Forget about misplaced film analogies, I’m starting to think Resident Evil 4 might be the Abbey Road of video games - not just a title that shook the industry and course corrected everyone even thinking about flexing their own creative muscles in its wake, but also arriving fully formed after years of refinement and experimentation, effectively acting as a thunderous mic drop for their creators and the years of work that preceded it. In fact, this game has been so universally and thoroughly praised, that the idea of picking it apart critically feels futile.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to denounce a modicum of this game’s quality here. Anything I say for the rest of my mortal life that resembles intense negate criticism of RE4 ought to be interpreted as a cry for help, and the authorities should be alerted of my status immediately. What I am suggesting though, is that it’s monolithic status in the industry has likely steered away modern critics from really digging into the systems to discern what really makes the package sing. “Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games of all time” is a sentiment that’s as natural as breathing to most (myself included), so why even bother trying to justify that notion? I won’t be challenging that instinct today, as breaking down every positive element to RE4 would be an exercise in futility at this point, but there is a single ever-present thread that permeates through the game’s massive campaign that I would like to discuss today.
Call it a theory (a game theory, if you will) but I think many modern “gamey” games have taken RE4 and its sneakiest qualities for granted, or just completely missed certain brushstrokes that brought the game together. It’s hard not to love everything here, obviously, but something that really stood out to me on my numerous recent playthroughs was how RNG influences every corner of play across the game’s massive campaign.
We all know by now how masterful Resident Evil 4’s restricted control scheme is, but in my eyes, the reason why is due to everything else surrounding the control scheme. Say for the sake of argument you’ve just cornered yourself in a room with a dozen Gonados. A fate worse than death in a traditional action game, but it shouldn’t be too scary here due to Leon’s plethora of ranged options, right? If you’ve played RE4 before (and if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing here?) you know that encounters rarely play out in such a breezy fashion. Enemies and their movement patterns are erratic, their attack options are multifaceted and frequently require different countermeasures, and the silent difficulty scaling that pulls the strings on normal mode means you always have to stay on your toes to fight for your survival. This dynamism swings in your favor too, with critical hits and item drops occasionally feeling like the determining factor between success and failure during bouts. Even in the most ideal of circumstances you always have to stay on high alert, with every layer quickly crumbling with the slightest of breeze and collapsing over your plan near constantly. It’s miraculous how you can play one room over and over again with a vague route in mind, and things can still go wrong.
The item drops are another point too: while the game gives you far more ammo than you could ever need, relying on one weapon will all but guarantee its depletion, forcing you to fall back on other options until you find more ammo. It’s easy to rely on the shotgun due to its range and power, but it feels like for every encounter where you want to fall back on it, another harder fight is sure to come soon. Despite the clearly uneven power scale between your arsenal of weapons, the game somehow remains near-perfectly balanced for an entire playthrough as a result of these micro-decisions you’re forced to make every 5 seconds.
Loot drops from villagers and the economy as a whole also go great lengths towards effecting Resident Evil 4 long-term, but it's revealing to me that even on the highest threshold of difficulty, it's something you never actually need to engage with. Due to the strength of universal options like the knife and invincible melee attacks, combined with the breadth of ways to use crumbs of ammunition for even the weakest guns, you always have a strong chance of survival. The core gameplay design is so tight knit that even the addition of an in-game shop that lets you sell every weapon and item in your arsenal simply exists as a way to mix and match gameplay styles on the fly, and try out distinct strategies in a way that feels totally customized to the player and no one else. If you want to sell everything just to max out the Killer7 at the very end of the game and kill the final boss in 8 shots, you can do that! If you want to kill off the Merchant entirely and only use the tools the game is guaranteed to give you, go for it! You’re all but directly encouraged to do so. That’s true dynamism.
Considering everything at play, from Leon’s limited control to the intense variables that shift the playing field with every passing second, it’s fair to say the outcome of the game is at the mercy of RNG in some way. Generally speaking I’m wary about this flavor of design - I always like to have control over my inputs and consequences if I have the dexterity to overcome a challenge, so the idea of a spinning wheel of numbers guiding me towards (or away) from victory isn’t something I normally want to engage with. This may be why I’ve gravitated towards fighting games as a competitive outlet over the past decade, as their mechanics are so cut and dry that the only thing standing in the way of success is my own skill (and often, my hubris).
Resident Evil 4 isn’t like the other girls though. The core mechanics and encounters are so good on their own that the designers didn’t need to weigh down on the player in other more heavy handed ways. It doesn’t need to randomize the shape of rooms to differentiate encounters, weapon stats are never clashing up against the power level of enemies in a way you can’t be expected to work around, and the player is still largely in control of their success at all times despite factors that are genuinely out of your control. Even an enemy randomizer, something that has been proven through ROM hacks to still add to games in meaningful ways, is simply unnecessary when you have a campaign so tightly packed with variety and interesting scenarios. The unpredictable elements that do come into play simply follow the player and force them to engage with the mechanics in cool and interesting ways - no more, no less. It’s one of the more elegant threads of randomization I’ve ever seen, and is a clear sign from the designers that they absolutely knew what they were cooking with. Capcom created perfectly optimized systems around the simple act of pointing and shooting, and could be as hands off from the player as possible to let the design of this suplex of a game speak for itself.

Reviewed on Mar 08, 2023


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