No game has ever grabbed me like Resident Evil 4. I bought it in January 2005 when it was new, and I have been playing it ever sense.
It is easily in my top five games ever, and on certain days, I am convinced it is the best game I have ever played. The game is a precise, vicious masterpiece that understands what is expected of it and knows how to play with those expectations to create unique experiences.
There are many aspects of Resident Evil 4 that immediately resonate with people that love video games. The graphics are beautiful, even in 2016. The game isn’t quite as terrifying as other horror games, but the art creates an oppressing tone and the expertly crafted music can make your skin crawl.
The gun combat is often critiqued because you can’t run and gun, but planting your feet every time you fire forces you to be thoughtful about the weapons you use and the positioning of your targets. Beyond the tactical side of combat, the weapons feel great and appropriately powerful. Also, the game has arguably the greatest headshot animation in video game history.
The plot is B-movie stuff, involving a pretty boy American agent who is a bad enough dude to save the President’s daughter from a cult comprised of parasite infected Spaniards. The game knows better than everyone how ridiculous the proceeding sentence was. What follows is glorious cheese such as this:
A lot of games have good graphics and gameplay, but Resident Evil 4 mastered the art of pacing, for arguably the first time and certainly the last time in the series. And it does this with level design and progression almost exclusively about finding keys.
You enter an area, find a locked door, and then are off to find the key item that unlocks that door. Sometimes a boss has a key item, maybe you have to solve a puzzle, maybe the key is actually a switch or crank, but the result is always the same: There is a locked door and you need to open it.
Resident Evil 4 is far from the only game to be structured around opening locked doors, especially in the horror genre. Unfortunately, there are many poorly made Steam games where you do nothing but click around rooms looking for keys and trying to avoid telegraphed jump scares.
Resident Evil 4 excels in making you forget that you are looking for a key in the first place. The game guides you to where you need to go through both subtle and blindingly obvious visual cues and populates the journey with memorable and varied encounters. Here is one example.
Chapter 3-1 is one of the longest sub chapters of the game, and also kicks off what is probably the longest key hunt in the game. You have just escaped the infamous village section of the game are taking cover from a horde of possessed madmen by hiding in a creepy castle. Surprise, surprise, the castle is full of hooded, face painted cultists. About halfway through the chapter, you are encountered by the main bad guy of the castle portion of the game, who taunts you and then promptly walls off a path to get to him. In order to unlock the door, you have to obtain three stone slabs that make up a chimera like beast and place them in the wall.
Even though your main path is blocked, finding out where to go next is pretty simple. To your right, there is a typewriter (the game’s saving mechanic) and a door. Immediately, the game is giving you a clear visual cue that this is the direction you need to be headed in. Opening that door leads you to an area devoid of enemies, but with another locked door on your left and a seemingly open path dead ahead. After rounding a corner, your path is blocked by a fire breathing statue. Don’t fret though, the painting to your right contains a key to the prison, which is the other locked door you passed moments earlier.
Open up the prison and you are encountered by a Garrador, a blind beast with giant Wolverine-esque claws who can only be damaged tiptoeing around it and shooting it in the back.
Defeat the Garrador, pull a switch in a prison cell that stops the flames, and continue along your way. In this short amount of time, you have had to do two smaller key fetches and fight a sub boss to do it. From there, you end up in the notorious reflecting pools cultists fight, one of the toughest of the game. Beating this section involves sending Ashley onto a platform to turn two cranks while you cover her using your sniper rifle.
It might not seem like it in the moment, but all of these smaller goals are leading into the larger goal of opening that original, closed door. Every time I play the game, I sort of forget about the chimera keys, because the game quickly pushes me into tense fights with horrific, challenging enemies.
The first piece of the chimera isn’t obtained until halfway through Chapter 3-2 after fighting invisible bug creatures and avoiding a cultist on a mounted minigun. You get the last one in Chapter 4-1, kicking into another marco key hunt, with many more micro key hunts therein.
Resident Evil 4 isn’t completely perfect, I admit. The plot might be too cheesy for some and Ashley can feel like a real load at times. However, the way that it mixes large, overriding objectives with smaller moment to moment ones is the key (pun slightly intended) to its nearly peerless pacing.