By AtheistPreacher 15 Comments
In two words: knife durability.
I already didn’t this mechanic in the RE2 remake, but bringing it into RE4 is manifestly more egregious because it fundamentally clashes with the gameplay loop and mechanics in a way that it didn’t in RE2. My aim here is to explain why that’s the case.
But first let’s look at how knives worked in the other RE games and the changes in the design that happened.
The design intent of the knife in the early RE games was very straightforward: it was a weapon of last resort. It assured that you always had some offensive potential even if you’d used up all your ammo, though it was generally an extraordinarily weak/bad option. And it was often dangerous to use for ammo conservation even on downed enemies (remember those RE1 zombies biting your feet after you’d shot them?).
Then something interesting happened. The first RE Remake—the 2002 one on the Gamecube—introduced daggers, which had a distinct function from the knife. While the knife was still your unbreakable option of last resort, the daggers basically functioned as one-time get-out-of-jail-free cards. They were defense items that could be used to stab and escape from an enemy that grabbed you.
Which was, well, fine. These type of defensive daggers had never been a thing in the RE games, but they didn’t really affect the core gameplay aside from making things a little more lenient on the player.
The RE4 revolution
RE4 was released three years later (2005) and fundamentally changed a lot of elements of RE’s design. It was no longer a horror game with some action sprinkled in, but rather fundamentally an action game with horror themes. Where before enemies had solely been obstacles—there was no real benefit to killing them, and so simply avoiding/running past them was a perfectly fine option—they now dropped loot in the form of ammo or money, which could be spent with the famed RE4 merchant to upgrade your weapons. It was a game about killing zombies rather than one about just surviving them.
This being the case, the meta-game of RE4 became all about killing as many enemies as you could as ammo-efficiently as possible, and it gave you great tools to do that, of which the knife was a big part. The dagger idea from the RE1 remake had been abandoned, but on the other hand, the knife had never been more useful/viable.
Shooting or knifing an enemy in the head or lower legs would lead to a stagger that allowed you to unleash powerful kicking or grabbing animations, during which you were invincible to enemy attacks. Rather than gunning an enemy to death, you could often kill them by firing a single bullet to the head, round-house kicking them, and then slashing them with the knife on the ground until they were dead. Bullets used: one. Extra ammo could be saved for especially hairy encounters or sold to the merchant for faster upgrading of your weapons.
You could even control crowds this way, to an extent. A single staggered zombie would allow you to unleash that invincible kick animation on a large group in front of you and down them all. It wasn’t always feasible to knife them all in situations like this; sometimes a grenade was a better follow-up, or there were simply too many enemies to possibly down all at once. But the combat fundamentally revolved around trying to control your space, grouping enemies up so you could damage multiple at a time, and dispatching them all as efficiently as you could.
The knife’s big change
There were a lot of RE games released between RE4 and the end of the 2010’s, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip ahead to key entry for the point I’m trying to make.
The RE2 remake (2019), released seventeen years after the RE1 remake and fourteen years after RE4, essentially combined the knife and dagger from the RE1 remake into a single item. It could be used as a melee weapon or as a defensive escape-from-a-grab item, but either way it had a durability meter, and that meter just didn’t last very long.
While I never liked the idea that the knife could no longer be used as an ammo conservation method, or that you could theoretically be stuck with too little ammo to kill one of the game’s bosses, the (somewhat) saving grace of the knife now being a breakable/finite combat item was that the RE2 remake had made something of a return to a focus on survival rather than action. Enemies did not drop loot, and while there were gun upgrades, these were found in the world rather than bought from a merchant. In short, the best way to conserve ammo was simply to avoid enemies altogether.
This design intent was epitomized by the imposing Mr. X. In an action game, something like Mr. X just comes of as unfair and annoying. But for a horror game, he makes perfect sense: you’re not supposed to engage in combat with him, you’re supposed to just run.
Regardless, since killing enemies wasn’t actually incentivized, beyond making it less annoying to retrace your steps—something you did often in RE2—the fact that you had no indestructible knife as a weapon of last resort and ammo conservation tool didn’t matter too much.
The next major entries in the series—the RE3 remake and RE8—returned to an infinite-durability knife, and RE8 even introduced the powerful Karambit knife to make melee-only runs more viable. Still, in neither game was the knife as core to the gameplay as it had been in RE4, since they didn’t contain the same easy stagger animations with invincible follow-up kicks that created prime opportunities to employ your knife.
Knife durability in the RE4 remake
Of course it’s important to say that the RE4 remake isn’t out yet and won’t be for another five months, and things could still change. But hands-on preview coverage confirms that knives function as they did in the RE2 remake—they break rather quickly and aren’t intended to function as they did in the original game. No longer is the core combat loop centered around staggering a zombie, kicking him down (possibly along with the group surrounding him), and following with knife strikes.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if the intent is to capture the spirit of the original, I’d argue that adding durability to the knife is a fundamental misstep. Frequent use of the knife was so core to RE4’s combat that taking it away feels very, very wrong. I always killed every enemy I could in my many RE4 playthroughs because the loot gained from doing so always outweighed the resources spent killing them if you could doing it efficiently, particularly with the unbreakable knife.
In the remake it seems apparent that there is no longer any “free lunch” to be had even with skilled play: one way or another, you’re going to need to spend X amount of finite ammo—whether it’s bullets or some of your knife’s durability—to down any opponent, because you have no attack that doesn’t consume something, aside from those kicks, which themselves can only be initiated by a resource-spending attack.
Taking away your one unlimited attack option fundamentally changes the game feel, because adding knife durability has a domino effect that reverberates through the entire combat loop. E.g., if you can’t knife them while they’re down, then those invincible melee kicks become less useful by proxy: since the kicks will tend to disperse/de-bunch large groups, you’ll likely be better off with a shotgun blast or grenade after grouping them rather than a roundhouse kick.
Might anything mitigate this change?
There are a few potential saving graces to this situation.
First, as already mentioned, the game isn’t out yet and there’s always the possibility that they’ll reverse themselves and remove knife durability as a concept—though it seems unlikely this late in development, especially since the knife has been given powerful new abilities to compensate for being breakable, such as parrying chainsaw attacks and instant finishes of downed zombies. They would have to reverse a lot of work to make the change.
Another, stronger possibility is that the game will contain an unlockable infinite-durability knife. That’s because the RE2 remake did this exact thing: an infinite-durability knife could be obtained by finding and destroying all the Mr. Racoon toys found throughout the game. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this game did something similar. Again, though, the new more powerful knife will function very differently than the original RE4 knife did.
The other thing is simply that the original RE4 remains one of the greatest video games ever made, and has aged better than any other entry in the series. So if the RE4 remake’s combat ends up being unsatisfactory in this way or any other way, well, you can always simply return to the original, because it remains a great game, and the recently completed fan HD remaster of the PC version means it now looks better than it ever has. This fact alone makes the addition of the knife durability mechanic sting less.
All of that said, I still can’t help but be disappointed. There were always going to be changes in the remake’s gameplay, and from the beginning I was doubtful that the remake team would fully grasp everything that made the original such a classic, because so much of RE4’s magic was in the interplay of some fairly specific gameplay design elements. And while the remake team seems—from the early footage and hands-on-impression articles—to have done most of the other stuff pretty well, adding knife durability feels a bit like removing that one crucial gear that brings the rest of the machine grinding to a halt. It may still be a good game considered in isolation, but with this one core change it feels like the remake is abandoning a crucial part of what made the original what it was, and that the development team has, indeed, failed to fully grasp the game they are remaking.