Leon Kennedy gets new moves, and a more emo look, in the remake of <em data-stringify-type=

Leon Kennedy gets new moves, and a more emo look, in the remake of Resident Evil 4. / Capcom

Nearly two decades ago, I watched Leon Kennedy's head get sawed off at my local Gamestop.

It was 2005, and I was standing over the demo kiosk for Resident Evil 4. Special agent Kennedy was on a mission to rescue the president's daughter from a remote village in Spain, but it doesn't take long before he's beset by hostile townsfolk and a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Whereas many games slowly teach you their mechanics, Resident Evil 4 begins with exposure therapy, overwhelming the player with an immediate challenge.

I was hooked. I had never seen something so gruesome in a video game, never felt my muscles tense up quite that way. It was something new, something radical and exciting.

It's hard to overstate the noise Resident Evil 4 made on release. While a small minority of detractors believed it strayed too far from its survival horror roots, it went on to sell over 10 million copies and earn superlatives from critics. Gamespot's Greg Kasavin called it "probably the single greatest horror-themed action game ever created."

Leon can parry nearly anything now, however improbable.

Leon can parry nearly anything now, however improbable. / Capcom

In the last few years, Capcom remade both Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3, the former to great acclaim. We all knew a Resident Evil 4 remake was on the table. But when it was announced last year, I was skeptical. How? And more importantly, why? Resident Evil 4 still plays like a dream, has many good ports, and even recently got an HD makeover by way of a brilliantly realized fan project.

So this remake had to do the impossible: please fans of one of the most celebrated games of all time, while standing on its own merits.

For the most part, it does just that. Resident Evil 4 is a victory lap for what has been called the new "golden age" of Capcom. They've succeeded not by playing it safe, but by taking big design swings that make it feel like a brand new game.

Fixing what isn't broken

It was clear a Resident Evil 4 remake would modernize the original game's revolutionary (but now dated) control scheme. Back in 2005, it popularized the over-the-shoulder perspective later seen in classics like Gears of War and Dead Space. But unlike those games, Leon can't move while aiming. While that limitation never bothered me, it's become a sticking point for new players.

In this remake, Leon is much faster and more agile, but so are his enemies. They'll rush to corner you, forcing you to always be on the move. Aiming itself also feels weightier and more difficult. It's almost reminiscent of The Last of Us Part 2, where realistic animations make combat feel dense and heavy, but still responsive when mastered.

There are brand new enemies this time around, while some others get a complete makeover.

There are brand new enemies this time around, while some others get a complete makeover. / Capcom

Leon does get a new parry mechanic to even the odds, which allows you to block almost any attack with a well-timed button press. Using a knife to deflect the same chainsaw that lopped my head off in 2005 looks and feels ridiculous, just as it should. Despite his new emo look, Leon certainly feels more like an outrageous action hero than ever before.

In with the old, in with the new

The magic of the original Resident Evil 4 lies in its pacing. The game bursts with inventive ideas, enemies, and scenarios, and rolls them out relentlessly over roughly 15 hours.

I worried the remake would dilute that delicate alchemy. When the original Resident Evil 4 released, games didn't feel anywhere near as padded as they do today. The remake is substantially bigger, stitching together a world that feels more connected and organic. Added fog and darker lighting give the game more of a straight-up horror feel. You might not even remember what's new and what isn't: it's that seamless.

Outside of some very specific gameplay additions and changes, which I definitely won't spoil, this remake is pure fan service. The developers rely on knowledge of the original game's beats to surprise and delight. While the first half of the adventure mostly plays it straight, the back half takes risks with altered enemy designs, reworked boss encounters (or, in one case, a boss that was removed entirely), and completely new scenarios. The designers also moved away from the original's reliance on quick-time events.

Familiar areas get dramatic new details from added fog to moodier lighting.

Familiar areas get dramatic new details from added fog to moodier lighting. / Capcom

The Resident Evil series has always deftly balanced combat, survival, and puzzle solving. 4 scaled the puzzles back so far that they were sometimes insultingly simple. The remake makes them more rewarding, requiring the environmental deduction the series is famous for.

But I do have my gripes. Some additions to the Village section felt like padding. The original game had only a tiny gap between the first and second bosses, creating a sense of breathless tension. This time around, that stretch gets lengthened by an uninteresting fetch quest. Additionally, the game's new "side quests" are mostly collect-a-thons. They're fun diversions, but it's weird how many useful items the game locks behind them, and they slow progression down considerably.

"Where's everyone going...bingo?"

There's no doubt the writing in the original Resident Evil 4 was bad, but it's also beloved. Characters constantly drop quips and one-liners. Plot details emerge through laughably on-the-nose in-game documents (one letter left suspiciously out in the open is titled "Our Plan").

And so what? Is there not something fantastic about one of the best video games ever made — teeming with quality design choices — having dialogue no better than a straight-to-DVD Leprechaun movie?

But in recent years, prestigious games like God of War and The Last Of Us told moving epics by exploring the dynamics between two central characters. While Resident Evil 4 doesn't attempt such elevated storytelling, it's hard not to fault how the original portrays Leon and Ashley's relationship. Ashley comes off as a reactionary companion, a 'president's daughter in distress' lacking depth and individuality. In the remake, she's given new agency and utility, but her characterization remains thin.

Leon battles Major Jack Krauser in a climactic new redesigned boss fight.

Leon battles Major Jack Krauser in a climactic new redesigned boss fight. / Capcom

Still, the reworked narrative is a clear upgrade. Some characters stick around longer than they did the first time around, which benefits the gameplay and the plot. Capcom also attempted to weave the game's disparate story elements into something cohesive.

Most importantly, the remake preserves the game's signature camp, with iconic lines ("Where's everyone going? Bingo?") and a handful of new zingers. Unfortunately, they aren't delivered as charmingly: the original game's voice cast outshines the remake's.

Remaking the un-remakable

Listen: am I sick of everything I loved as a child, everything sacred to me, being regurgitated and "modernized?" Well, yeah. Perhaps the biggest issue with this remake is its very existence. Part of the reason Resident Evil 4 was so effective all those years ago was because there was nothing else like it. But the remake can't feel as fresh, no matter how hard it swings, because its so steeped in the original game.

But what Capcom has done here is create something that feels self-aware. This is an ode and companion to a classic rather than a faithful recreation. That's a bold choice, but a smart one.

Since 2005, many developers set out to emulate Resident Evil 4's frenetic pacing and bombast. But nothing felt quite like it. So perhaps it's fitting that, all these years later, Capcom turned out to be the only company that could fully re-bottle that magic.

Resident Evil 4 releases on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox on March 24.

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