Anyone who has stuck with Resident Evil over the course of 25 years likely fears the title that Capcom unleashes immediately after the one that reinvents the series. Instead of refining the things that, say, 2002’s moody Resident Evil remake and 2005’s Resident Evil 4 (which redefined the third-person shooter genre) got right, their successors mostly just added unnecessary ingredients to the series formula. But present-day Capcom is a very different developer than the one that released the tone-deaf Resident Evil 5 after its more bombastic predecessor, or turned Resident Evil Zero into a slog of a co-op puzzle game. Case in point: Resident Evil Village may lower the volume on the fear factor compared to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, but it’s a much smarter and confident change-up that branches the series out in new directions without trying to fix what wasn’t broken about its predecessor.
What Village has added to the formula is equally important as what its kept intact from Biohazard, and perhaps the most effective addition is its commitment to emotional memory. Our protagonist, Ethan Winters, is still faceless, but he’s carrying a rather surprising amount of trauma from his experiences in Louisiana in Biohazard. When the game starts, he and his wife, Mia, have been relocated to a nondescript Eastern European country for their own protection, and despite having a brand new baby named Rose to fuss over, Ethan’s unable to let go of his obsession and confusion over what happened to him, and Village points to the emotional rift that will threaten to destroy his new life in tiny ways throughout its campaign, through documents, dialogue, and Ethan’s aggrieved and just plain-exhausted being.
The man’s weariness permeates almost everything that he does in Village. It’s in the way he reacts to his family drama as they rub shoulders with the game’s ghoulies, as well as in the way he’s questioned about his commitment to fatherhood and his body takes all sorts of horrific damage. All of that is exacerbated when six-month-old Rose is abducted and Ethan winds up searching for her in a remote village of the damned that was very recently laid to waste by a horde of vampires and werewolves. His search eventually brings him afoul of the Four Lords, the ruling class of the region, and their sinister matriarch, Mother Miranda.
Where Biohazard owed much of its concept and aesthetic to the down-and-dirty grindhouse nastiness of films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, Village is indebted to a more classical brand of horror: Grimm fairy tales, Universal monster movies, and Japanese ghost stories, even the Hammer films and gialli of yore. A lot of ink has been spilled about Village’s breakout antagonist, the nine-foot-tall glampire Lady Dimitrescu. Her sheer popularity, charisma, and unique physical presence obscures what’s actually a delightfully freaky ensemble of horror villainy, allowing Village to vary its approach to the supernatural throughout the campaign. This is a game that never stops feeling like it has such sights to show you. No callback to a horror subgenre is allowed to outstay its welcome or become rote, which works to fix a long-running Resident Evil problem. By hour 10 of most of the games in the series, you’re already sick of the zombies. By hour 10 of Village, we’ve moved into gonzo Tetsuo: The Iron Man terrain.
Funny enough, the one downgrade of this approach is that Village, however vicious it can get, isn’t that scary compared to Biohazard. The game delights in ripping Ethan Winters to shreds, especially his hands, but there’s a restraint at play that’s rather new to the series, an emphasis on the distressing, gothic, and macabre rather than surprise or fear. It makes for stronger storytelling in the end, and Village is smart enough to use its grotesqueries to tell the story of its monsters environmentally instead of leaving that job to the usual found documents and diaries. Everything red, wet, and visceral in this game has more of a purpose and a grim history than usual. Still, by and large, this isn’t the place to go looking for the same adrenaline hit of terror that Biohazard provided, with one notable and absolutely blood-curdling exception: House Beneviento, a small stretch of the game set in a haunted dollhouse that’s one of the most perfect and thoroughly unsettling displays of horror ever executed in a game.
The dialed-down sense of terror also makes Village a more accessible experience from a mechanical standpoint than its predecessor. The type of survival and panicked stealth that permeated Biohazard only really comes into play during the later portions of Lady Dimitrescu’s castle. For much of the rest of the game, the experience of playing it appeals more to our logical curiosities as we’re guided along. Village wants to show players everything it has to offer, and rewards those who go treading where they shouldn’t with more story, more treasure, and more unexpected monsters. There’s just as much enjoyment to be had here running for your life from giant beasts as there is taking a stand against them with the right weapon. Even with a sizable arsenal at your disposal, and an extremely well-implemented inventory/upgrade/shop system taking all the best cues from Resident Evil 4, there’s a lot of freedom in how you can approach a problem, if you even want to approach it at all.
Village is marked by a maturity that’s new to Resident Evil. Even when it steers us toward the traditional climax set inside a laboratory, the route feels more intimate and thoughtful than it ever has in a Resident Evil game. What elements Capcom doesn’t bring into Village from its predecessor, they’ve carefully replaced with a striking sense of emotional logic. Resident Evil, as a series, reinvented itself in Biohazard, and with Village it continues to grow up.
The game was reviewed with a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.