(RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE is out now for all platforms. Review code provided by distributor.)
A historic series
My history with the Resident Evil franchise is one of hits, misses, and dismissals. Like most of my generation, I fell madly in love with the visionary horror series when it first launched on PlayStation. By the time the story kicked in high gear with the masterful second part, I was entirely on board for whatever Capcom’s team could imagine. But around RESIDENT EVIL 4, I felt burnout setting in. The mechanics consistently lagged behind other games, and the increasingly convoluted story was so wildly out of hand I couldn’t even keep up anymore. By the time the fifth part launched with a disastrous co-op mode that nobody seemed to enjoy, I had given up.
Cut to almost thirteen years later, and Capcom seems to have found their mojo again. Where RESIDENT EVIL 7 is arguably better in carrying the torch for what the series once was, VILLAGE is RESIDENT EVIL as it has transitioned and one of the best entries in the mammoth franchise.
Not much has changed
Set some years after the horrific events of part seven, VILLAGE finds Ethan and Mia Winters, along with their daughter Rose, hiding in a remote part of Europe, hoping to restart their lives. But in this universe, nothing ever goes as planned, and soon Ethan finds himself alone in an abandoned village overrun with lycans. His wife presumed dead and daughter missing, it’s up to him to reclaim what little pieces of his life are left.
Right from the start, it’s clear VILLAGE has no interest in continuing the extremely dark and bleak atmosphere of part seven. Ethan is no longer a helpless individual with little resources to his name. Instead, now fully military trained by Chris Redfield, he’s a one-man army, capable of taking down ancient beasts and demonic entities at ease. This hard left-turn from the series norm most likely will not sit well with some of the hardcore fanbases, but once you get used to the tonal shift, VILLAGE has its own saving graces that make it worthwhile.
Most notably, Capcom has always excelled at creating villains, and VILLAGE is no exception. From the already beloved Lady Dimitrescu to the villainous Heisenberg, the roster of monsters is as good as the series has ever been. While the master of puppets subquest is a low point in the game, it’s easily made up for by a stellar hunt for a mutated fish in an abandoned reservoir.
A cabaret of monsters
Equally excellent are the environments, this time taking cues from European folklore and grandiose stylings of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of DRACULA. The titular village is a particular treat, all crooked alleyways and dimly lit hovels, each filled with something to explore. There’s still a dependency to block the player’s access with increasingly contrived measures, but that’s such a staple of the franchise it might collapse the entire series if removed.
Similarly, love it or hate it are the puzzles, which now feel like a best-of collection for the series. There’s the usual set of shaped keys, riddles, half-finished notes, and even music boxes, all prominently left out for easy access, even as they’re tedious to finish. Newer additions involve physics-based miniature rollercoasters, but Capcom is horrendous at designing physics, leaving them infuriating to work through.
VILLAGE also isn’t very scary anymore, either. Gone also are the nightmarish visions dripping with puss and goo, now replaced with much more traditional horror imagery that’s almost vanilla in places. This is a deliberate choice to make the game more accessible after complaints of part seven being too scary, and as such, it’s hard to argue against it. Luckily, there’s at least one utterly bonkers set-piece involving one of the most disturbing images I’ve seen in years. I won’t spoil it here; you’ll know it when you get to it.
The emphasis on action does raise other problems. Most of these revolve around the controls on consoles, even as other aspects shine. I played VILLAGE on both the Xbox Series X and PC, and as a visual experience, it is a blast on both. (How Capcom managed to pull a constant 60fps/4K performance from the consoles is beyond me, but it works.)
Unfortunately, the controller simply isn’t up to the task for a first-person adventure game anymore. At least not the way Capcom handles their control scheme. Even with motion acceleration turned off and sensitivity turned to the highest setting, Ethan moves like a cow in a shopping trolley. It’s frustrating in normal circumstances and infuriating in boss battles, which also feel dated in design.
Old vs new
In this regard, VILLAGE and Resident Evil as a whole feels like it’s at war with itself. A part of the story wants to move forward, abandoning the increasingly befuddling storyline involving Umbrella and the now supernaturally gifted leading cast. On the other hand, half the franchise can’t let go of the past, forcing dated elements into every installment with regularity. Part seven already suffered from poorly designed boss battles, and while they’re certainly far easier in VILLAGE, they’re still a throwback that is more of a crutch than celebration.
There’s also an additional companion game called MERCENARIES; an arcade run through the most notable areas. It’s more first-person shooting and nothing much else, and at least on the console, I found it pretty much unplayable.
And yet, these are all essential aspects of the Resident Evil experience. You either go with them or don’t. Taken as a whole, VILLAGE is like an old-fashioned ghost train. Meaning it’s safe and probably something you’ve seen before, but it’s also entertaining in a novel way you don’t see anymore. My first run with it took around eight hours, the second half that. I’ve seen others complete it in a whopping two hours using only a knife. In a way, VILLAGE is open for so much experimentation it should attract even long since departed fans.
Worth it in the end
I could also complain about the horrendously dull leading character and lack of stakes. Ethan just might be the worst player character in Capcom history, with zero personality to the point of literally having no face. He’s meant to be an everyman, but trying to please everyone results in a void of charisma.
But that would be nit-picking, and I admit I rarely thought of the leading character during my multiple sessions with the game. I was too engrossed by the visual feast and addictive semi-open world. Both resplendent with treasure waiting for discovery.
RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE has its share of problems, but I feel it’s a unique gem that deserves celebration for all the things it gets right. After all, how often do we get pure single-player experiences requiring zero patches on launch day? Especially ones that work without an always-online connection? Even with its insane third act (which does fall apart for all but series devouts), VILLAGE offers a brilliant ride that surprises and excites in equal measure.