The setup: you’ve just rescued Ashley, the president’s underwater squirrel sidekick…er- the president’s claymation 10-year-old Christian… hmmm, the president’s daughter, OK, that’s the one. It’s very dark and very raining; you’re en route to the rendezvous point where you may or may not be rescued; you’re just getting used to handling Ashley, and then, as you cross a bridge, a cutscene shows about a million villagers approaching from behind. With no alternative – the way forward, another bridge, is blocked by more baddies – the pair hotfoot it into a small house, surrounded on all sides by an army of blood-thirsty villagers. Cue a bizarrely nonchalant cutscene worthy of any cult B-movie inside the house with a hotblooded Spanish gent (who it turns out later is a ridiculously accomplished scientist!?) complimenting sixteen-year-old Ashley on her “ballistics”, before wham, whodathunkit, the baddies are banging the door down and smashing windows. Ashley goes and hides in a cupboard upstairs, while you and the Spaniard prepare for a siege.
I am strongly of the opinion that when Resident Evil 4 rebooted the series, as well as jettisoning the awkward controls and item management, it also lost the fear factor. RE4 is not scary. What it does have, something which makes up for the horror aspect in spades, is tension. That’s why I want to write about the siege of the cottage that comes towards the end of the initial village area. The village area, which you play through in chapters 1 and 2, serves as an incredible introduction to the world and gameplay of Resident Evil 4 and is a ludicrously accomplished, fine-tuned slice of gaming that could stand as a great game in its own right. The village is a five hour rollercoaster ride which ratchets up dramatically in tension towards the end, moving from one epic boss to a crazy setpiece to another epic boss in ever-swifter succession. To give this particular moment some context, the cottage siege is preceded immediately by the El Gigante fight (I hope you rescued that wolf at the start of the game!), and is followed by a remixed rematch with El Gigante, and/or, depending on your choice, a first encounter with the bloody terrifying insane chainsaw ladies. (Masochists can and are recommended to do both, since both areas contain a valuable treasure and give plenty of money.)
Onto the siege, the ambush, the Assault on District Bedroom, whatever you want to call it. This setpiece has been my lasting memory of Resident Evil 4 since I first experienced it on Gamecube, and reliving it recently was not disappointing. One of the best things about this setpiece – there is much to like – is how it allows you to act out a classic horror film like Night of the Living Dead in miniature. There’s nowhere to escape to, no deus ex machina to rescue you: you are trapped in this house, with only some flimsy wood at hand to prevent the crazed zombie-types from getting in and overwhelming you with sheer numbers.
Better still is that the game doesn’t break the fourth wall to tell you, the player, what is going on: there’s no reassuring “Survive for three minutes!” pop-up, no timer anywhere that suggests there will be an end. The enemies simply keep coming, and you have to react. Despite pushing bookshelves and dressers in front of the windows and doors downstairs, it’s inevitable that those baddies are getting in, to the point where it becomes almost, almost completely overwhelming fending the horde off with your guns and grenades. Eventually you and your Spanish buddy, who has been a big help feeding you extra ammo and dispatching a good few zombies himself, are forced back into the narrow stairwell, and Luis yells for you to come upstairs and defend from there.
It’s not a moment too soon either, because these cunning, not-really-zombie villagers are putting up ladders to the upstairs windows! So between running around, knocking down the ladders at three different windows at the same time, dealing with the strong baddies still rushing in from downstairs, and those peeps who do make it up the ladders, your hands are becoming ever-more tied, your ammo and healing items are running low, the tension is still rising, and there’s still no end in sight.
Eventually, of course, the siege finally ends in that upstairs room, but the conclusion does not consist of help from an outsider, a massive explosion, or some other deus ex machina to save the day. A Ganado outside simply calls it off. It’s a war of attrition, and the leader of the other side has apparently decided that enough is enough and it’s time to regroup – you’ve put a dent in their army, and they’re losing foot soldiers left right and centre. And suddenly, with that, I discover I’ve been holding my breath, and it’s time to resume breathing again. It’s all over.
The siege works as a metaphor for the game as a whole, with its constant sense of danger at being overwhelmed by enemies. The danger is an internal one too, since we are constantly aware that both Leon and Ashley have been infected with the virus. And like with the house ambush setpiece, there is no traditional game device like a timer or meter (ala Kenji Eno’s D, or even the sanity metre in Eternal Darkness) that gives any sense of when the virus will fully develop. It could happen any time, you just don’t know, and it remains a constant threat until almost the very last moment of Resident Evil 4, and that’s the beauty of a game that turned the Resident Evil series on its head.