should be noted that the first time you play through, you absolutely need to use leg shots to provide crowd control. Enemies are usually rather slow and single minded (with no regard for their fellow infected- seriously, watching a guy throw dynamite into a group of their own comrades is never not funny) but their sheer numbers can overwhelm very quickly if you’re not careful. Combat is all about management- managing the bullets left in your gun, your ammo reserves, your health, the amount of enemies that are approaching you at any given time, and your position. Perhaps the most dated aspect of the game is the fact that you can’t move while aiming your gun. Aiming locks Leon in place, and some might see this as clunky and dated. And while it’s true the somewhat stiff running controls, mixed with the fact that you can’t move can lead to a frustrating hit, once you adapt to this scheme you find it adds just another layer of strategy and resource management.
Another aspect of this game that some might see as dated is its difficulty. Unlike many games these days, where the challenge is only prevalent on the highest difficulty, RE4 constantly pushes the player to their limits. Room after room of baddies present new challenges to Leon. Sometimes you’ll be in a wide open space surrounded by enemies in all directions. Others might be the exact opposite, with the game throwing a small horde at you in extremely cramped spaces. Still other, bigger, more creative set pieces might see the player running around a two storied square room dodging machine gun fire, or pushing from one end of a grand hall filled with enemies to the other, or, in one of my personal favorites, managing enemies in a three carriage mine cart as you speed ahead to get a key item you need. The level and encounter design is, simply put, out of this world good and if you somehow have never played through the game before, you’ll find that there is a surprise at just about every turn of a corner. Like the story, the levels and encounters don’t make much real world sense (in the second act of the game in a castle, there are several rooms filled with lava for no apparent reason, a bottomless mine shaft where the mine cart track just ends, and for some reason a giant moving robot of the castellan that destroys everything in its path) but man does it make for enjoyable and challenging sections.
While most of the enemies you’ll fight are the standard Ganados, there is plenty of variety sprinkled throughout. Some enemies throw dynamite, some have shields, some have crossbows, and there are plenty of challenging special types as well, including a blind guy with blades on his arms, infected dogs with tentacles growing from their back, and the aforementioned chainsaw guy who, let’s face it, is a horror icon at this point. But some of the best encounters are with the boss battles. No boss encounter is like the others, from hulking giants, to a creepy creature with natural armor, to a thing that can only be described as an abomination, the bosses are a constant highlight throughout the game. I will say that the final encounter is surprisingly easy, but it’s still a lot of fun.
The main story is a nonstop thrill ride from beginning to end, filled with great levels that are fun to explore and a seemingly nonstop barrage of creative set pieces and challenges. But the game, upon completion, provides you with several bonus modes that offer some great unlockables and give you plenty of reason to dive back into the main story beyond just trying out different weapons. The first, and undeniably my favorite, is the Mercenaries. This is a timed challenge where the goal is to rack up as high a kill count within as little time as possible before the mission ends. There are four maps to choose from, three of which are based on the main game, with the last one being all new to the mode. On each map, there are time extending items, score multipliers, and even unlockable characters. Each character has their own separate loadout, item drop rate, and special moves. For instance, one of them is able to break the necks of flinching enemies, while another is able to change their arm into a sword and decimate anything standing in front of him (side note: I’m avoiding names in the event that someone, somehow is reading this without having played the game, but this latter character is absolutely my favorite to play as). Between the five characters, each with their own, very distinct play style, the four maps, and an unlockable weapon should you get five stars on all maps with all characters, the Mercenaries is an absolute blast. Not only is chasing a high score supremely addicting, but this is a superb way to get a quick fix of RE4 if you’re on the go since it distills the relentless action of the main game down into a mode that only takes a few minutes per play session. This Switch port was made for this mode, and even though I’ve already unlocked the weapon in question (no easy feat, believe me), I know I will return to it every once in a while just to try and get a high score.
Another side scenario that was included in the original release of the game lets you play as Ada Wong. You need to collect five of a particular item and make it to safety. This one is pretty fun, but on the short side, clocking in at 20 minutes- a half hour depending on how quickly you go through it. Ada is fun to play as and even though it reuses some environments from the end of the game, it’s still quite fun to play through and challenge yourself with. Completing this unlocks a special weapon in the side scenario that I will be discussing below, Separate Ways. This is a campaign that was added in to subsequent releases that I never got the chance to play until now.
Now, it should be mentioned that this is a great looking port. Most of the textures in the game look great and characters and cut scenes are crisp and clear. Even though it’s not the best looking game ever, this is still a really good graphical update. In Separate Ways, the cut scenes are positively abysmal. The resolution is extremely low. It looks like they created the cut scenes for the 3DS,then blew them up to fit a TV screen without actually increasing the resolution. It’s extremely distracting, and I really don’t know why the developers didn’t make this actually look better.
All that aside though, Separate Ways is a parallel campaign following Ada once again. It’s split up into its own levels, mostly reusing the same environments from the main game as you bounce from location to location as you pursue objectives that Ada did behind the scenes. The core combat is, of course, great and there are some fun new tools and a new weapon Ada can use as well (a crossbow that shoots exploding bolts- oh how I wish you could get it in the main game). There’s not too much to say about it aside from the fact that it’s fun and presents a whole ton more plot holes in the main story. There are times where you’re having a full on shootout while Leon is presumably in the same location and apparently the developers don’t know that guns are super loud and he probably should have been able to hear that. A particularly explosive set piece in a later chapter (in the campaign’s only new environment) really rips down the walls of plausibility that no one noticed Ada’s actions. But hey, you shouldn’t play this game looking for an air tight plot. This is an enjoyable mode that has some nice moments, particularly near its end, and ends with an original boss fight not seen in the main campaign. This unlocks another special weapon for purchase in the main campaign.
To top it all off, there’s an extremely challenging higher difficulty that unlocks yet another new and overpowered weapon upon completion. Suffice it to say, this game gives you some serious bang for your buck. It’s a master class in action game design, with a truly memorable main campaign and plenty of side content that will keep you coming back for more even if you’ve already beaten it.
RE4 has stood the test of time with this Switch Port. It’s still an unmatched game in terms of combat, level, and encounter design, and it’s constantly throwing new challenges in the player’s direction. You could make the argument that the controls are somewhat clunky by modern standards, and you’d be right to a certain extent. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to lose hours playing this. It did a lot to the gaming industry and its own franchise (such as the much maligned movement into a more action oriented direction) for better and for worse. But the thing is that, looking at the game itself, it’s tough to find much fault with it. On top of a truly fantastic main story, a whole suite of unlockables and side content that only adds to the replayability, you can now take this nice looking port wherever you go. If you haven’t played RE4 before, this is a must buy. And even if you have played it on some other system, this might still be worth looking into, especially if you’re like me and never got a chance to see the bonus content offered in releases past the Gamecube version. RE4 is still a monumentally fantastic action game, and one that has yet to be surpassed.
+ Core gameplay is challenging and satisfying
+ Story mode constantly switches things up, keeping the player on their toes
+ Great enemy and level variety
+ A great port job that brings the now rough looking original into the modern age with smooth graphics and sound
+ A huge amount of side content that only adds to the replayability
+ Mercenaries is a mode that could be its own release
+ A story that is enjoyably silly…
- … but man do you really have to turn your brain off to not get distracted by plot and logic holes
- The cut scenes in Separate Ways are, for some reason, extremely low resolution and look terrible
- Controls might take some getting used to for those unaccustomed to them