The year is 1998. After the breakout success of Resident Evil (or Biohazard in Japan), the pressure was on Capcom to deliver a solid follow-up with equally as iconic characters as Chris “Pre-‘roids” Redfield and Jill “Sandwich” Valentine. Nobody could’ve predicted that Resident Evil 2 would deliver arguably the series’ most iconic hero in Leon S. Kennedy, the rookie cop who is unfortunately transferred to Raccoon City on one of its worst days. After the monumental success of this sequel, Resident Evil would don a new poster child next to the likes of Chris Redfield and Albert Wesker, and famously feature him in the most critically acclaimed entry in the franchise, Resident Evil 4. However, what makes Leon stand out from the already impressive roster of iconic protagonists in the RE universe?
Leon Kennedy made his debut in 1998’s Resident Evil 2, tossing players into the heart of Raccoon City on the day of the T-virus outbreak – presumably making it both a sequel and prequel to its predecessor. Leon, a rookie cop who arrives in Raccoon City for his first day on the job, quickly learns that no amount of police academy training could prepare him for the undead nightmare about to be unleashed on the world. Interestingly, the sharp-shooting, muscle-bound professional soldier we know today didn’t always appear that way in the beginning. In Resident Evil 2, Leon is a timid, mostly naïve cop with all the makings of a great side character/food fodder for the brain-thirsty zombies. His character arc within the game, which sees him transform from rookie cop to monster slayer seemingly overnight, is a refreshing spin on the first games’ character development which was almost non-existent as everyone had prior combat experience.
In the case of Leon, the combat experience was minimal to begin with, forcing him to adapt to the terrifying situations constantly escalating around him. We as the players got to have a first-hand encounter with the ghoulish challenges that he faced, and also got to witness the evolution of Leon’s character arc. The same can’t be said about Jill, Barry or Chris who were mostly given predetermined “hero” archetypes only to not go anywhere meaningful at the end of the game. However, in Resident Evil 2, we get a clear sense of progression in Leon’s character, who constantly builds himself up and molds into a more hardened soldier near the end. A lot of this great character development is also attributed to Leon’s involvement with Chris Redfield’s sister, Claire, who more or less aids Leon on his journey around the infested Raccoon City. Like Ada Wong, Leon immediately clicks with Claire Redfield and we understand his motivations clearly for some excellent portions of the game.
While Leon didn’t make an appearance in the third game, it was 2005’s Resident Evil 4 that officially put him on the map. Leon, back in the position of the protagonist, is given strict orders by the U.S. president to travel to a desolate area of Spain in order to rescue his daughter, Ashley, who had been kidnapped by a strange cult. For the first time in the series, there weren’t any traditional zombies as enemies, but rather a parasitic mental illness that caused extremely violent behavior for those infected. Leon is projected to be a confident government special agent but at the whim of the games’ horrifying new enemies and moral dilemmas faced when dealing with the not-undead, he is brought down a few pegs again like his lack of knowledge and abilities at the beginning of RE2.
The writers of the series understood exactly how to develop a strong connection between Leon and the player, constantly putting him in dire situations that he has to adapt to for survival. This little key character development is mostly left to the side in other RE games that don’t feature Leon, where his counterparts are highlighted in extraordinary self-assured confidence and combat-ready techniques for easily getting out of tough spots (in the case of Resident Evil 5, especially). However, Leon is given the full brunt of the horror, where his confidence in zombie-slaying is cleverly subverted to put him down as a character, only for him to rise to the occasion again – even though it seems like Leon chooses to deal with unspeakable horror and fear by famously spouting cheesy one-liners.
Capcom’s Resident Evil franchise would not be where it is now without the brilliant inclusion of rookie cop turned special agent Leon S. Kennedy. Thanks to excellent writing on the part of his character arcs in both Resident Evil 2 and 4, Leon is able to maintain a surprisingly human element in a series literally plagued by the braindead. His one-liners aren’t quite as thought provoking or earth-shattering as Barry “you were almost a Jill Sandwich” Burton, but still constantly rides the line between laughing in the face of horror and knowing when to act accordingly to intense situations that aim to instill fear and panic in the player. For that purpose alone, it’s safe to call Leon the single most iconic figure in the Resident Evil universe.