I don’t like zombies.
Zombies are hideous creatures. They smell terrible. Worst of all, they’ve become one of the most tired clichés in pop culture. Like vampires, zombies are freaking everywhere. In the past two years, we’ve had The Walking Dead, World War Z, Warm Bodies and an endless slew of novels and video games featuring these lifeless imbeciles.
To put it simply: Zombies have been done to death. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) I’m tired of zombies. Heck, I never liked them in the first place.
That said, why on earth did I play a Resident Evil game?
Fortunately, Resident Evil 4 doesn’t have zombies. Well, maybe fortunately isn’t the right word. RE4 replaces shambling zombies with murderous peasants, and they’re pretty scary.
Nearly a decade ago, a friend in Ecuador recommended RE4. “It’s excellent!” he said, or words to that effect. When I told him I wasn’t a zombie enthusiast, he said something like, “The enemies aren’t actually zombies. And they shout at you in Spanish! How great is that?”
I’d heard of the Resident Evil games, which consist mostly of players shooting zombies with guns. Not only do I dislike zombies, but (contrary to the impression I’ve probably given in my past few reviews) I don’t care much for guns. Games with swords and magic, or no violence at all, are more my cup of tea.
For eight or nine years, however, praise for this game kept popping up. Nintendo Power (may it rest in peace!) named it one of the best games of all time. Everyone hailed RE4 as an enduring classic. It became a milestone in the game industry, influencing several major video game series being developed today.
At last, I submitted to the inevitable and got my hands on the game. It was time to see what the fuss was about, and also to be shouted at in Spanish.
Is this bloodstained game truly the masterpiece everyone claims it to be?
It isn’t perfect, and it certainly ain’t pretty, but Resident Evil 4 is a remarkably good game.
RE4 begins with Leon S. Kennedy, a US secret service agent, dispatched to a remote village in rural Europe. The president’s daughter, Ashley Graham, has been kidnapped. Leon’s job is to get her back. Unfortunately for him, quite a lot stands between Leon and Ashley: crazed cultists, mutant abominations, scheming criminals and (of course) guys with masks and chainsaws.
The not-zombies of RE4 are called ganados. (That’s Spanish for livestock, by the way: a clever touch.) These peasants have gone murderously insane, and they’re actually pretty scary. I dislike zombies, but at least zombies move slowly. Ganados often run, brandishing axes and pitchforks, shouting threats in Spanish. (This may be scarier for those who don’t know Spanish; I found it funny when ganados sneaking up on me yelled things like, “Behind you, idiot!”) The madness of the ganados is eventually explained, but it remains unnerving to be constantly surrounded by crazed murderers. They look pretty normal, which makes their obsessive violence that much scarier.
The environments of RE4 are fantastically creepy: abandoned buildings, dying forests, unquiet crypts. The player is left with a frightening sense of isolation. There is no backup. There are only more ganados, with an occasional monster for variety.
This isn’t exactly a criticism, but I must point out the odd tonal shifts of the game’s environments. It starts in a dreary village surrounded by gray woods; the outdoorsy setting gave me Snake Eater flashbacks. Then the action shifted to a castle packed with puzzles, lava pits and suits of armor. It was like a level from a Legend of Zelda game. Then the game went all Metal Gear again with a high-tech military installation. These levels were creepy and well-designed, but they felt disconnected. I felt like a single character straying into two or three separate video games.
The core gameplay is superb. Shooting is simple with a useful (and apparently groundbreaking) over-the-shoulder perspective that allows for great precision. (I played the Wii version of the game, which allowed for convenient point-and-shoot motion controls.) Weapons can be upgraded, and items can be combined to increase their value or effectiveness. Treasures can be found and sold. Managing the inventory—usually a tedious chore—is a pleasant challenge, with players fitting items into a briefcase like blocks in a game of Tetris. Even a long-running escort quest, which I expected to be an excruciating nuisance, turned out to be kind of fun.
Best of all, Leon can suplex ganados. It isn’t as impressive as, say, suplexing a train, but it’s still pretty darn cool.
Then there’s the merchant. Oh, the merchant.
This ubiquitous salesman shows up the most unlikely places, apparently unperturbed by the roaming hordes of homicidal ganados, and sells the player guns. I found his frequent appearances and exaggerated cockney accent hilarious. Every time I stumbled upon one of his strange little shops, I wanted to hug him.
In the end, I have only two major criticisms of the game.
First, there isn’t much story. What little plot makes it into the game is communicated by hammy action-movie dialogue and badly-written notes scattered for the player to find. The gameplay and setting are superb, but the story is utterly cheesy. It would have been nice to have some serious dialogue to complement the game’s grim environments and gallons of gore.
Second, the game consists almost entirely of fetch quests, and most of them make no sense. There are nearly a dozen doors that Leon must open by retrieving some meaningless relic: an insignia, a pair of goblets, fragments of art and other rubbish. Much of the game consists of finding stuff to open stuff in order to find more stuff to open more stuff. The brilliant gameplay, clever puzzles and superb level design keep the fetch quests from getting stale, but I still felt like an errand boy by the end of the game.
A final note: In case you hadn’t noticed, this is not a game for young players. There is some cursing (mostly in Spanish) and lots of blood. It’s worth playing—but I recommend it only for older, tougher gamers. This ain’t a game for the kiddies.
I’m glad to have played Resident Evil 4. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to find that merchant and give him a hug.