Well over 10 hours into Resident Evil 4, there's a pertinent moment that says a lot about the game's essence.
Leon S. Kennedy, our hero and veteran of Resident Evil 2, has bettered all manner of mutated meanies -- villagers with significant social shortcomings, a giant fish with an appetite for former Raccoon City police officers, midget castellans -- prior to going one on one with a turncoat ex-comrade, Jack Krauser. When the pair's quick time event-guided knife fight is interrupted by the intervening Ada Wong, Krauser departs with some pertinent prose: "You may be able to prolong your life, but it's not like you can escape your inevitable death, is it?"
The Guile lookalike is on the money. Despite the player's continued attempts to preserve Leon's immaculate just-to-the-side parting, by keeping him stocked with first aid sprays bought from some creepy, clearly teleportative trader (who forever refers to him as "stranger" -- surely this repeat custom warrants a friendlier welcome, not to mention a discount?), you simply can't avoid the bloody lettering that spells out your repeated demise: "You are dead."
Resident Evil 4 -- Almost Every Possible Death (spoilers!)
Die, die, and die again. This is the pattern of a first-time playthrough of Resident Evil 4. As someone currently between consoles -- well stocked with seventh-gen games, but yet to make the expensive leap to the main contenders' shiny new boxes -- I've been turning back the years to attack titles that, for whatever reason, I missed first time around. I'm sticking to the so-called classics. And Resident Evil 4 is firmly amongst the sacred cows of console gaming.
The game was featured as an Untouchable by Edge in 2012, although Silent Hill: Shattered Memories design director Rhys Cadle's comments didn't exactly sell it in the greatest play-this-immediately light. "I look back at the experiences in games that I cherish," he told the magazine, "and Resident Evil 4 didn't really have any of those."
I can relate. Played today, after so many games that it has quite clearly influenced -- from Dead Space to Gears Of War, not to mention a slew of second-rate survival horrors -- Resident Evil 4 can feel like a real slog at times. It's a long game, made longer still by cheap deaths and controls that feel prehistoric compared to subsequent third-person shooters. Aim for headshots and Leon's feet stick in the mud -- the game moves from frenetic, kinetic adventure merging supreme atmosphere and high-energy action, to locked-in-place shooting gallery. Played on the PlayStation 2's second-gen DualShock pad, responsiveness can be lethargic -- a killer scenario when presented with unforgiving QTEs.
It could be argued that I'm playing it on the wrong system. Resident Evil 4 began life as one of the Nintendo GameCube's 'Capcom Five' -- the other titles set to be exclusive to said platform being Killer7, Viewtiful Joe, Dead Phoenix and P.N.03. The latter did remain GameCube-only, but Dead Phoenix was never released and the other three games found their way to the PS2.
So it's the GameCube Resident Evil 4 that remains the 'true' original, but for its PS2 port Capcom crammed in some enticing extra content. Play through the game once and you unlock Separate Ways, a bonus mini-campaign starring Ada Wong as protagonist, as she tracks Leon's movements in pursuit of his quarry: the American president's daughter, naturally. Of course, you've got to reach the end first, which isn't easy off the back of newer games with a gentler difficulty gradient. As if it needs repeating: Leon is going to witness a lot of death on this mission, mostly his own.
We're not talking Dark Souls levels of punishment, but Resident Evil 4 will test the patience of those unwilling to accept its loose concept of fairness. It's entirely possible to overcome what seems like a formidable foe in easy fashion only to be unexpectedly beaten by base-level grunts. One example of this happens to me relatively early in the game's mid-section castle setting.
Sent down to a prison cell to activate a switch turning off some pretty impassable fire, I swiftly defeat a mean-looking but completely blind garrador -- to return to a Street Fighter II parallel, think Vega gone Game Of Thrones -- only to be surprised moments later by generic monks bearing crossbows, lurking around a corner. And it's not even Leon's death that prompts the restart -- it's the president's daughter, Ashley Graham, who dies.
When in Leon's company, Graham's a constant target -- for enemy weapons, and your own if your aim's somewhat off (unlike BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth, this NPC colleague will go down under friendly fire). When she dies, it's game over -- no bleed-out window of opportunity to administer some herbal remedy. Acting as a chaperone amongst the chaos, Leon can issue but two instructions to Ashley: stay put, or follow behind. But never assume that anywhere is wholly safe to leave her alone -- on more than one occasion I found myself backtracking desperately to save her from the clutches of the game's antagonists, Los Illuminados, failing to do so, and then restarting only to die myself in grizzly circumstances. And then do it all again. And again. And again.
And yet, onwards I battle. Every time I think that Resident Evil 4 has defeated me, that it's got me floored, that I think it's just too old to engage me, I fire up the PS2 again and edge a little nearer to its quite ridiculous final boss battle. Through the trudge, a grim grind through a gallery of grotesque adversaries, I find reasons to love this game against my better judgement, as antiquated as it is experienced for the first time in 2014. And it really does resonate with that so-difficult-to-design X factor: the quality that presses the player to pick up their tossed pad and try again, just one more time.
I see how its over-the-shoulder perspective is as influential to games-makers as Pong's paddles were more than 40 years ago -- even with the whole concrete boots thing. I drink in the hammy dialogue, clattering through conversations with helpful NPC Luis Sera without really minding that his attentions are as much on Graham's chest as they are saving anyone's bacon. His referring to breasts as "ballistics" is undoubtedly the least tasteful moment in a game featuring innumerable alien appendages erupting from the grimy bodies of hairy foreigners.
Cadle called Resident Evil 4 a "blockbuster" several times in his Untouchables exchanges, but the game lacks the sort of constant-excitement characteristics synonymous with today's chart-toppers -- it can't compete with the breathless nature of your average Call Of Duty campaign, or Grand Theft Auto V's ever-increasing spectacle. Rather, by contemporary standards it's a B movie of enduring intrigue, where the quirks and kinks -- slightly rusted mechanics, schlocky storytelling and schizophrenic puzzles -- ultimately become part of its overall appeal.
Its tension has slackened a little, its aesthetics have become fuzzier, its action focus inarguably responsible for a pre- Outlast and Alien: Isolation diluting of survival horror's truest terrors -- although The Evil Within is something of a return to type (even down to its zombie reveals). But seeing Resident Evil 4 through to its somewhat James Bond-like, sunset-over-the-sea ending, feels more fulfilling than finishing several subsequent games in this (sometimes bafflingly) enduring series. In the context and company of its myriad brethren, it truly earns sacred status.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.