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It’s Been 16 Years Since Resident Evil 4 – Can We Stop Complaining About Ashley?

“Leon! Helllp!”

If you’ve played Resident Evil 4, odds are those words live rent-free in your brain. It makes sense, considering you probably hear them hundreds of times throughout the 2005 classic. As you escort the president’s daughter Ashley Graham through hordes of infected European villagers, she’s the first to let you know if something’s wrong.

By yelling at you. Loudly.

What, you expected her to actually do anything? That’s funny. The majority of Resident Evil 4 sees stalwart protagonist Leon buying black market weapons from shady strangers and hanging onto every ragweed for healing, just in the hopes of staying alive. Meanwhile, once rescued, Ashley kind of just follows Leon around and screams a lot. Sometimes, she’ll help solve a puzzle or squeeze through tight spots to get somewhere Leon can’t. But mostly, she’s kind of useless and needs almost constant protection.

Many fans of the game point to Ashley as one of its weakest parts. To most, she’s that caveat so many games have when you recommend them to people. “Yeah, the game’s a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of a long escort mission,” they say, Ashley’s ethereal shrieking echoing in their brain. But while I understand being bothered by the character, I’ve always found myself put off by just how much people hate her.

Because, for me, Ashley is one of the best parts of Resident Evil 4.

Now, don’t get me wrong – her presence is frustrating. It’s irritating to climb up a ladder and have her get snatched up in the 0.5 seconds you were gone, and stressful to have her screaming for help in the middle of a firefight. Yes, Ashley, I know there are a ton of zombies around – what you think I’m shooting at? Christ.

But, as a horror fan, I think having that experience baked into the game is actually a good thing. Without Ashley, Leon would have nothing in the way of him going full Rambo. He’s a seasoned veteran of zombie slaughter, and without anyone to protect, the entirety of rural Europe would turn into a glorified shooting gallery for him. The game’s mechanics back this up, too – in earlier sections, it’s easy to blast through foes like Swiss cheese if you have the right weaponry. In New Game+, the beginning of the game is trivially easy.

Which is the point, I think. Resident Evil 4 sets players up to feel tough, then takes that away from them within a few hours. For example, an early segment of the game where Leon is sieged by an entire village of maniacs would be impossible with Ashley. The quarters are too close, the enemies are too intense, and there are just too many moving parts to accommodate protecting another person. That setpiece is there, to me, to remind us what Leon can do on his own. If he needs to shoot a whole village to get the job done, he can and he will.

Once Ashley’s on board, though, the cadence of everything changes drastically. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what gun you have, because your companion can practically get buffeted by a passing breeze and drop dead from it. Your kitted-out Red9 or Striker aren’t going to stop Ashley from getting grabbed by the ghoulies and carted off to some freaky parasite torture dungeon if she’s left alone for two seconds. You’re forced to reevaluate the way you play, and challenged with being a good deal less reckless than you probably want to be. Leon can’t play the part of the badass lone wolf anymore – his mission is to protect this girl, by any means necessary, and doing that means being more careful. As the two of you progress together, the game stops surrounding you with enemies as much and instead shifts towards more tight corridor sequences to accommodate this shift in focus.

That’s Ashley’s ultimate purpose in Resident Evil 4, really. She’s there to ground the player, and to make them feel bad for ignoring her. Her cries for help are the developers screaming for attention, reminding you that this isn’t just a shooter and that there are bigger stakes than the zombies you’re mowing down. That presence adds an element of tension to the game that still makes it a terse, terrifying title in 2021.

Next: Resident Evil Movie Reboot Has Officially Wrapped Filming

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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.

She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.

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