Resident Evil 4 Remake Perfectly Balances Serious and Silly

Resident Evil 4 Remake Perfectly Balances Serious and Silly in narrative and action at Capcom like a good Hollywood blockbuster

In the last 10 years, horror has reached for prestige. Auteur directors like Ari Aster marry layered, complex scripts to gorgeous visuals shot by Oscar-worthy cinematographers. In a recent episode of the podcast Unspooled, splatstick horror god Bruce Campbell remarked that modern horror movies don’t “have any wink.”

Horror video games have mostly kept pace with Hollywood’s new horror, with titles like Amnesia scaring the player with a more measured approach than just dumping monsters on them. Many modern horror games are terrifying but take themselves very seriously. Any hint of humor is banished, lest the game be lumped in with “kiddie” horror games like Five Nights at Freddy’s. The divide is clear: Adult horror games are about mental illness, and Twitch-ready horror games are about spooking kids.

Movies like Hereditary and The Lighthouse are sold on their art house bonafides, heirs to high-class shockers of the ‘70s and ‘80s like The Shining and Possession, but they’re not completely jokeless. Many modern horror games have missed the note that high-art horror doesn’t have to take itself 100% seriously all the time.

Enter Capcom’s revitalized Resident Evil. After a major reset with Resident Evil 7, which cribbed from the best in horror media circa 2017, Capcom has led the charge in making big-budget modern horror games that are well-designed, scary, and don’t take themselves too seriously. Resident Evil 7 and Village strike that balance nicely, but the remakes really impress.

The original Resident Evil 2 isn’t very scary, but its oddball charm and unique gameplay make it one of the most memorable games on the original PlayStation. Raccoon City is a bizarre place: an American city designed by a Japanese art team, and the strangeness seeps into the whole experience.

Resident Evil 4 Remake Perfectly Balances Serious and Silly in narrative and action at Capcom like a good Hollywood blockbuster

The remake of Resident Evil 2 updated the city’s design to make it feel more authentic to a small midwestern city circa 1998 — but kept the ridiculous name. The remake has amazing graphics and animation and a new third-person camera that makes everything feel realistic, but you’re still munching on green herbs for health and running around a place called Raccoon City. A terrifying giant invincible man chases you around the police station, but you can shoot his little hat off.

Manufacturing camp is tough. The original Resident Evil 2 found it through cultural osmosis. The remake took the initial concept and made it scarier and more modern — without losing the essential weirdness at the heart of the story.

Even before the remake of Resident Evil 3, anyone who knew anything about video games was thinking the same thing: Are they really going to remake Resident Evil 4? One of the best, most celebrated, most influential games of all time? And if they do, what do they change? How do you update a formula that modern action-horror games, and even their remakes, are still iterating on?

The plot of Resident Evil 4 is so absurd it could only be a video game, so the remake doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Right off the bat, you get an absolutely ridiculous exposition dump. After nuking an American city, the president of the United States hires Resident Evil 2 protagonist Leon Kennedy to work as a super-secret government agent. When the president’s daughter, Ashley, goes missing in the Spanish countryside, Leon is called to investigate and single-handedly rescue “Baby Eagle.”

It’s ridiculous, but the game plays it totally straight. There’s no obvious “wink” here; the wink is implied. Capcom knows the setup is stupid. The creators aren’t telling the player what to think of a 15-year-old video game plot. The player is in conversation with the storytellers.

Resident Evil 4 Remake Perfectly Balances Serious and Silly in narrative and action at Capcom like a good Hollywood blockbuster

When the intro is over, Capcom leans into the spectacular graphics of the RE Engine to deliver the expected dark, realistic, gory visuals, this time with a rural witchcraft vibe that is very Blair Witch. Within the first five minutes, you’re descending into the basement of a creepy old house in the woods festooned with hanging stick figures.

The first half hour or so of RE4 is pretty horrific. You watch a cop get burned alive, you brutally execute a few dozen villagers, and if you’re unlucky, you might get eviscerated by a chainsaw man. The beats are the same as in the original GameCube game, but the excellent graphics and a few new combat options keep the game feeling as fresh as it did in 2005.

Just as in the original, Capcom uses the Merchant character to break up the tension. Signposted by a bright purple flame, the inexplicably Aussie-accented merchant cracks jokes, buys treasure, and encourages you to upgrade your guns. This time, he has more to say beyond, “Is that all, stranger?” but what he’s really saying is, “I know you know this is a video game. We’re all in the joke together.”

People who aren’t horror fans don’t get that horror is fun, especially with a group. It’s why Twitch is stuffed with horror games and co-op ghost hunts like Phasmophobia. Resident Evil 4 is a single-player game, but supporting characters like the Merchant and Ashley, the president’s daughter, bring that midnight madness movie theater experience to the couch.

Let’s talk about Ashley. Though technically a college student, Ashley reads more like a teenager in the original. She’s in a very silly schoolgirl outfit, and the game can’t resist giving you a peek at her underwear. In the remake, she’s aged up considerably and behaves more like the daughter of the most powerful man in the world, someone who has been media-trained and has some leadership experience. They didn’t overcorrect and make her a karate expert or anything — Ashley is still useless in a fight — but she’s pretty cool under pressure.

Resident Evil 4 Remake Perfectly Balances Serious and Silly in narrative and action at Capcom like a good Hollywood blockbuster Ashley Graham

And the pressure is ridiculous. Resident Evil games are known for packing a lot of variety into their locations. RE4 goes from village to lake to castle to mine to military camp. It’s a remarkable achievement in pacing: In the span of half an hour, you storm a castle under catapult fire, trade barbs with a deranged member of the Spanish aristocracy, fight a bunch of guys wielding tower shields and morningstars, and then hide from a blind torture monster in a dungeon. All the while, you’re hunting for treasure and doing other video game bullshit. It’s ridiculously pleasing.

It’s not quite a horror comedy, but it balances the tension among scary, gory, and funny with the best of them. Like Drag Me to Hell, it knows when to scare you and let you laugh. It doesn’t have anything to say; there’s no lofty underlying theme, but there could be in the parasite infecting the villagers.

Leon and Ashley are both infected, and an interesting angle could be in the player controlling a character infested with a parasite that controls your actions. Capcom isn’t interested in interrogating its plot. The plot is there to drive you from set piece to set piece, and it does a fine job.

Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece of blockbuster storytelling. There’s just enough there to hold onto as the game sweeps you along on a bloody, funny, violent ride. Even if you haven’t played RE4, you’ve been on this ride before and will probably ride it again. No matter how often Resident Evil 4 is remade, remastered, and re-released, it’s always a ride worth taking, and when the game winks at you, it’s fun to wink back.

About the author

Colin Munch
Colin has been writing online about storytelling in movies, TV, and video games since 2017. He is an actor, screenwriter, and director with over twenty years of experience making and telling stories on stage, on the page, and on film. For The Escapist, he writes the Storycraft column about, you guessed it, storytelling in movies and video games.