A while back, I did a list of some of the scariest moments from the original Resident Evil. That game stands to this day at the top of my list of memorable horror experiences in video games, but I have only dabbled in the sequels. I skipped the second due to being a late-comer to the PlayStation era and having too many other games to play, but I managed some time with Nemesis at a friend’s house and was duly impressed, but having bought an Xbox for my next console, I was denied the opportunity to play the most highly-regarded entry in the series yet.
Resident Evil 4 attained instant classic status when it was released in 2005 on the Gamecube, presumably during one of those brief phases when Nintendo tries to show how not kid-friendly they can be. Eventually, the game made it to every other platform that wasn’t the one I owned, including PC and iOS. It wasn’t until 2011 when the game was brought into the next generation with a HD re-release that I finally got a chance to see for myself what everybody was talking about. Having finally gotten around to revisiting the last great Resident Evil game for the first time, I was not disappointed (aside from that stupid laser thing they used in the first movie). These are the moments that made me grind my teeth to nubs with anxiety and are going to stick with me for years the way they’ve already stuck with most gamers.
Village of the damned
What sets apart Resident Evil 4 from previous games is that it doesn’t rely on jump scares or shocking imagery. It puts the player’s character in legitimate danger in terrifying situations and lets the horror happen naturally. Very early in Leon’s journey to rescue the president’s daughter, Ashley, from a mysterious cult you enter a village full of people who clearly ain’t right. So you go in and figure you’ll just shoot them all and be done with it. It’s the first chapter of a video game. Easy peasy.
Rather than going with the same ol’ same ol’ Romero-style living dead, RE4 confronts the player with mindlessly psychotic humans more reminiscent of Romero’s The Crazies. The very much living peasants communicate with one another and slowly-but-inevitably advance on Leo in a very unnerving manner, growing in numbers the whole time. Before you know it, you realize you have nowhere near enough ammo to empty this village and are in full retreat mode. And to quote Stephen King: you’re not running, you’re scampering. Running implies purpose. The first time you play this, you’re just panicking in fear for your virtual life and aimlessly fleeing to extend it a little more.
The game doesn’t tell you what to do or where to go and I was just getting re-used to the terrible Resident Evil control scheme. Every path is a dead end, all of the exits are locked, old men are chucking hatchets at me, every turn seems to be a dead end with another crazed mob, you can’t attack and move at the same time, and dear God that dude with a bag over his head has a chainsaw! I died about a dozen times before I figured out you had to enter a certain house to get a cutscene and then just survive long enough for a tolling bell to summon the lunatics elsewhere. It’s the kind of old school “fuck you, figure it out” difficulty that you just don’t see very often anymore and while it drove me nuts at the time, it made for one of the most memorable opening chapters to a video game ever.
Who’s a good doggie?
Not you. While Leon searches for Ashley yet again, he receives a transmission from that creepy little wannabe-Napolean bastard Salazar taunting you by proxy with an invitation into his hedge maze. Who even has those anymore? Anyways, this can’t be good. And of course the creepy becomes horrifying when you find that the maze is being patrolled by Colmillos, wolves infested with the Plaga parasite that are probably the single nastiest thing you encounter in the game.
This section is beyond panic-inducing. You can hear the snarling coming from all around you as you creep along through the narrow rows, sure that there’s one behind you all the way. Every time you turn a corner, you’re expecting to be face-to-face with a too-wide mouth full of teeth. While a lot of the enemies in RE4 are content to advance on you slowly and rely on numbers and hardiness to wear you down, the wolves come flying at you like terrifying guided missiles.
When you draw a bead on them, they actually dodge to the side before diving on you for a classic “wagglethestickwagglethestickwaggletheOHSHITIJUSTDROPPEDIT!!!” workout that ends with your heart beating like you just ran a hundred yard dash even though you were really just working a joystick. What I’m saying is, I hope you brought a goddamn shotgun. This is definitely the most viscerally scary section of the game. Apparently, they skip it altogether if you play on easy mode because you couldn’t possibly handle this awesomeness if you choose the wimp option.
So at one point you end up in a lab with some horrible monstrosity lying on a table in a locked room. Surely this demonic creature is dead and therefore a non-factor. Surely. Even knowing what’s going to happen, it’s hard not to get freaked out when you hear smashing sounds and turn to see the door is now wide open with a walking nightmare filling it.
Regenerators are one of the scariest things ever. They move very slowly, letting their upsetting toothy grin do the heavy lifting, but true to their name they don’t go down easy. You blow their head and limbs off; they grow right back. And worst of all, they have this horrible labored breathing that assures you always know when one is around even when you can’t see them, making every moment a torture chamber of dread anticipation. This is a prime example of Resident Evil using sound to induce terror even when nothing scary is onscreen.
To take one down you need to kill the individual invisible Plagas parasites all over its body. There is a special scope you can attach to a rifle to locate the targets, but since I didn’t have a rifle on me at first the terror of Regenerator encounters was heightened by the fact that I was wasting so much precious ammo firing blind while the beast tirelessly pursued me. In Resident Evil 4, ammunition equals life like water in the desert. Damn you, you vile asthmatic bastards!
What have they done to Wolverine?
In another moment you totally saw coming, Leon and Ashley find a man (or something) in an iron mask with his eyes sewn shut all bound up Hannibal Lecter-style in a cage. And I’ll be damned if the switch you need to flip to progress isn’t in the cage with it. Well, it’s a damn good thing that creepy looking sumbitch is all chained up, yeah?
Walking into that cage is one of those moments where you know what’s going to happen, but you’re freaked out anyways. As soon as Leon gets close enough to properly induce a panic attack in the player, the Garrador bursts free and brandishes his gigantic metal claws at you, I hope you had the common sense to leave Ash at the top of the stairs. Since he’s all armored, his only vulnerable spot is the exposed Plagas on his back and since he’s blind, any sound-generating movement or action on your part will send him hurling at you with claws a-slashing to dice you proper. If you don’t move, he’ll find you soon enough anyways.
I was too stupid to figure this out the first time I encountered one, but the bells in the room can be shot to send the Garrador running that way, exposing his back to Leon for some easy Plagas-busting. Instead, I used incendiary grenades and mine thrower to take it down the hard way. I died lots. Thankfully, I figured out the smart way when I had to take two at once later on.
It’s not a proper video game adventure without some sort of subterranean excursion, so our hero takes to the sewers beneath the Plagas-worshipping Los Illuminados’ castle fortress. Naturally, something extra nasty is waiting for him down there and I don’t just mean the excretory leavings of an entire community of parasite-infested zombies, cultists, and mutated creatures.
Say hello to the Novistadors. Their name translates to “The Unseen”, which is fitting because these guys have active camouflage, making them difficult to spot as they move quickly on floors and ceilings. At least until their eyes glow as they drop they become visible, which is crazy creepy. Once they reach you, they jump right up in your face and spray you with some sort of nastiness until you shake them off and give them a lethal dose of lead.
In addition to a very tense ambient noise soundtrack, the unsettling calls of the creatures are everywhere in the sewers. Along with the dark, confined surroundings and splashing footfalls of extremely aggressive invisible enemies this makes one a tad uneasy. Once you complete your tasks, the entire sewer begins audibly buzzing with insectoid insanity which creates an irresistible need to GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE.
In fact, I’d say that Resident Evil 4 does a pretty damn good job in general of making the player desperate to get through each ordeal, if only to greet the next one. Even though Leon is usually well-armed to take on his enemies, the game still manages to inspire sustained dread throughout. It’s definitely held up exceptionally well over two console generations. Beating the game felt like a huge weight was lifted from my chest. Good riddance to a great gaming experience. But wait. Ada Wong has her own story mode too now…
Well, shit. Here we go again.