Resident Evil Village

This post contains full spoilers for Resident Evil Village and its predecessor Resident Evil 7. I would recommend playing both games before this. I have tried to refrain from discussing other Resident Evil games in this review and judge this specific duology on their own terms. Thanks for reading. 

As many people have noted before, Resident Evil Village, the latest game in the long-running survival horror series, is a difficult game to define or pin down. It’s ostensibly a first-person horror game, coming off of the success of its predecessor – the creepy Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, in which protagonist Ethan Winters had to investigate a run-down Louisiana mansion. Parts of it, however, play closer to the zombies mode in a Call of Duty game, as hordes of werewolf-like enemies swarm joint protagonist Chris Redfield near the end of the game. Additionally, the whole thing is wrapped in a layer of comedic camp that places the tone of the game closest to something like fellow Capcom series Devil May Cry. This might be familiar to those who have played previous RE games, such as Resident Evil 4, but the specific spin on this kind of tone and genre-defying gameplay and story are something unique and worth discussing about Village.

The opening to the game is incredibly strong, as a fairy book opening transitions to the daily life of Ethan and Mia Winters in their fancy house somewhere in “Europe” (strongly hinted to be Romania, but with typical reluctance to pin down an exact location). After watching the slightly different seeming Mia cook for you and exploring the meticulously detailed house to learn more about the Winters’ daughter Rose, former Resident Evil mainstay Chris Redfield busts into Ethan’s house, shoots Mia, kidnaps Ethan and Rose and drives them into the forest where the car crashes and Ethan’s journey to rescue his daughter begins. In setting the tone, it’s almost perfect, because the sense of unease you get exploring a pretty normal house with a suspicious-seeming wife foreshadows the horror elements of the game, while the rude interruption from Chris suits a game which is bookended by him forcing his imposing frame into a situation and putting a bunch of bullets into the middle of it.

After escaping from the wreckage of the truck carrying Ethan and his daughter, the player makes their way to the titular village. We’ll come to this soon, but it’s worth first tackling whether, when writing this critique, I should use ‘Ethan’ or ‘you’. Resident Evil Village is a first-person game, but unlike a lot of other first-person games, the character you control is a proper character, one more fleshed out than he was in the previous entry.

In Resident Evil 7, Ethan Winters was little more than a blank slate with just enough motivation to give the player a sense of purpose. It was a little bit of an odd choice given that the motivation for the player was based on the pre-existing relationship between Ethan and his wife, but one imagines that Ethan’s lack of personality and the simple human motivation that pushed him forward was to enable the real stars of that game – the infected Baker family – to shine.

In Village, the same simple motivations for wanting to rescue an endangered female family member remain, but Ethan is given a lot more time in the spotlight. He is now very much a character in the Resident Evil canon, being given a slightly more defined personality and even a set of strange superpowers that come with the reveal he’s been a zombie since being killed at the start of the previous game. The slight problem for the writers is in making the two depictions of Ethan seem consistent, but luckily they manage this by leaning into a depiction of Ethan as kind of an earnest dumbass whose only real motivation is a dogged determination to rescue his daughter at all costs. His simplicity and resilience makes him instantly likeable, especially when he’s just as terrible at coming up with one-liners as anyone would be in that situation (some choice examples: “This is not groovy” (after being attacked by a chainsaw) “In death as he was in life. Disgusting” (after killing Moreau) and my favourite “Who builds this shit?” (after solving one of many stupid puzzles). 

Of course, much like in Cyberpunk 2077, we come into some conflict with the use of the first-person camera. This isn’t so much of a problem in some regards, as Ethan is always named as the character you’re playing and you never have to, say, design his face in a way that would give the player some ownership over him. Plus, the first-person camera is an effective choice for a horror game given how stressful it makes something as simple as turning a corner; an interesting adaptation of the fixed camera effect from the original Resident Evil.

However, Capcom have made the odd choice here of always obscuring Ethan’s face, even in scenes where he is seen from a third-person perspective. It’s a strange distancing device for a character who is supposed to have been moved into more of a focus and one whose family is the main driving force behind the entire game. This choice made some sense in Resident Evil 7, where Ethan was painted as an everyman, but here he gets some much-needed flesh, and it would have been nice to see a face to go with it. The one potential benefit of this technique comes into play during his sacrifice at the end of the game, where he becomes some kind of faceless hero, an “unknown solider” type. This might carry some weight when contrasted against the series’ icon character Chris Redfield, who does much less here, yet in advancing the game’s plot gains greater recognition for it. However, given the personal nature of Ethan’s sacrifice, it seems like weak reasoning.

Returning to the start of the game, Ethan arrives at the mysterious village where the game is set. He soon finds himself being besieged by Lycans, a werewolf-like form of infected villager which seem far smarter than the shambling zombies of earlier games or the Moulded creatures of the Baker Estate. Because of this, Ethan himself is given more to work with in terms of weaponry – there are the typical shotguns, flash grenades and a blocking manoeuvre, but now you can perform a light block counter, use landmines, seal off exits or use flour bags to confuse the enemy. The problem is that although the Lycans are smarter than most video game cannon fodder, a well-placed shot still does the trick far better than wasting time barricading exits or shooting bags of flour – the latter technique I never used once in the game’s entire campaign.

Still, the initial Lycan invasion sequence is tense and crowded enough that using all these new techniques seems like a good idea and surviving as long as possible appears genuinely unlikely at times. A sequence such as this is the perfect way in justifying the oft-accepted adage that giving a player a gun destroys any horror atmosphere. Indeed, Village’s scariest moment later in the game comes when the player is forced to run and hide, but the sheer panicked tension that comes from an action setpiece such as this is effective horror in another way, evoking more a “horror of war” atmosphere than a haunted house one. Still, if Village was ever aiming to be a montage of different horror styles, then this is still a worthy one to include. Giving a player weaponry can empower them, but when that weaponry is limited or useless then it can bestow an even greater feeling of dread than starting them with nothing and letting them adapt to running and hiding.

The bigger problem with the village is that as soon as Ethan meets anyone there, they have a nasty tendency to get brutally murdered. After finding one small shelter of surviving villagers, one of them becomes a Lycan and murders the other. Ethan and one woman manage to escape, but she eventually also sacrifices herself for her father. This makes Village a pretty lonely experience for Ethan, with the only non-hostile NPCs being a mysterious merchant called The Duke, and Chris, who only appears sporadically. It’s clear why this was done, but it also means that the village becomes less of a village and more just like a larger version of a typical Resident Evil mansion with a new coat of paint. Perhaps some huddled survivors who die more slowly over the course of the game could at least lend a more lived-in atmosphere to a part of the game meant to be so important as to be the title.

Eventually, Ethan is kidnapped by the villains of the game: The Four Lords. These are the tall vampire Lady Dimitrescu, the fish man Moreau, a doll lady named Donna Beneviento and a man named Heisenberg who can control metal. Leading them all is a mysterious woman named Mother Miranda, pictures of whom can be seen all over the village. Their introduction mirrors the family dinner scene at the start of Resident Evil 7, where the family members bicker at each other and threaten Ethan, but here the closer similarity seems to be to the Cobra Unit from Metal Gear Solid 3. The effectiveness of the Baker Family dinner scene came mostly from the fact that they were threatening on a human level, as lunatic Louisiana kidnappers; the fact that they could chop off one another’s arms just added to that. In contrast, the villains of Village are all too over-the-top to become threatening on a human level, and so instead the writing must rely on their superpowers to menace the player. This loses the grounded horror that 7 so effectively cultivated in its opening hours, but also prepares the player for the flights of fancy the game will take in later chapters.

The first of these four lords Ethan has to tackle in order to get his baby back is Lady Dimitrescu, who lives with her three bug-infested daughters in Castle Dimitrescu. When first revealed, the internet made a big deal over Dimitrescu’s design, given that she is tall, domineering and maybe even because she has large breasts. It’s a shame, then, that she never really lives up to the hype thanks to some poor level design choices.

The castle itself is a fantastic location – one of the most visually interesting and detail-rich places in the Resident Evil canon, complete with a fun environmentally-told story of the Dimitrescu family making expensive red wine out of young virgin blood. The puzzles are standard fare for the series, with only one bell-based puzzle making me frustrated enough to resort to internet searching. Even the boss fights against Dimitrescu’s daughters are short but fun thanks to the use of tight enclosed boss rooms.

Eventually, after figuring out that you’re in the castle, the Lady of the house decides to try and take you on herself. Following in the footsteps of Jack Baker, Mr. X and Nemesis, Lady Dimitrescu is a stalker-type villain, who follows you relentlessly and cannot be killed by normal weaponry. Instead, the player is encouraged to use their knowledge of the space to evade her and go around her. Most of these types of enemies suffer from being too slow to be much of a real threat, but gain horror value from their sudden appearance – especially if they catch you in tight corridors. The problem for Lady Dimitrescu is that her house is just too big. This means long stretches without ever running into her, or the player being able to find a side route incredibly quickly if they do. Combined with the terrible placement of the safe room in the main hall, dodging Lady Dimitrescu is unbelievably easy and she lacks any sort of jumpscare moment equivalent to Jack crashing through the corridor wall.

Speaking of Lady Dimitrescu makes an interesting segue into how Resident Evil Village handles issues of gender. The series is generally pretty good in including strong female characters, both as villains and as heroes. Even Mia Winters, who is kidnapped in both Resident Evil 7 and Village, is not just a hopeless damsel in distress, but instead a secret criminal researcher who helped create Eveline, the bioweapon from 7. In both 7 and Village, the main villains are female; a little girl turned into a bioweapon and a woman trying to resurrect her own daughter respectively.

However, looked at from another way, the duology both concern Ethan Winters rebelling against evil matriarchal forms of power. This is most pronounced within Village, wherein the final boss fight is set up as a custody battle between a father and a mother. Of course, Mother Miranda is a villain in the game, but the amount to which she and other female villains are referred to as ‘bitch’ makes a strong case that at least some of the characters’ writing have a streak of misogyny running through them. Having female villains in your game is a neutral entity in terms of discussing gender issues, but the way in which they are treated by the characters and the plot makes these things worth discussing. This isn’t to say this game is necessarily sexist, but that the way in which some characters are treated throughout the duology are interesting to examine through a lens of feminist critique.

What follows the Castle, however, is one of the most effective horror sequences I’ve played in a video game to date, and something I feel makes the game really worth talking about. After the revelation that Ethan’s daughter is already dead and has been mummified in a series of jars, already a disturbing revelation in and of itself, Ethan goes hunting for the second jar in House Beneviento, a small well-kept house in the mountains.

After a section where you explore the empty upper levels of the house, in which the game throws you off guard by being alarmingly un-threatening, Ethan heads downstairs where the real horror awaits. The first part of the level is an extended escape-the-room sequence, where most of the puzzles revolve around a life-sized doll of Mia. Building a horror segment around the thinly sketched relationship between Ethan and Mia is risky, because what we have of their relationship is barely functional. Ethan cares about Mia clearly, having risked his life to save her, but their actual marriage is so barely touched upon that the ending of Resident Evil 7 even allows the player to kill Mia in favour of a woman Ethan barely knows.

However, the dev team manage to do a pretty good job at informing the player about their relationship – and more specifically about their troubles with having a baby through the use of audio clips of Mia that play as you keep finding solutions to puzzles. Whether the audio clips are real or merely some kind of hallucination by Ethan is besides the point, because their impact comes from what they are meant to mean about the relationship, and the fears of having a baby when both people in the couple have some kind of genetic disease. It’s a tricky subject to touch on, but the game’s handling of it is surprisingly restrained for something that comes from the Resident Evil developers, while still understanding that good horror works best when supported with realistic paranoias.

It also helps that this section ends with one of the scariest creatures I’ve seen on screen in quite some time – a large foetus-like creature with a long warbling mouth that vibrates strangely as it moans childlike noises. Babies are a common touchstone for horror, but I’ve never seen one rendered quite as disturbingly as it is here. This does make the boss fight, which otherwise would be a reasonably scary “find the evil doll” mini game, a little bit of a damp squib in comparison to what came before, but for the game to have reached such heights of horror you can excuse the fact it doesn’t seem to have much juice left in that particular tank.

This is represented gameplay-wise by the whiplash change in direction that follows onto the worst segment of the game; the fishman Moreau. As the name implies to those familiar with the H.G. Wells novel, Moreau is a scientist who has worked for Mother Miranda creating the human/animal hybrid enemies, such as the Lycans, that populate the game. However, this segment deals with those disturbing concerns only in optional documents spread throughout the level, and most of the segment involves running around a lake and ziplining across windmills.

The problem isn’t so much that it’s not an enjoyable time, but rather that the previous two Lords have been interesting enough that an abrupt turn into action feels too fast and not justified quite well enough. Coupled with a less than impressive boss fight and the whole sequence starts to quickly fade from the mind. The problem is that much could have been done to capitalise on the grotesque nature of Moreau’s experiments and Moreau himself, who takes on a final form reminiscent of the creature from The Host, all covered in eyes and warts.

The weakness of Moreau’s section is compounded upon by the next and final Lord, Heisenberg, who has another really great segment with his factory that produces human/machine hybrid weapons. Heisenberg himself is more like a Devil May Cry villain with his eccentric older man design and his “funny” personality that breaks much of the tension that should come from scenes with him. Helpfully, it also means that by the time you’re in a huge machine strapped with machine guns firing on him while he walks around in his own scrap iron mech, it’s hard to care too much about the fact that this is a completely different game than it was only a few hours ago. It’s this that maybe justifies the existence of Moreau’s level, by allowing a slightly smoother tonal transition than would have been there if Heisenberg came after Beneviento, because at least Moreau feels more like a Resident Evil horror character than Heisenberg does.

I have seen criticism of the factory level from some critics, with the complaint being that it’s too long and monotonous, but the oppressive monotony made it host to a different kind of horror from the other sections, one which forefronts the kind of rusted body horror exemplified by the mechanical humanoid enemies Heisenberg has created. It’s not without some spectacle as you climb higher into the factory and witness the extent of the machinery which creates these human weapons, but these moments stand out in their odd sense of industrial beauty precisely because the rest of the level exists in tight claustrophobic corridors lit only by glowing red lights and occasional dim lamps. It’s a beautiful contrast to the castle at the start of the game – one that shows a more impressive mastery of level design within a space of almost completely opposite aesthetic values.

After the insane mech boss fight with Heisenberg, Ethan finally meets and is killed by Mother Miranda. From this point on, the game shifts completely into action with Chris’ section and the final boss fight between a revived Ethan and Miranda. Thinking too hard about the plot at this point, however, it’s far easier to see the cracks appear in some of the logic. While Resident Evil 7 would occasionally stretch suspension of disbelief, its relatively simple story meant that there weren’t a lot of plot inconsistencies. In Village, however, the expanded plot means some things become a little bit strange when you think of them. The whole central plot point of the four flasks containing Ethan’s daughter just… opening up a bridge to the factory is something I’m still struggling to understand fully. However, here, tone is everything. By the time these issues become a logical problem, they have ceased to become a tonal one, because the scope has expanded, and the pacing sped up so drastically you won’t have a chance to stop and think.

Speaking of pacing, it’s worth mentioning just how well paced Village is. With perhaps the small exception of the fast change in tone from Beneviento to Moreau or the occasional moments where the factory level drags towards its climax, Village is a game intent on shunting the player from one location to the next without much room to take a breath. It’s so well paced that some of the side activities, like exploring the village and hunting animals for permanent health upgrades,  sort of fall by the wayside. It’s not that these additions are bad or that you shouldn’t make time for them (especially on replays or harder difficulties) but rather that on a first playthrough they will either work against the tightly controlled pacing or be ignored by the player entirely – neither seeming to be the best option for systems which must have taken some work to implement.

Ethan’s death, or lack thereof, is probably one of the best twists in the game. When characters start saying there’s something different about Ethan, it filled me with the dread that he might be some kind of special chosen one with insane powers, rather than the normal schlub he is meant to appear as. Instead, the fact that he couldn’t even make it inside the Baker house in Resident Evil 7 without being murdered is the kind of darkly comic revelation that works so well in a game that has been balancing horror and action on a tightrope like this. Ethan’s increased resistance based on the fact that he’s a zombie helps rectify his incredible pain resilience while not making him into some fabled chosen one.

What makes less sense in terms of revelations are the bizarre and messy attempts to explain all the other horror elements of both Village and 7 as products of Mother Miranda’s messing with the “Megamycete” fungal root – a large mould colony that lives under the village and provides plot convenient powers of resurrection, immortality and a bizarre kind of collective consciousness that means Miranda believes she can resurrect her own daughter in the body of Ethan’s baby, who, as the child of two mould infected parents, is the perfect host candidate. All of this information is delivered to the player in reading various documents around Miranda’s lab, including one bizarre one that connects Miranda to Umbrella Corporation founder Spencer in a particularly eye-rolling way.

Of course, how seriously you are to take any of this probably depends on your experience playing past Resident Evil games, where plot and puzzle critical information is scattered around areas in charmingly lazy ways, making any player assume that the inhabitants of the Resident Evil universe leave more notes for each other than the Bluth family. The problems with it have always been clear – here, it neuters some of Miranda’s real effectiveness as a villain by having much of her personality driven by clunky letter writing, but at the very least it serves as an able set-up for a standard final boss. What’s annoying is that the notes in this section do achieve some subtle storytelling in regards to the other lords, but perhaps a 7 style flashback sequence would have been slightly better at fleshing out Miranda, as it did for Eveline, rather than what we have here.

In the end, Ethan sacrifices himself for his wife and daughter, blowing himself and the Megamycete up as Chris takes Mia and Rose away in a helicopter. Ending with Ethan’s third death leaves the experience on a dour note, but not an unfitting one. Village’s strength as a story is in Ethan above most else, pushing this man to stupid extremes in order to try and get him to quit, but his resilience pays off and he manages to save the day, even if not himself. But an out and out victory wouldn’t quite be tonally appropriate for a horror game like this. In giving Ethan a bittersweet way out, Village manages to end in a way that reconciles its two halves, keeping true to a horror spirit while still leaving room for the big explosions.

Thanks for reading and for waiting. I know the blog has been on hiatus while I worked on personal stuff but it’s good to be back. As always, you can follow me on twitter or donate on patreon. Thanks again!

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