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Resident Evil 4 Remake: the trials and tribulations of 'Hardcore' difficulty

As a longtime PC gamer, I was one of the millions who bought the Resident Evil 4 Remake when it was released on Steam earlier this year. The game is an update of a 2005 classic, complete with new visuals and better controls. Before starting the story, I was asked to guess my gaming proficiency by way of a “difficulty selection screen”. This is something almost all games ask of you, and it’s often maddeningly imprecise. The screen flashes into focus, you make your selection (usually Easy, Normal or Hard), and then it disappears just as quickly. I almost always pick “Normal”, because it promises the most balanced experience, and you’re often able to lower the setting if you find the going tough.

Let this be a warning: Resident Evil 4 Remake’s challenge-o-meter is even more imprecise than usual. For instance, the description next to “Hardcore” (Hard) reads “For players who have played Resident Evil 4 (2005).” I’ve played and completed the original, I thought to myself. This must be the one.

Yet level by level, I could feel the challenge getting stiffer, the enemies more numerous. Would I keep scraping through, or would I hit the wall eventually? Sure enough, twelve hours in, I had my answer. I was well and truly stuck.

The encounter that stumped me is a boss fight. Boss fights are end-of-level encounters with a unique character who has story significance, and someone who has to be battled (and beaten). Ramon, the character in question, is a diminutive Spanish man encased in an enormous parasitic sac; the sac has various limbs that attach themselves to the environment, spiriting him across the battle room in seconds. By contrast, you move like a Mack truck with a broken tyre.

To kill Ramon, you have to hit him precisely in a glowing eye whenever his protective shell opens, but the eye only opens right before - and after - one of his attacks. His attacks are numerous, and almost always paralysing. And if he gets close enough, his symbiotic shell can swallow you whole - ending the fight right there.

To kill Ramon, you have to hit him precisely in a glowing eye whenever his protective shell opens, but the eye only opens right before - and after - one of his attacks.

All boss battles feel like insurmountable challenges at first. That’s the point of them. But normally, I can grit my teeth and get through them. The problem here is that this boss is brown, and the room is mostly brown, and squinting through the gloom, it’s hard to work out where the hell he is. The beast also regularly spends time hanging right above your head, the last place you’ll look, and every bit of cover afforded to you is an opportunity to get stuck during a frantic dash for safety. And let’s be frank: any boss that can kill you in one move is cheap.

As I battled the environmental hazards and gamey bullshittery - narrow stairwells; Ramon’s goo; Ramon’s almost camouflaged brown sac - I realised that I was getting older. No longer a twentysomething whippet, I didn’t have the same appetite for these blood-splattered gauntlets as I used to.

In short, I was stuck.

Or to put it another way: fucked.

I had three options. I could start the game again, on an easier setting, and make it to the same chapter in eight or nine hours.

Two, I could do what we all used to do, and use cheats, essentially making me God and Ramon my pawn. But in a world of always-online, persistent gaming experiences, cheat codes are a thing ofthe past.

And three, I could keep going.

More than anything, I didn’t want to keep going. You see, a funny thing happens as you get older: your desire to keep fighting the good fight wanes. I reflected on the unassuming description that appended the “Hardcore” mode: for those who have played the original. How sweet, how charming. Perhaps developers Capcom have forgotten that, eighteen years on from 2005’s Resident Evil 4, their audience is older and wearier.

Getting the challenge right is, ironically, a challenge in itself, especially in a survival horror shooter like this one, where the central threat of dying informs the dread you feel playing. Developers walk a tricky tightrope between ensuring players are nervous but never overawed. And every now and then, they get it wrong. I’ve read that Resident Evil 4 Remake dynamically adjusts the difficulty on the fly, within the confines of the mode you’re playing, depending on whether you’re doing really well or really badly. Clearly, the adjustments aren’t drastic enough. That you can never lower the difficulty from “Hardcore” is absurd. Nor does it make sense that you can never replenish ammo stocks at the Merchant, who sells guns, trinkets and everything else.

Frustrated, bored, I turned to the internet and found a solution: a trainer. A trainer works by inserting a piece of code into the game to allow you access to development tools - things like infinite ammo and infinite health. It apes the experience of a developer. who can ignore the gamey constructs while they focus on tinkering levels and so forth. But trainers, like any piece of reverse engineering, are risky: they alter the actual fabric of the game and hard crashes are common.

Fortunately, the trainer I downloaded worked a treat, and not before time. Ramon expelled, I worked through the remaining four chapters, amazed at how much more the challenge was ramped up. Without the cheat codes at my disposal, I’d be playing until I was sixty.

As games grow in size and begin increasingly to compete with Hollywood, so the lines will be blurred between a medium you watch and a medium you interact with. But to be taken seriously, games will need to get over this infantile desire to challenge your “skill”. Losing at something repeatedly is no fun - especially when you’ve paid $60 dollars for the dubious privilege.

Indeed, there is something sadistically absurd about locking players out of an entertainment product they’ve paid for. No other mainstream artform does this. You don’t pay to watch a film, then stop to take a test midway through. Or read a book, only to be quizzed on the characters by the third act. Or watch a series... you get the point. The simple fact is that the audience consuming these interactive products is moving on in life, and in this respect, Resident Evil 4 Remake is firmly stuck in the past.

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