It’s set up perfectly and genuinely scary. Being put into intense situations without knowing what to do is a running theme in the game. The entire game is made up of moments that push your abilities to the limit in increasingly nightmarish contexts. They just keep getting better as the game goes on. Normal enemies can be subtly off, whispering malevolently. Others are literal monsters or disturbing experiments.
I was on the edge of my seat when I played it for the first time. I really didn’t know why I wanted to keep playing it. I think it was the feeling of overcoming a terrifying situation with skill. Enemies hit in certain parts of the body can be stunned, allowing you to run up to them for ammo preserving melee attacks. Getting those down, memorising enemy formations and listening for audio cues of certain enemies can lead to you turning desperate situations around in spectacular ways. Depending on how good you are at the game it can be completed in a day or several weeks. If you die it’s almost always your fault.
Then there’s the brilliant sound design. Music plays when you’re fighting an enemy and you hear creepy ambience when you’re “safe”. But the game uses this to mess with you. In one section you walk down a corridor and begin hearing this. You look around but can’t see anything. You can only keep walking forward and dread what’s coming. On the other hand music sometimes only starts playing once you’ve spotted an enemy or when they’ve attacked you. Looking around a still room you might catch a glimpse of an enemy eye-balling you from a distance. They’ll begin moving towards you as the music fades in.
Different enemy types have distinctive sounds. It’s great from a gameplay perspective as you can use it to plan your approach. The game messes with you with this as well though, always playing these sound effects at the same volume regardless of whether the enemy is close or far away. The castle area I mentioned earlier has hooded cult members for regular enemies. You can always hear their sinister Spanish whispering in the castle, but you’ll never know where they are until they ambush you. You always feel unsafe.
The first time through you feel like you’re getting through by the skin of your teeth. Playing it again makes you realise how well designed the game is. New enemies and challenges are almost always introduced at a distance. In a sewer level you drop down into the pipes and hear a loud metallic thud and heavy scurrying footsteps, but see nothing. Moving forward through a long corridor you hear cicada-like chirping and see some slime coming from of the corner in front of you. As you move towards it you realise there’s an invisible monster at the end. As you approach it scurries further on into the level. It’s scary and very soon you have to face swarms of them at once. It’s smart because it’s chilling, teaches you how the monster sounds and what its special ability is. The game is full of moments like these, giving the player enough time to think through a situation while keeping them on their toes.
And the story is hilarious. Almost everything about the gameplay is terrifying. In the cutscenes everyone moves like they’re in The Matrix. The main character is a too cool secret agent who has great bad writing. The first time through I was too busy shitting myself to notice, but things like the bad guy’s goal being to take over the world and great dialogue like “No way Leon” “Way” make the game a lot more likeable. Ridiculous moves like the suplex are satisfying to pull off as well.
Even the extra content is great. There’s another agent investigating the same town as you, but you rarely meet. After you finish the story you can play as that agent as you leave clues for the main character that you found in the main game. It’s fun way to expand on parts of the story. There’s also Mercenaries mode where you hold out as long as you can from hordes of increasingly tougher enemies. It takes the scariness out but the fighting system makes it really fun. Taking care of a mob of enemies with a well timed kick or trapping enemies together for a grenade blast to techno action music is cathartic.
RE:4 is full of memorable things whether they’re scary or funny. Writing this has made me want to play it through again. One of the best games ever in my opinion.