A Resident Evil Retrospective
Trevor | March 29, 2023
In the wake of Resident Evil 4 (2023) I went back and played many older games from the series. In doing so, I am more convinced than ever Resident Evil 4 (2005) is lightning in a bottle, and the series has chased lightning ever since.
You never forget your first 90’s era Resident Evil game... especially if you didn’t grow up with them.
The Resident Evil series (known as Biohazard in Japan) has always been a divisive one, largely due to it's archaic and obtuse design decisions.
It’s worth remembering when the first Resident Evil came out, typical control schemes were not set in stone. These days, you can pick up any given first person shooter and have a relatively consistent expectation of what your dual sticks will do. In the 90s, this universal language was still under construction. If you pick up an old Syphon Filter game, for example, you may be surprised to discover the right stick turns you, and the left stick adjusts aim. At the time of release, this wasn’t unusual, but by today’s standards it's absolute lunacy.
The old Resident Evil’s treat your forward input as forward to the character model, not forward to your relative perspective. This means pressing left or right merely makes the character turn in place. When people describe “tank controls,” this is what they’re referring to. Newcomers expect a direction to correspond to their orientation, because that’s how 98% of other games work.
Let me take a moment to outline why this wasn’t a bad thing twenty years ago, and was even necessary. A hot take, but bear with me.
This deliberate movement heightens the tension. Your positioning and spacing relative to enemies is key to survival, and the oft-derided tank controls mean you can’t take either for granted.
The game is designed with your archaic movement system in mind. Zombies, Hunters, and even Tyrant himself move in slow, lumbering ways so you have time to assess and react.
Because you’re forced to stand still when you shoot, you have to make a deliberate choice on when to plant your feet and fire. Early Resident Evil’s were a test of your risk assessment and resource management abilities, not your aim or reaction time.
As a horror series, Resident Evil’s archaic systems did wonders to elevate the terror, and carved out a unique identity for the series.
Now for the punt.
Not all of this remains a good thing twenty years later. In fact, it started to show its age within only five.
As the series went on and more universal control systems became ubiquitous, Resident Evil’s adherence to this formula only served to hurt it. Fans of the series knew what they were getting, but as a result, the series became insular. Here’s just a few quotes from old reviews for Code Veronica.
However, no one could have guessed that Code Veronica would also be a step above all of its predecessors in almost every aspect, while still holding true to the established Resident Evil formula that we've all come to know and love.
- Ryan Mac Donald, Gamespot
They say you either love it or you hate when it comes to the Resident Evil series, but personally, I think that's a load. In my mind, either you love the game enough to put up with its clunky interface, or you don't.
- Brandon Justice, IGN
The general consensus at the time is the controls were a largely expected buy-in to playing a Resident Evil game. You either signed up for it, or you bounced the hell off. These quotes are from positive reviews for one of the most highly regarded entries (9/10 scores from both), and yet every review has at least one qualifying statement all the same. It was, quite frankly, impossible for critics to discuss Code Veronica without also acknowledging the glaring weakness inherent to the name.
It’s hard then, to overstate the importance of Resident Evil 4 and the risks it took to forcibly drag the series into the modern age, while somehow not designing away the unique feeling fans expected.
What makes Resident Evil 4 so special, in my estimation, is it managed to preserve all the tenants I laid out before while still retaining the bare minimum to feel like a Resident Evil game. Leon still has to plant his feet to shoot, which retains the tension and decision-making test of the old games, but other changes removed much of the existing monotony.
The oft-discussed changes include:
Leon moves in the direction you press instead of spinning in place. He’s still slow and lumbering, but he’s easier to direct compared to the preceding entries.
Quick knife access. Gone are the days of going into your inventory to equip a knife. Instead you’ve got a button to whip it out at will to break boxes or finish off downed zombies (or plagas, in this case).
Enemies drop ammo and healing items, encouraging more aggressive play.
However, if you were to ask me, I’d tell you these are the biggest ones.
In the old Resident Evil games, aiming for the head was no simple task. While you could aim up or down, they were binary states — which meant in order to land a headshot, a zombie had to be right next to you. While it may increase the tension, it felt weird and inconsistent, especially in a 3D environment. Why can’t Chris or Jill just aim for the head from down the hall?
Resident Evil 4 is the first in the series where the player has the freedom to aim for specific areas on the body, rather than a general direction. With this new shift in perspective comes greater precision. The use of the laser dot conveys this to players immediately — you’ve got to put that dot on them somewhere. Since Leon can’t move and shoot at the same time, the game hasn’t lost its decision-making test. On the contrary, it’s extended to choosing where to place your shots.
This on its own, however, would be nothing without...
Enemies in Resident Evil 4, especially the humanoid ones, react in specific and reliable ways to your shots. If you hit the shoulder, they rock to the side. Hit the legs, they drop to their knees. Hit the head, they stumble around. This gives you the power to control a crowd like never before, especially when you add in Leon’s new roundhouse kicks.
Even against the greater foes, however, ones who won’t be stunned so easily, Resident Evil 4 still provides particle effects and satisfying squishy sounds to convey you’re blasting correct spots. This player feedback is essential, especially in a game where every shot counts. It lets players know immediately if they’re doing something right, or if they need to adjust their aim or strategy. In the original Resident Evil, this existed in the form of blood splatter, but Resident Evil 4 takes it to another level by rewarding players with melee opportunities for triggering specific reactions.
The Attache Case
God bless the case.
Up until Resident Evil 4, your inventory was a series of squares. A knife took up the same space as a key, which took up the same space as a shotgun. Players spend an inordinate amount of time in the old games transferring items back and forth in storage, just to make space for the fourth blue hexagonal key needed to open the amber box to turn a crank or whatever. The only kind words I have for this tedious inventory management lie in the speedrunning community, where it’s fascinating to watch the pros plan a whole run around what items are absolutely essential.
For the rest of us, there’s now the attache case. Guns, herbs, and ammo all take up space relative to their actual size. Better yet, key items go to a completely separate page and stay the hell out of your case.
All of this means you’re still constrained in what you can carry, but gone is the tedium of shuffling keys in and out of your limited storage capacity to advance. The only bummer is you have to go into your inventory to equip a new weapon, which leads to a lot of menuing. But guess what? You had to do that in every other Resident Evil game up until now, too. In a historical context, this wasn’t unusual.
Starting in Resident Evil 5, you can finally bind weapons to your D-pad for quick access, a feature which has remained ubiquitous since. That’s all well and good, but let’s talk more about...
Resident Evil 5
First, a few words of praise for Resident Evil 5.
It still has Resident Evil 4’s excellent player feedback and aiming conventions, and narratively, it does a lot of work to tie up many of the loose plot tendrils left lingering from game to game. Wesker, the mysterious antagonist always working angles from the background, finally steps front and center. He may be chewing the scenery in every cutscene, but it’s enjoyable to watch.
However, Resident Evil 5 also marks where the series began to drift away from those key tenants I laid out earlier, starting with...
Action Supersedes Terror
Resident Evil 5 is a fun game, but I hesitate to call it "Survival Horror". Chris Redfield is an experienced soldier who’s seen it all by this point, so he’s never phased or afraid of anything happening in the game. Sheva and Chris also have military support and a full arsenal of weaponry.
I’m hard pressed, in fact, to point out a single example of something terrifying in Resident Evil 5 besides the boss monsters just generally being disgusting, leechy, writhing masses.
Inventory, Why Are You Like This?
We’re back to boxes only. Nine of them, to be exact. This time, your inventory has to be managed on the fly — no pausing the game for you. While I appreciate the idea here, this inventory system is a major step backwards. Now a shotgun takes up the same amount of space as a knife again. You spend half your time in Resident Evil 5 trading items back and forth with your partner to make room. This issue becomes even more compounded when you find new weapons out in the field, pushing your already bursting inventory to the brink.
The greater consequence of this, however, is the growing assortment of tools which simply never get used because they eat up valuable space. The stun rod seems fun, sure, but that’s one less spot for ammo or a gun. Even the bulletproof vest takes up a spot in your inventory — not sure how or why that works the way it does, but there you have it. A vest within a vest. Vestception.
Co-Optomized for Two People
This one isn’t necessarily a unilateral knock. It gives the game a unique identity, and it’s well designed to encourage teamwork. The melee attacks from Resident Evil 4 return, but this time Sheva and Chris can chain several together if they work in tandem. The limited ammo and inventory space encourages the two of you to diversify your weapons to avoid overlap. And perhaps most importantly, the game puts you in many situations where communication and teamwork is key. Aside from professional difficulty, it’s possible to continuously save each other from death when health runs low.
This is all fantastic... when you’re playing with a person.
Alone, Resident Evil 5 is hell. Your AI partner can’t wait to use every first aid spray they find, wasting valuable healing resources. There are multiple sections where Chris and Sheva are forced apart, and if your AI partner whiffs during these sequences, there’s nothing you can do to help. Your AI partner will even bodyblock your escape routes at times, trapping you in the doorway as B.O.W.s descend from all around.
There are also several puzzle rooms where the AI is programmed to sit in one specific spot until you solve it alone. Even if you end up bleeding to death, they won’t budge to save you. They’ll sit there, watching you die slowly like a roman emperor who just sentenced you to death.
Despite all these complaints, I really do enjoy Resident Evil 5, but the point here isn’t whether it’s a good or a bad game. It’s to illustrate how Resident Evil 5 was a tipping point. The series abandoned its survival horror roots, and while it still retains many of the mechanical changes from 4, it drifted away from why they existed in the first place.
In fact, as a brief aside, something stands out to me about reviews at the time for this one as well. Take these two quotes, for example.
Resident Evil 5's slow movement and gunplay take some time to get used to, and folks expecting a run-and-gun game may find the action too sluggish for their tastes.
- Lark Anderson, Gamespot
This, along with the real-time inventory system (which is always restricted to nine slots and can't be upgraded) keeps RE5 in a sort of limbo between full-fledged action game and methodical survival horror game. I didn't mind the control style (which you can switch up with alternate layouts if you choose), but it does feel a bit outdated.
- Ryan Geddes, IGN
Nobody had complaints like this about Resident Evil 4 (2005). While some of this one could attribute to simply advancing times (Resident Evil 5 came out three years later, after all) I think the overall tone plays a factor as well. In Resident Evil 4, it felt reasonable you’d move slow and careful in a horror setting. Meanwhile, Resident Evil 5 still uses the same control scheme, but is closer to a B-movie action film in tone. The restrained controls feel more unnatural as a result.
Any complaint I have about Resident Evil 5, however, pales in comparison to my feelings on...
Resident Evil 6
Resident Evil 6 is what happens when a lifetime of additions to a franchise reach a breaking point and the series smothers itself in its own lore. In an effort to try and give the sprawling cast equal spotlight, Resident Evil 6 is multiple games in one — none of which, in my estimation, are any good. I would even argue the focus on setting up a dozen narrative threads to resolve may explain why it feels like such little care went into the actual mechanics. Resident Evil 5 May have nudged the series further towards action, but Resident Evil 6 reached a messy fever pitch.
Looking back, I find it impossible to describe Resident Evil 6 succinctly. All three main campaigns are a genre-bending emancipation from everything one could call “Survival Horror”. Leon and Helena’s campaign has elements of horror, but both protagonists are so well versed and trained they never feel in danger. Meanwhile, Chris and his new partner Piers (who is somehow both a new and old war buddy) go on a militaristic B.O.W. killing spree, tearing apart zombies and monsters with speed and precision. Meanwhile, Sherry and Jake run from a giant B.O.W., not unlike the premise of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. However, Jake is a superhuman B.O.W. himself, which keeps tensions low. They also primarily run through active war zones, which is a... different kind of survival horror than the Resident Evil series usually goes for.
A Tangled Ouroboros
In re-examining these plot threads and the baffling directions they go, I believe I have identified what it is about Resident Evil 6 that never sat well with me, both in a mechanical and narrative sense.
Narratively Resident Evil 6 got, to use a colloquial term, “way too up its own ass.” It’s so bogged down in all its own lore and history that it ceased to be anything other than a game about itself and its sprawling twenty year history. It’s a series of interactive cutscenes, followed by non-interactive ones. It might’ve been better off as a series of feature films rather than a game, quite frankly.
Mechanically, Resident Evil 6 still has player feedback, but lost the reason it existed in the first place. The melee attack is now something you can do whenever you want, but without the same impact and power, it no longer functions as a crowd-clearing reward for well placed shots. Most enemies are bullet sponges who soak up your ammo, and worse yet, poorly telegraph their attacks. This problem seems to even spread its pervasive tendrils into the level design itself, which is, to be blunt, incoherent. There are multiple combat scenarios in Resident Evil 6 where the player is left unclear on what their goal is, and the lack of positive feedback on gunfire means during a boss battle, you can't tell if you’re even harming the opponent. This is especially obnoxious when paired with Resident Evil 6’s love of invulnerable, multi-staged bosses, where only the last form is actually killable. The other forms eat up all your fruitless ammunition and grenades until a scripted event occurs.
The only kind words I have for Resident Evil 6 have to do with the UI design. Every character has a unique UI and cell phone menu to correspond to their aesthetic.
That’s it. All the kindness I can muster up for Resident Evil 6.
The Series Since
The introduction of Ethan Winters marked a much needed reset in the Resident Evil series, in my estimation. Introducing a new protagonist who stumbled blindly into a world of reanimated corpses reignited the lost survival horror roots once more.
However, when I look at all the design decisions made in the franchise across 7, Village, and the remakes, almost all of it harkens back to design decisions first established in Resident Evil 4.
Resident Evil 2 (2019) and Resident Evil 3 (2020) brought back the over-the-shoulder perspective and unique hit feedback. While you can move and shoot at the same time now, everyone still moves at a lumbering pace, especially when moving backwards or aiming. Village is perhaps the most obvious return to the sensibilities of 4 by far — it opens with a similar enemy gauntlet in an unfamiliar town, brings back a mysterious merchant, the attache’ case, weapon upgrades, and is even divided into distinct locations reminiscent of 4’s aesthetics. A mansion, an industrial wasteland, and a marshy lake with a large creature swimming about.
There may come a day where a new Resident Evil appears which will redefine the genre, but for now, every entry exists in the shadow of Resident Evil 4 (2005) — a shadow which has only grown larger as the new Resident Evil 4 Remake carves out a future for the franchise once more, bringing the seminal entry into the modern age.
Resident Evil 4 (2023) is now available on PC, PS5, PS4, and Xbox. For the time being, playing this game on a PS4 is not recommended.
Most Resident Evil 4 (2005) images are pulled from T@P's inaugural stream here, from eight years ago.