‘Resident Evil 4’ – In Defense of the Island Section and How the Remake Could Make It Better


An unattainable ideal, perfection is out of reach for any artist, whether they are composing a symphony, developing a prestige TV show, or writing an epic novel.

Even those who are assumed to be masters of their respective crafts have to compromise from time to time. Not to mention, they are also susceptible to plain old human error. Scorsese movies are beset with glaring continuity blunders, Mark Twain infamously glossed over a confusing typo in Huckleberry Finn and, if you want to be a stickler for anatomy, then Michelangelo’s David is technically missing a muscle at the back.

Yet no one in good faith would ever criticise those slipups, because they make no tangible difference to your enjoyment. Who cares if an early print of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road incorrectly substitutes the word “beach” for “bench”? What matters is that you’re totally immersed in the story he’s telling.

In fact, these trivial blemishes actually serve to remind you that even the greatest works of art stem from fallible (albeit very creative) people, which is what makes them so compelling in the first place.

Difficult as it might be for us to admit, Resident Evil 4 is no exception in this regard. Although it was lavished with praise upon its GameCube release way back in 2005 — and has been extolled with every subsequent port — some flaws are tough to ignore. Ashley Graham immediately springs to mind, but some corners were cut in the development as well.

Even Masterpieces Have Flaws

Like any other video game (acclaimed or otherwise) Capcom’s iconic trailblazer had a mercurial production and faced behind-the-scenes woes. Cycling through several directors, the vision for Resi 4 underwent many fundamental changes over the years, before eventually morphing into the classic that we know and love today.

The earliest version of the title, helmed by Hideki Kamiya, was considered too radical a departure from the Biohazard formula and ended up being repurposed as the first Devil May Cry. Meanwhile, the elusive Hallucination Build (featuring the incorporeal “Hook Man”) was scrapped after the team realized its ambition exceeded the technical capabilities of Nintendo’s sixth-generation hardware.

Taking it upon himself to get everything back on track after these setbacks, Shinji Mikami then assumed directorial responsibilities. Yet, by the time he took over, the project was already in a state of disarray, and he was basically inheriting a poisoned chalice. A lot of development time had been squandered on abandoned ideas, the release date had been shifted once before, and they were in a position where they were effectively starting again from scratch.

It may not be particularly evident in the finished product, but compromises had to be made in order to meet the tight deadlines. For instance, Mikami has admitted to hastily churning out the game’s story in a three-week blur and that he isn’t especially proud of his slapdash writing. Likewise, some of the late-campaign areas didn’t receive the same amount of TLC as those nearer the beginning.

The point is, there is certainly room for improvement in Resident Evil 4. While it’s only inevitable that fans would get precious about any changes made to the object of their noughties nostalgia, the imminent remake needn’t be viewed as sacrilege. After all, there is an opportunity to address some genuine faults here and it’s not like the original isn’t readily available on every platform under the sun.

A Controversial Finale

For many, it is the climactic island section that is in most urgent need of a rejig.

If you’re not familiar with Resident Evil 4 (perhaps hoping to dive into this new iteration completely blind) it has a well-delineated three-act structure. The first third consists of you battling through a rustic, vaguely-European village that’s populated by a horde of demented cultists.

After making it through that ordeal, the middle chunk then takes you through a gothic castle that is ruled over with an iron fist by a diminutive Napoleon-lookalike. One who has a weakness for ostentatious interior design, giant mechanised effigies of himself and fun theme park rides that get him from A to B. Look, it’s a weird game, okay?

Throughout these two expansive maps, Capcom keeps shaking things up with fresh challenges and monster types. One minute you’ll be taking potshots at villagers from a mountaintop cable car, the next you’ll be trying to take out a deep-water leviathan using harpoons, fighting a pair of blind gladiators, or traversing an inexplicable lava base. Suffice it to say, it never gets samey.

That is until you hit the third and final act, where the action is relocated to a militaristic prison compound out at sea. From here, it doesn’t exactly go off the rails, but you get a sense that the title has already peaked, with the unhinged creativity and madcap set-pieces of the earlier chapters giving way to a barrage of repetitious firefights.

Resident Evil 4 has always been blamed for setting in motion the franchise’s transition away from the horror genre in favour of souped-up action (an approach that RE5 and RE6 disastrously leaned further into). However, it’s only really the island portion that takes this bombast too far, as the developers otherwise managed to strike a deft balance between scares and pyrotechnics.

Indeed, the third act is just a little too reliant on mini-gun-toting soldiers, helicopters raining down destruction from above, and vehicular chase sequences. There aren’t even that many enemy variants to keep you on your toes. In the words of popular YouTuber, The Completionist: “While the first two [thirds] are plenty engrossing, a generic island full of commandos is a bit of a bore in comparison. Rotting farms and windswept hallways are hard acts to follow when you’re [dealing] with some dudes hanging around some tents.”

In all fairness, this problem isn’t unique to the fourth game, as it’s practically a tradition for Resi outings to peter out with their least interesting environments. Whether it’s the bland labs of RE Zero, RE1, RE2 and RE3, or the dull boat section of RE7, the last stop on your tour is always guaranteed to be an underwhelming come-down. Those industrial and/or clinical settings just don’t have the same creepy vibe as their predecessors.

Nevertheless, the dip in quality is felt a bit more acutely in Resident Evil 4, because you end up spending a good 4 to 5 hours on that island. As such, you begin to notice things like the comparative lack of variety, the drab visual aesthetic, the lesser atmosphere, and the repetitive shooting gallery encounters, to the point where it all starts wearing thin.

In Defence of The Island

A quick Google search will yield results for a number of forums in which people debate the pros and cons of the prison compound, with the vast majority of commenters identifying it as the worst part of the game. In a thread titled “Anyone else hate the Island in RE4?”, harsh terms like “mind numbing” and “filler” are thrown around, while a few fans indicate that they wouldn’t be heartbroken if the upcoming remake simply omitted the environment altogether.

Aside from the fact that this would require a massive retooling of the whole narrative — so that it doesn’t abruptly end after the castle — it would be a shame to lose all that content. Because even when you accept the conventional wisdom that the penitentiary represents Resident Evil 4’s absolute nadir, there’s still a lot to love about it.

For a start, the escalation of combat does make sense when you think about it from a player-journey perspective. Over the course of the last 12 or so hours, you’ve been made to feel helplessly underpowered, surviving only by the skin of your teeth against teeming waves of hostiles, chainsaw-wielding lunatics and near-invulnerable creatures.

It’s therefore quite cathartic to have a denouement that lets you channel your inner Rambo and finally turn the table on Los Iluminados. By this stage in the game, you will likely have amassed an impressive loadout of tuned-up guns anyway, so it’s only fair that you be encouraged to use them.

The island’s larger scale set-pieces grant you ample opportunity for this and you’ll have a blast mowing down opponents with your Killer 7 magnum, mine launcher, TMP and semi-auto rifle. It’s almost as if you get to undergo your own empowering character arc, evolving from a vulnerable, out-of-their-depth horror victim to a cocksure ‘80s action hero.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Resident Evil is not Silent Hill. The franchise has never been psychologically incisive or subtly unnerving in any way whatsoever. Rather, every instalment goes out with a literal bang, as you typically dispatch the main antagonists using a conveniently-placed RPG or some kind of sci-fi weapon. Even the relatively stripped-back RE:7 culminates with a towering kaiju lifting you up into the air, so having a sequence wherein a helicopter provides air support doesn’t seem too incongruous with the established brand.

Speaking of which, how can anyone not derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the glorious spectacle here? The pulse-pounding truck chase, the hectic chopper assault, the ludicrously cheesy jet-ski escape; regardless of whether you think it’s appropriate for Leon’s adventure to be so action-packed, you’ve got to concede that this stuff is pretty thrilling.

None of this is to say that RE4 outright rejects horror the second you get to the island though. On the contrary, some of the title’s most distressing moments can be found in its closing levels.

Case in point, there’s a genuinely alarming scene, occurring shortly after you first arrive at the penitentiary, that stands out as one of the best jump scares in any Resi. Catching you off guard by having an ablaze enemy (affectionately known as “The Oven Man”) leap out of a furnace to grab you, it’s initially startling.

But the dark implications are what truly stick with you. Did somebody else lock him in there? Could he have gotten out at any time? Did he consent to being lit on fire? Was he just waiting for you to pass by? These questions go unanswered, leaving the mysterious origins of the oven man to prey on your mind until long after you’ve put down the controller. It’s far more disturbing than people give it credit for.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the island without also conjuring up traumatic memories of the most daunting antagonist in Resident Evil history: the Regenerador!

Alongside their Iron-Maiden cousins (the spikier ones), these formidable mutants are capable of instilling profound dread, even after you’ve procured a tactical vest and an arsenal of devastating firepower. Their beady red eyes, jaws lined with razor-sharp incisors, raspy panting noises, and twitchy movements make them immediately frightening, but the fact that they can regrow limbs is just the icing on the horrible, horrible cake.

In order to vanquish them once and for all, you’ll need to destroy the internal parasites that are keeping them alive. The catch being that you can only detect said weak points via the use of a thermal scope attachment for your sniper rifle.

By forcing you to rely on a long-range weapon in a panicky close-quarters scenario like this, the developers make you feel as though the regeneradors are always a few steps away, breathing right down your neck. And it never fails to get under your skin.

The Remake Could Elevate the Island

Summarily cutting the island from Resident Evil 4, as fans have proposed for the remake, would mean sacrificing some of its best bits. There’s no justification for getting rid of all those high-octane set-pieces, underrated scares, and memorable boss battles (the U-3 and Jack Krauser duels are both found near the very end of the story).

Fortunately, it has been confirmed by producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi that the last third hasn’t been axed. In fact, a dedicated team is concentrating on making sure that that area is as strong as it can be. So, if anything, we’re probably going to be treated to a beefed-up version of the penitentiary when the remake launches in March.

Based on Capcom’s track record, that’s reason enough to be excited. After all, prior to the excellent 2019 version, no one cared much about Mr. X in Resident Evil 2. He was a footnote in the series’ canon and paled in comparison to his more imposing younger brother: Nemesis. However, the remake elevated the trenchcoat-wearing tyrant into a bona fide icon in his own right, and similarly breathed new life into the lickers.

Imagine then, what they could do with the regeneradors, as they were already fucking terrifying to begin with. Rendered in higher fidelity graphic using the RE Engine and taking advantage of the dismemberment mechanics from Resident Evil 2, they could easily top Mr. X or the harrowing baby from Village.

Elsewhere, the development team have the opportunity to inject a little more variety into the island encounters, give the environments some much-needed visual flair, and ever-so-slightly dial down the pyrotechnics. If they can manage that, then the area is not a lost cause by any stretch. Rather, it has the potential to overshadow everything else that came before.

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