‘Resident Evil Village’ Is Afraid of Horror

‘Resident Evil Village’ is a good game hampered by hype and decades of franchise myth-making.
May 5, 2021, 3:00pm
Spooky Resident Evil Werewolf
Image: Capcom

Let's tear the band-aid off right now: Resident Evil Village is a good Resident Evil game. It’s also very different from Resident Evil 7, nor is it quite what the trailers and demos have sold it as. Capcom stumbled into marketing gold with Lady Dimitrescu. She’s the subject of rabid fan attention, elegant cosplay, and an incredible amount of pornography. She’s also not the focus of Village, she’s just a striking side villain your hero must defeat early in his quest.

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Art deserves to be taken on its own terms, not judged by what it is not or how well it conforms to personal expectations and hopes. This is a damn fine Resident Evil game, and while it continues the story of RE7, it feels more like a direct sequel to Resident Evil 4, another entry widely regarded as a series high point. Village is easy to recommend and appreciate, and yet… I'm undeniably disappointed. Because Village is also a very familiar kind of Resident Evil game, struggling to wield the same series tropes that have bogged this series down for years and which RE7 briefly suggested an escape from.

My early hours with Resident Evil Village were probably the most frustrating, as hype turned to disappointment. Affable generic protagonist Ethan Winters and his family are recovering in Europe after the events of Resident Evil 7 when tragedy strikes. After an attack, Winters is forced to fight his way through a crumbling pan-Continental village to rescue his kidnapped daughter. In the first few hours of his journey, he meets a witch, fights off some locals, and is captured by the villains. Winters is subdued and forced to endure some table-setting by the motley crew of grotesques in charge of the village, of which Lady D is but one. 

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I had a sinking feeling as I realized Lady D was surrounded by four other villains, she was an underling, and that I would not spend the next several hours traipsing around a castle while a giant woman pursued me. That is absolutely a part of Village, but it’s a small part. It took me roughly 12 hours to finish Village and Lady D and her deadly daughters were only around for about 3 of them.

Lady D’s diminutive presence in Village isn’t my only disappointment. And that's because Village is firmly a Resident Evil action game. Even its darker moments feel lighter and easier to navigate than previous incarnations. It never achieves the heights of terror that truly great Resident Evil games aspire to.

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This is an old tension within the series. Resident Evil games balance a delicate mix of tonal and gameplay styles is a delicate mix of humours. Most of the games begin as horror titles and slowly evolve into action games as the player learns its systems, upgrades gear, and acquires powerful new weapons. This was the franchise that coined “survival horror” and in most Resident Evil games, the player survives long enough to become its most terrifying creature.

A good Resident Evil game either manages the player’s power creep well like in Resident Evil 1 and 2 or leans into its action like Resident Evil 4 and 5. The series missteps, in my opinion, when it leans too heavily on its own mythology and cranks the action knob up to 11 like in Resident Evil 6.

Resident Evil 7 spent the bulk of its run as a terrifying horror game. Cribbing from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, protagonist Ethan Winters goes to the dilapidated Baker mansion in Louisiana and tries to avoid trouble while searching for his missing wife. It was a terrifying return to the early days of Resident Evil. Unburdened by decades of complicated franchise lore, refreshed by a literal new perspective, and polished like a diamond, RE 7 was a horror masterpiece. It was scary, it was tense, and I spent most of it running scared for my life instead of shooting waves of zombies.

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In Resident Evil Village, Winters is no longer the trembling dude from the previous game. He’s an action hero. He is Leon Kennedy reborn and upset that someone has kidnapped his daughter. As such, the familiar loops feel less like tense survival and more like a series of checklisted tasks. To save his daughter, Winters must explore the titular village and its surroundings while gathering gear and beating enemies. Enemies drop coins, bullets, and scrap material that players will use to craft gear and ammunition and sell to a trader for better weapons and upgrades. 

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Resident Evil’s famously strenuous inventory management is friendlier in Village. You still have to manage space, but the merchant sells upgrades and it’s easy to maintain. There’s no box for storing overflow in safe rooms but I never felt like I was carrying something I had to drop. The developers have put things like herbs, gunpowder, and other crafting components into a space that doesn’t take up inventory slots. Bullets take up space, but the raw components of them do not.

This tweak to the inventory system gives Village a forward momentum I appreciated. But on the other hand, it comes at the cost of a lot of tension: combat encounters often drop supplies that can be turned into healing items and ammunition and I never felt the same terror of running out of bullets that I did in previous titles.

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It was the same in Resident Evil 4, which was a full on action game that had its hero suplexing villagers, fighting off waves of tentacle headed beasts, and dodging chainsaws. Village’s action feels slow and unresponsive in comparison. Its three different shotguns all feel vaguely the same to fire. The only discernible difference between the three different pistols is the rate at which the bullets slam into the advancing and unresponsive hordes.

To be fair, this is how shooting and combat has always felt in Resident Evil. A zombie comes for you, the bullets don’t seem to do anything and even the headshots may not kill them. Resident Evil 4 overcame this by sending waves after the player and giving Leon the ability to kick, suplex, and shoot the knees out from under enemies. Winters has no such tricks. Village’s combat feels the same as 7—something designed for a horror experience, not a shooter.

The titular village is divided up into roughly four quadrants—one for each of the principal villains—with the village itself acting as a hub area. As Winters explores the sections he gathers new items that let him open up previously blocked off sections of the village. The village is dotted with wells full of items but I couldn’t harvest the goods until late in the game when I found a wheel that allowed me to pull their buckets up.

Each of the segments is built around the boss of the zone and their personality dominates the space. Lady D’s castle plays like a traditional Resident Evil. The player is trapped in a confined space with monsters and must avoid them while solving puzzles and progressing through its rooms.

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But while the Baker mansion was dark, decrepit, and packed with horrors and jump scares, Lady D’s castle is brightly lit, well furnished, and full of more environmental storytelling than monsters. Save for the castle’s basement, there’s not a lot of moments that made me feel anxious to survive. Footage of Lady D pursuing the player like Mr. X in Resident Evil 2 is misleading. 

There’s a segment where Lady D is loose in the house, but she’s not the overpowering presence that Mr. X was. Rather than a constant presence with booming footsteps, Lady D tends to teleport around. She also can’t be stunned like Mr. X, I simply had to navigate around her when she appeared. A colleague told me he’d reload a save if she happened to spawn in an inconvenient location. It’s a massively disappointing dynamic, neither scary nor interesting. Rather than feeling as imposing and convincing as Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, the elegant Lady D instead feels like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3. Her encounters are scripted and the few moments of transcendent horror she induces are fleeting.

What follows the escape from Lady D’s castle was, for me, the highlight of the game. Players leave the castle for a pleasant Tuscan villa that pays homage to P.T. To say anymore would spoil the experience. The rest of the game is oriented around action set pieces that lead to the exploration of a large factory that’s similar to Lady D’s castle. The player is trapped inside and must navigate the space while fighting monsters and solving puzzles. This factory section is badly out of place. It felt as if I’d wandered off the set of Suspiria and onto the set of Frankenstein’s Army.

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It definitely fits with some of the lowest moments in the series, however. One boss of the area is a burly man with a propeller engine for a body. It’s supposed to be a body horror moment, but it doesn’t land. It feels goofy and out of place to fight an army of mechanized war-dudes after hours of fights against witches, werewolves, and vampires. Also, the guy who built the propeller plane monster man has telekinetic powers. Village got real weird in the last quarter and I often found myself muttering “this kind of sucks” in its final hours as it crept ever-closer to embracing the worst excesses of the abysmal Resident Evil 6.

I liked the Village, but it felt inconsistent. The push and pull between action and horror leaned heavy on the action and scaled back the horror. And then, like all Resident Evil games, it’s crushed under the weight of its own mythology in the final act.

Resident Evil is burdened by Albert Wesker, the T-Virus, and the Umbrella Corporation. Resident Evil 7 began as a tight horror game, but in its final moments it whisks me away from the Baker mansion and took me to an abandoned ship where I moved through hallways mowing down wave after wave of enemy while the plot and mythology of the greater franchise drowned the fun I’d had.

Something similar happens in Village. For 25 years, the Resident Evil franchise has produced games, comics, movies, television shows, and stage musicals. It’s a big, complicated, and unwieldy beast full of recurring characters and tropes. As the series continues, it feels as if this greater mythology drags down the proceedings. No matter how strange the initial circumstances, be they a Louisiana Mansion, a European village, or a small-town police station, the Umbrella Corporation will inevitably be behind everything. 

As the credits rolled on Resident Evil Village, I was struck by just how much of the back quarter of the game felt like a desperate attempt to work Ethan Winters and his arc into the greater Resident Evil narrative. This, much more than its action emphasis, is what is frustrating about Village. For the second game in a row, Resident Evil has shown that it has outgrown its conventions, that it can create fresh horrors in new places. And still, everything must come crashing to a halt so that the curtain can be pulled back on the same threadbare wizard we've seen for 25 years.