Before you even think about Resident Evil 4 Remake as potential game of the year for 2023, there’s something important you need to consider… Now, we know all the original’s early-2000s lads’ mag humour has no chance of making the cut here, but what about the mystery guy in the green jacket? One of gaming’s longest-running and most thought-provoking conundrums – and not least because the only thing we know for sure is he dies at the end! In case you’ve been living under a Chinese boot for the last twenty years, there’s a bit in a military compound towards the end of the game where, if you peer through a certain crack in a certain crumbling wall and into the far distance using a souped-up sniper rifle scope, you can just about make out a figure in a green jacket on an island near a ruined radio tower… Amazingly, no one spotted this until 2017, and to this day no one knows who it is, but if you want to know my opinion, you can read the very extensive investigation into all that nonsense I did here. Otherwise, let’s move on!

My history with Resident Evil 4 is almost as mysterious, which I also went to great lengths describing here when I did a deep-dive a while back, but to cut a long but fascinating story short, I was a day one veteran of the original Resident Evil on the original PlayStation and then everything in between (although how much I actually played some of them after I bought them is questionable), but when this arrived for my GameCube in 2005 I just didn’t like the look of it! All brown and dreary in all the screenshots, and where were my zombies? So I didn’t play it, for a very, very long time! And then I did, and after an hour or so of fumbling with the GameCube controller, it clicked, and before long it wasn’t all brown and dreary, and there was more to life than zombies, and then suddenly this wonderful thing was one of my top three favourite games of all time and it’s not often I’ve not had a game on the go on one platform or another ever since!

I dearly, dearly love Resident Evil 4, so when this remake inevitably got announced, it was greeted with mixed emotions. I loved the recent remakes of its predecessors, and was blown away by Resident Evil Village, and for this to get the same treatment is a dream come true, but all the same, we’re talking very, very sacred ground. Even if I am a born-again convert! It’s not only me though, of course, and this thing is much more widely considered the granddaddy of the modern action-adventure game, so there’s some big boots to fill all around, as well as that big green puffa jacket! What we’ve been promised by Capcom since the announcement at last June’s Sony State of Play is preservation of the essence of the original game, while introducing modernised gameplay, a reimagined storyline and vividly detailed graphics, resulting in the survival-horror we’re presented with here “where life and death, terror and catharsis intersect.” And with that, we should see how they did…

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. It’s incredible, I love it, and I’m going to be confused for some time about how this all translates to my top three games of all time list! We have a veritable masterpiece on our hands here, and I (almost!) wish this was my “first time” because that impact combined with the way it now plays might even make it more than top three! And now we know where we stand, we can get on with this properly! We find ourselves six years on from that time former cop Leon S. Kennedy survived a bio-organic catastrophe caused by the Umbrella Corporation in Raccoon City, which you can find out more about in the second Resident Evil game if you so wish! Otherwise, he’s had a distinguished career as a special agent ever since and has now been tasked with tracking down the US president’s daughter, Ashley, who’s been kidnapped by a mysterious cult called Los Illuminados that the latest intel suggests is shacked-up in an isolated village in rural Spain. And with that, the new nightmare begins (and credit to Sony for illustrating this better than I could), as it emerges the villagers have been infected by a mind-controlling parasite called Las Plagas, which the cult’s leader, Osmund Saddler, also plans for the president with a bit of help from his similarly infected daughter once she’s back home, thereby kicking off his conquest of the world. And what a tale that’s about to weave for us!

Before you even think about weaving anything though, you’ve got what might be some of the most intense long minutes you’ve ever experienced in a game to negotiate first, not to mention what is arguably the new definition of survival horror! After the shock of being instructed how to crouch, no less, and a surprisingly “horror” initial encounter in a house that wouldn’t look out of place in a field in rural Texas in 1974, you’ll wind up in the village you’re after, and following the game’s first proper bit of shock, you can sneak around all you like but within seconds all hell is going to break loose and it’s focussed on you! All it takes is one of the zombified villagers to spot you – which is inevitable – and you’ll have the whole mob on your tail, and from there it’s a desperate chase to find just enough space to get a shot away at whatever happens to be in front of you to give you space to get running again, jumping through windows, running up stairs and slamming doors shut behind you before finding a way out onto a roof, down to the ground and doing it all again! It’s terrifying because it’s so pointless, and the game’s inherent (default) difficulty just magnifies that as you’re backed into one corner after the other, firing blindly, kicking and shoving your way through the ever increasing mass of former-humanity as best you can while keeping an eye out for a medicinal herb or some extra firepower to grab as you stumble by which might just give you half a chance. It’s not about fighting back anymore though; you’re simply surviving until you can reach the next gap between a fence or ladder up to somewhere to then try and survive the next encounter… And then you hear the chainsaw!

I can’t think of any other game that’s created such a sense of desperation so quickly, but for every time you’re overwhelmed you’ll also notice odd chinks of light (at least before your eyes get poked out) – things you could have tried instead, such as finding some way to set fire to a cow then letting it do some of your dirty work for you or even just checking the door across from where you just met a grisly end because there might be something in there worth taking or at least an alternative escape route. It’s hard but not hopeless. By the way, without spoiling too much, there’s a church bell involved in this initial chaos – what would happen if you could make it ring that at the outset, I wonder? Bingo! While I’m not sure it ever has the same impact, this intensity makes frequent repeat appearances throughout the game’s twenty or so hours, with more or less survival or horror or plain old action thrown into the mix on top, but for the sake of your sanity it does let up sometimes too! And coming across a blue-flamed torch is the greatest relief of all because that means the Merchant has set up shop somewhere nearby, which also means total safety for as long as you’re there, as well as a save point, some goodies to buy or sell or trade, weapon upgrades, notices of optional money-making side quests and he might even have his all-new shooting range in tow! Serious line-up of weapons he’s got here too, with all your upgradable favourites like sub-machine guns, sniper rifles and Magnums that all just feel so good to fire, as well as a new bolt-thrower that lets you retrieve what you’ve shot for fewer worries about using ammo.

I’m not going to level many criticisms at this game but it’s a good place to throw the couple I do have out there… The Merchant doesn’t sound right to me. He sounds like an impersonator of the original, which, strictly speaking, is probably the case, but his cockney delivery just sounds a bit flat in comparison. The other one is a few glitches that will probably get ironed out over time; for example, there’s one scene a couple of hours in where you need to get to a trapdoor but if you kill the guy near it and he lands on top, you’ll put your hand straight through his corpse like it’s not there to then open the door, and once you raise it he’ll rag-doll around on its edge before being flinged off! There were a few times I saw similar but it’s all forgivable. In terms of other key characters, both Leon and Ashley, once you’ve got her, are tolerable at the least and sometimes their cheesy dialog makes them even seem vaguely likeable! Ashley is thankfully still not too much of an irritation once she’s in tow, but is in constant danger, especially now her health bar has been replaced by going down after one hit then being killed after the next, as well as you not being able to just chuck her into a dumpster for a bit anymore – it’s either stay close or stay back. Recurring friend or foe characters like Ada Wong and Luis Serra are full of camp drama, but for that you really need to turn to big bad guys Saddler and Salazar, who couldn’t be more visually ominous but also any more pantomime villain all at the same time!

Voice acting is perfectly passable in a Resident Evil b-movie script kind of way – it’s exactly what you imagine and you’d be disappointed if it was any other way – but anything it lacks in Oscar-worthiness is more than compensated by the outstanding environmental sound design! There’s always something to hear, and it’s usually something you don’t want to hear, and this can act as a strange counter to the story’s frenetic pace – it might want to shove you along to the next big set piece but you’re not going anywhere fast when you can hear god knows what scratching or shambling around somewhere close by but unseen, or moaning or screeching or making some unearthly gurgling as whatever it is circles you and waits for you to be at your most vulnerable before it strikes. Or not. Doesn’t make it any less terrifying either way! Other sound effects are realistic and impactful, guttural and panic-inducing, and they’re everywhere, just like your anxiety! Speaking of which, I nearly forgot all that menacing occult praying and chanting stuff too. Top-drawer spooky! Without having thought too much about like-for-like comparisons, the soundtrack seems comfortably familiar and still totally over-dramatic but also seriously beefed-up in its instrumentation, and it’s always blockbuster. Does a marvellous job at dragging you through those big set-pieces and boss fights too!

Apart from constantly having to free my leg from bear traps, if there’s one thing I could do without in any game is boss fights, but if I’ve got to have one then give me Del Lago, the lake monster, in this game! David and Goliath and then some, with you precariously perched on a tiny boat as it surfaces and lunges and vanishes into the deep again, but like most here it’s pretty straightforward once you’ve got a fix on their strengths and weaknesses. And ideally a rocket-launcher early doors! The cast of bosses ranges from super-human to supernatural, and giant to grotesque and sometimes both, with returning “favourites” and a few new ones to make up for some omissions, although I’m sure there’s always DLC to come for those! One big omission from the game in general are the old quick-time events, so that knife fight with super-bad super-soldier Krauser is going to rely on those melee skills you’ve perfected by that point instead! As well as being about to crouch now, Leon can also shoot while he’s moving. It’s an outrage! While combat doesn’t quite reach the rhythmic finesse of a Batman Arkham game for me though, this new-found fluidity does allow for more combo-like fighting as you shoot, kick, suplex and stab your way around groups of enemies, taking advantage your environment for more on-the-fly defensive and offensive strategies.

As alluded to earlier, shooting down a fiery torch on top of any enemy (or cow!) and having their panic start a murderous chain-reaction, or running into a crowd with chainsaw-guy swinging wildly on your tail, or just blowing-up some ne’er do well with his own stick of dynamite never gets old either! Knife combat has been mixed up a bit too, for better or worse, with durability of your weapon becoming as much a concern as your stock of ammo, but you do get a cool parry (that’s never cooler than when you do it on a chainsaw!), stealth kills and last-second defensive saves, and in reality weapon-life is easy to manage. As long as you’re managing that all-important inventory properly! By the way, credit to Capcom for the cool parry screenshot here. The iconic attache case for all your stuff is obviously unchanged, although there’s a nice auto-sort button press if you’re lazy and a storage option for when you’re at one of the typewriters where you save your game, which eases making gut-wrenching decisions about what you can pick up and carry and what you can’t when you can send if there for later instead. Crafting medicines and ammo has never been simpler, so don’t worry if that’s not your thing either, and there’s a few more subtle but noticeable quality of life updates like quick-swapping weapons with your d-pad rather than messing around in the inventory, or a simple button press to boot open a barrel full of booty rather than a cumbersome knife slash in the original. The former is particularly useful when engaging with regular enemies – even infected old ladies with pitchforks – who seem to have a new-found unpredictability (rather than any significant boost in intelligence), particularly in comparison to the bosses, and will often demand a new approach depending on how the fight is progressing. It’s not all about small groups of dangerous farmers and chanting cultists though – there’s a ton more bizarre things to kill, from zombie dogs to flying parasites, super-infected hammer-wielding minotaurs to hollow suits of amour with tentacled-plague waiting for you to knock the helmet off, and let’s not forget those scary Regenerators, the relentless triple-plagued fleshy monstrosities that just won’t stay down without some very precise assisted shooting!

I know I’ve been jumping all over the place like an excited loon, but in my defence I have intentionally been saving my own two biggest highlights until last! Firstly, horror never looked so good. You can be in the heat of close combat or admiring some distant fairytale vista, up to your neck in pig swill or admiring some velvety gothic exuberance or other, it doesn’t matter; it’s a feast for the eyes! And such flavours too, with nothing left to chance and no space left unfilled, whether a scene of squalor or luxury, military drabness or luscious forest. Amazing what a few bits of animal carcass dangling off a bit of string will do for a place! Joking aside, it’s a sinister as it is beautiful, with dense backdrops and sprawling ramshackle structures encouraging wonder and trepidation all at once. This is enhanced by the third-person camera view, over the shoulder and a bit further behind, successfully treading the fine line between seeing as much as possible at once and personal engagement. The overall look is anime-realism, meaning maximum shock without going uncanny, and speaking of maximum shock, those headshots are as brutal as you’ll hopefully ever see! So juicy! Apart from the odd glitch I mentioned above, I didn’t experience any slowdown or anything like that, and I should also mention I was playing in resolution mode rather than framerate mode. Because I’m not a pervert!

A story as ludicrous as this one has no right going on as long as it does but it works so it does and I’d take the same again! As well as skipping a few “mechanics” you really need to experience for yourself the first time, I’ve tried to avoid giving way too much of the narrative here because as bonkers as every chapter will usually be, each plays its part that you’ll look back on as a whole when you come out of the other side and wonder how the hell you just did that! Its biggest success for me is its pacing though, as it funnels you – without ever feeling particularly scripted – through its diverse and impossibly interconnected environments. We’ve talked a bit about muddy shanty villages full of poverty-stricken wooden shacks and dilapidated farmsteads, but that’s just the beginning! You’ll criss-cross great lakes surrounded by maze-like multi-levelled fisheries and cave systems; you’ll explore grand villas and sprawling castles full of some of the craziest, scariest and most spectacular rooms you’ll ever see in a game; there’s mines and military strongholds, profane churches and inhuman research labs, and you’re going to have an absolute thrill-ride (sometimes literally!) being terrified through every single one! Along the way there’s puzzles to solve, plenty of scope for backtracking and getting more out of where you’ve been, treasure hunts, secrets to find, all that other stuff we’ve covered and every reason to keep going back for more ad infinitum, just like I do the original!

There we go then. It’s great, and unless a certain Hollow Knight sequel decides to make an appearance and is utterly spectacular, that’s game of the year discussions more or less settled too! Maybe… Everything that made the original great is lovingly present and correct and then some. The meandering story remains compelling, it’s pacing relentless, the intensity likewise, and its characters never more tolerable, and on top of all that, it looks more stunning than it ever did, while the sound design is truly terrifying! It even plays like a modern survival horror – running and shooting at the same time, crouching and sneaking… What a time to be alive! And what a remake this is, not only taking the original and running with it 2023-style but somehow also reinforcing why it’s one of the finest, most influential games of all time and feeding all of that back in again. But what about our mysterious friend in the green jacket? Well, there’s still the aforementioned bingo references for those in the know but after all that teasing at the start, that’s as much as I’m giving away here, so you’ll just have to wait until December and see where it ends up when we do the game of the year countdown! Or, in the meantime, if you’ve read this far, just play it and find out yourself. Best one since Resident Evil 4!