Resident Evil 4 remake hands-on: Capcom's horror classic never felt better

Resident Evil 4 Remake
(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

Resident Evil 4 gets its makeover next year, marking the next chapter in a series of remakes spanning Capcom's horror classics. This latest undertaking could be the publisher's biggest yet, tackling what many consider to be its all-time magnum opus — one that forever changed the course of the horror genre.

The remake of the 2005 blockbuster takes a similar approach to its predecessors, aiming to preserve the "essence" of the source material with a modern spin to its gameplay. It's bringing what many consider one of the best video games ever made to a new audience, even if some creative choices might divide returning fans. Now, Capcom has provided a glimpse at what to expect from Resident Evil 4's return, proving it's on the right track ahead of its planned 2023 debut.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

While Resident Evil was a household name by the early 2000s, it's the fourth installment that broke the mold and embarked on a new premise. The project, directed by Shinji Mikami, looked to retain its defining survival horror themes with a larger emphasis on action. While Mikami garnered a name in the industry, later working on titles like The Evil Within, Resident Evil 4's changes were considered a risk at the time.

Resident Evil 4's most drastic shift was its over-the-shoulder camera versus the fixed camera angles and "tank controls" in prior entries. The increased combat also leaned on tropes from shooters, increasing its overall pacing, with a reactive sandbox presenting more emergent scenarios. The changes paid off, helping shape what's arguably considered one of the best games in history, racking up critical acclaim, and breaking series sales records at the time.

Recent attempts to remake Resident Evil games reimagined mainline games through an over-the-shoulder camera for the first time, whereas Resident Evil 4 demands a different approach. Being the first of the games to popularize the perspective, Resident Evil 4’s remake more closely resembles the source material, requiring a vastly different set of design sensibilities.

Resident Evil 4’s remake has remained under wraps until now, with merely a brief teaser trailer back in June during Sony’s PlayStation State of Play showcase. We’ve since spent time with an early slice of the game’s opening, providing initial insight into how Capcom looks to tackle its next remake. It’s mainly faithful to the original game’s charm, though Capcom has taken some creative liberties in shaping its narrative and gameplay for modern eyes.

The project follows a series of remakes from Capcom — until now, they’ve been hit or miss among fans. Resident Evil 2 made a slick transition to a new look and feel, and while Resident Evil 3 was a solid standalone product, it received criticism for fundamental issues, including cut content. Director Yasuhiro Anpo and producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi return with much of the team from Resident Evil 2's remake, providing some confidence that Resident Evil 4 will be done right. 

Resident Evil 4 Remake

(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

While Resident Evil 4 follows up on the events of previous games, including the returning protagonist Leon Kennedy, it's still a self-contained experience accessible to newcomers. The story starts with Leon briefed on a mission to rescue the U.S. President's daughter, prompting his search in rural Spain, searching for an isolated cult.

Capcom has reiterated its plans to remain faithful to the original Resident Evil 4, and some modernizations aside, that's evident in our initial hands-on. The look and feel of the game's legacy DNA is much clearer here, with progressive design decisions from the original still standing out, even against some of today's latest hits.

Trekking through Spain's virtual forests and cabins, the game's opening chapter remains largely intact, uncovering clues related to the cult and being slowly introduced to the game's primary threat, Ganados. We expect Resident Evil 4's remake to diverge from the previous narrative, although it's hard to understand the full extent of the changes in a 30-minute demo.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

Environmental changes are evident in side-by-side comparisons, rebuilding the game's setting around the latest tech. The update results in a much colder palette from the outset, with darker scenes casting sharp lights and shadows. These changes reflect more than a decade of hardware advancements and won't go unnoticed by those intimately familiar with the 2005 version.

It results in a darker, grittier take on the earliest events of Resident Evil 4, echoing similar changes made across other Resident Evil remakes. However, there’s still evidence Capcom has sought to retain the charm from the original, whether witty quips from Leon, to its outrageous chainsaw-wielding, potato sack-donning bosses.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

Resident Evil 4’s attitude to gameplay was what first separated it from the genre, all of which the remake hopes to capture. Capcom has opted to primarily “modernize” the title, bringing forward the same events, combat, and overarching mechanics, now adapted with a slew of adjustments.

The combat of Resident Evil 4 still holds up today, with its initial shift action demanding a much more complex sandbox than earlier mainline entries. Whereas past Resident Evil games leaned heavier into scripted set pieces, Resident Evil 4 provides more instances of player freedom without compromising on the details.

Resident Evil 4’s earlier village encounter is a prime example of this philosophy, recreated through a modern lens in its remake. Upon making contact with the infected villagers, Leon stumbles upon a village square. With an officer burning at the stake, it’s the first true insight into the barbaric cult before carnage ensues.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

(Image credit: Capcom Co., Ltd. (Screenshot))

This village was a defining moment for many Resident Evil 4 players at the time, abandoning what players had come to expect from the franchise. Once alerted to Leon’s presence, it’s a chaotic scramble for survival, with an entire village joining the chase. Players aren’t even provided an objective, leaving players hopeless to hold ground against the horde against overwhelming odds. It climaxes with the chainsaw-wielding boss, near impossible to kill, and uncomfortably on your tail.

This small village essentially acted as a self-contained sandbox, and Resident Evil 4’s remake embraces this at an even larger scale. There are further opportunities to utilize stealth here, scavenging resources before taking on the horde. You can still climb the bell tower, though stay put for too long, and the crowd will now tear it down. Our hands-on eventually ended with fire spreading through the settlement — with the local village cow eventually charging through on flames — adding new emergent scenarios beyond the original's scope.

While only a slice of what Capcom has planned for Resident Evil 4’s remake, the publisher has at least proven it’s on track to stay faithful to that identity. It's a new way for fans to relive the classic, but also poised to offer an opportunity for newcomers to experience one of history's best horror games in its full glory.

Resident Evil 4's remake is slated to arrive on March 24, 2023, headed to Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5, now with a planned PlayStation 4 launch, alongside PC.

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.