Resident Evil Village Review
Feels like a different franchise
Finding a consistent direction has always been a challenge for the Resident Evil franchise. The highs of the series have always felt fleeting as Capcom consistently wrestled with itself to figure out if it's more interested in being revered as the gold-standard in horror, or to indulge in action shootouts with bullet-sponge bosses. While I can't argue that Resident Evil has its roots in B-movie shlock-fests, I can argue that those moments have always worked better when used less often. The final fight against Mr. X at the end of Resident Evil 2 is an action set-piece, but it's one that is carefully crafted and executed in an intimate space. Yes, the monster requires about 15 million bullets to kill, but the encounter still feels personal, brutal. This is what the people who shrug off the bombastic action as a feature of the series don't understand. It's not the action that's the problem, it's the way the action is presented and structured. And the structure of Resident Evil Village is something of a horror movie itself; the game is so wildly all over the map, searching for a tone and theme that will work, and coming up embarrassingly empty. As each section unfolds, Village resembles its own monsters, disfigured, bloated, and hideously mutated in the name of misguided progress.
Resident Evil Village isn't the worst thing to come from the franchise, not by a long shot. We're not back to the dregs of Resident Evil 6 or even Resident Evil 5, but Village has more in common with those games than it does Resident Evil 7, the return to form that had many riding high on the series. The shift from RE7 to Resident Evil Village reminded me of the change in quality from the 2019 Resident Evil 2 remake and the 2020 Resident Evil 3 remake. It's not that there's a tremendous dip in quality; it's the fundamental misunderstanding of how to balance the horror, survival, action, and mechanics. This has much less to do with gameplay (though there are problems there too) and art design as it does with direction and level structure. Any five minutes of gameplay in Village might convince you that it's not far off from the highs of the series, but as you play through section after section, you watch the mask slide off as the game dissolves into its wild unhinged climax which left me uninterested in where things go from here.
It doesn't help that Resident Evil Village makes a horrendous first impression. The opening scene of domestic tension demonstrates that as far as video games have come, they're still quite bad at recreating the facade of everyday life. This problem extends throughout the game as the RE Engine is finally starting to show its cracks, though the real problem is Capcom has hired a team of animators that are experts at creating drooling monsters and gooey viscera, but completely lost at animating anything coming close to human emotion. Anyway, the domestic dream is shattered for our hero Ethan Winters when Chris Redfield leads a team of para-military goons into Ethan's home, killing his wife and abducting his daughter. Ethan is then taken to a strange village where their van crashes, he escapes and attempts to rescue his daughter (or what's left of her).
The cutscenes hamstring the whole effort due to the camera angle. The first-person camera worked in Resident Evil 7 because the game was trying to create a feeling of intimacy to the horror, falling in line with recent indie horror hits. It filled the world with confined spaces, slow moving horrors, and nuanced set-pieces which worked well with the camera. Resident Evil Village is in desperate need of the third-person camera because its version of horror is so much more grandiose. Whereas in Resident Evil 7 the bosses were a family of yokels, living off the grid, pathetically wasting away, bosses like Lady Dimitrescu strut triumphantly. There's flair and panache to everything. This game is less about the dirt in the wrinkles of a monster's skin and more about the other-wordly force they exhibit. A late-game boss holds a ventriloquist-like doll in a wedding dress, another brandishes a giant warhammer; there's so much style in these bosses, but it's lost because the game is still focused on a perspective it chose to convey gritty unnerving intimacy. Forcing the spectacle through the first-person lens limits what the game can do with it, so it retreads the same content over and over. Almost every boss seems to hold Ethan lifelessly in its grasp so that the game can show off their design with a close-up.
Disfiguring Ethan is Resident Evil's preferred operating procedure. The game treats him worse than Tomb Raider treats Lara Croft, mangling his body and slicing him up with a playfulness that is almost stomach churning. When it's not manhandling Winters, it's smothering grotesque monsters on the screen. Resident Evil Village is less of a survival horror game and more of an action game, which helps us get to the issue at hand. 2019's Resident Evil 2 didn't generate its scares through cutscene jumps or scripted sequences; it slowly builds its tension through the materials required to kill monsters and how many materials you can find. Village is drenched in ammo and materials at the default difficulty, meaning there's not much survival or horror.
I also felt that Village's movement was cumbersome and clunky. This actually does have some roots in the franchise as Resident Evil has occasionally used cumbersome controls to increase the horror, but I found it annoying in Village because the game is so much more interested in being a shooter. It's an unfortunate surprise since last year's Resident Evil 3 remake felt like one of the better playing Resident Evil games, which was necessary since it also required a high kill count.
Not only are you killing monsters, but you can hunt animals as well. We're treading dangerously close to Far Cry by way of Resident Evil. You can bring the animals you hunt to Duke, a merchant who can turn the animals into food that Ethan can eat for buffs like damage reduction. The merchant is also willing to sell you supplies - and like in Resident Evil 4, it feels like a balance breaker to have a merchant in a survival horror game. The rest of the experience attempts to stick to the formula of Resident Evil games before it - find keys to solve puzzles and progress through the sections of the game until you come to the boss fights.
Also returning is Mercenaries Mode which unlocks at the end of the main story. Resident Evil long tacked-on content like this for a bullet point on the back of the box and the quality of it has varied from uninspired to bad. Like many things about this Resident Evil, it splits the difference between the two. You begin the mode by purchasing weapons and ammo and then try to kill as many monsters as possible before time runs out to get a high score. As the feel of the action in the main game is lacking, the action in Mercenaries mode is underwhelming as well.
The lack of understanding when it comes to theme and tone is on display again when it comes to the game's aesthetic. Yes, this is a AAA Resident Evil game and the budget/people-power required to create the most photorealistic environments is incredible, but as far as the art design goes I think it's a bit middle of the road. I guess some people get scared by empty villages with outhouses and big gothic castles, but the vampires, werewolves, and other monsters feel more like fantasy than horror to me. This game feels closer to something stylishly carried off in a Devil May Cry game than Resident Evil. There's an odd comparison to Resident Evil 4 between the village, the castle, and industrial locations featured in the game, and I dislike the aesthetic in Village as much as I disliked it there.
Like all franchises which have survived decades, Resident Evil is an exercise in balance. I've watched the series flop and flip back and forth - sometimes within the same game as it tried to figure out what it wanted to be. And there's no right answer to what Resident Evil is, just your answer. For me, the more time I spend unloading clips into monsters, the bigger the weapons, and the more over-the-top the action becomes, the more I disconnect. And I disconnected hard and early from Resident Evil Village. From the lampshade line that Ethan gives about “military training” to the open map design, to the blockbuster-style ending, I found Resident Evil Village to be a loud mess of a game that felt like a different franchise being Trojan horse-ed into my living room. And as I watched Ethan hoist another lovingly designed machine gun, and blast away at another hideous creature, I wasn't scared of what would happen to him or what horrors lay in wait. I was scared that in a few years, I would have to play through another game just as loud and just as messy.