Resident Evil Village is not what I expected. At all. I’d kept myself in the dark about the game pre-release so that I could go in without having PR-set expectations, and so, I went in expecting a Resident Evil game. You know, zombies and stuff. You can imagine my surprise when I instead got vampires and werewolves, and a lengthy homage to the greats of gothic horror. It’s still a Resident Evil game. Somehow the developers fabricated a link between the series and this very different aesthetic. But it’s not a Resident Evil you’ll be familiar with.
First, though, I’m going to talk about the Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper Curse of Strahd adventure. Some years ago I sat down to play a D & D campaign with some friends, and it turned out to be the “remake” of the iconic gothic horror RPG. Battling the Dracula clone, Strahd, in his castle of nightmares was certainly an experience, but the most memorable part of the adventure was its opening chapter, where your party of heroes stumbles across the little village that suffers under Strahd’s demonic lordship. It’s under attack by monsters when you arrive, but after you help beat them off, the town becoming a place of relative safety for your heroes to use as a base for forrays against the vampire and his minions. Perhaps it was just that we had a great Dungeon Master to weave a picture, but that little village was an evocative location, where I found myself wondering just what it must be like to live in the middle of such a nightmare, how dark and dread-filled life must be, and what kind of culture would form around life in such a destitute location.
Resident Evil Village did something similar, though the village itself is hardly a safe place to relax this time around. The few survivors that huddle together in the best-guarded buildings they can find must have the most miserable lives, I thought to myself whenever I encountered them. Having that massive castle of nightmares perched in the mountains, casting a deep shadow over the town, must be an intimidatingly claustrophobic thing to see every day. Unfortunately, the game itself doesn’t want you to spend too long in town before moving to its more deadly “dungeons”, but as opening locations go, this one leaves an impression and immediately lets you know that you’ll be experiencing a different kind of horror to what other Resident Evil titles of late has been defined as. This one’s got plenty of action and bloodletting, but it’s almost elegant by contrast to its predecessors, with a much deeper sense of place, and being.
And so, from the village you go explore a series of gothic nightmare locations; there’s a castle that could have been pulled right from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a factory that calls to mind the polluting terrors that blanketed London in pea-soup fog, made it a disgusting place to live, and inspired so many of the urban gothic tales of the time. There’s a mansion that the Grimm Brothers would have been proud of, and sure, they compiled fairy tales, but they were so closely related to the gothic aesthetic. And there’s the village itself, with its grim, snow-enclosed pall. What is perhaps most impressive of Resident Evil Village is that the developers understood the need for there to be genuine quiet moments for the unsettling atmosphere to take hold. As pacey as some of the action sequences can become, there are lingering periods where you’re going to take a breather. In true gothic style, those are often the most evocative moments, as the enormity of the claustrophobic setting starts to crash down on you.
The gothic horror genre has fallen right out of vogue, because, as with any horror, the themes that drove the aesthetic were relevant to the time, and we’re just not frightened of the things that once terrified people reading the likes of Dracula. With that being said, as atmospheric as Resident Evil Village is, and as clearly as it is a work of gothic horror, I am a little disappointed that the game never digs below that atmosphere into the genre themes. This game is a gauntlet of horrible monsters doing horrible things. There’s no spiritual crisis, as formed the thematic core of The Monk or The Castle of Otranto. There’s no moral crisis, as powered Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein. In Village, you’re a dude on a rescue mission for his baby girl and… that’s it. Terrible things happen to him, but that’s as deep and thoughtful as the story gets. Even when the game has a direct opportunity to reference the themes of the text that it is in homage to, it zigs when it could have zagged. Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel is terrifying in no small part because it’s a place of deep eroticism, and that was the source of much fear back in Stoker’s days. Stoker’s vampires were near-pornographic in that book. But when poor old Ethan, the protagonist of Village, has a near-identical experience to Jonathan Harker (i.e. he’s pinned down by a bunch of vampire women in the mood to play), he doesn’t even get to enjoy getting his end up before the biting starts. He’s just impaled on hooks and hoisted up in a cruxifixion pose for later consumption.
When the action heats up, Village is exquisite. As standard for the series, you’re not likely to have enough bullets to down every enemy, so finding ways to skip your way through the occasional battle while also understanding when you’re going to need to stand and fight is a core component. When you do decide to use the arsenal, the guns feel appropriately powerful, but also tense to use, with generally slow recoil and reload speeds that allow those enemies to get ever closer… there are also plenty of instances where you cornered by an enemy that you simply can’t fight back against at that point in time. You’ll be shooting at them, and it’ll be doing nothing. An early scene relies on the enemies actually defeating you in order to progress the plot (don’t do what I did the first time and rage quit if you feel like you’ve hit an impossible scene, because that’s probably it), and plenty of other monsters are simply invulnerable at first. I frequently found myself wasting ammo on those encounters, so I would have liked Capcom to find ways to better suggest what’s going on so players can better read the situation (for example, having a vampire woman say “your bullets can’t hurt me” on the second encounter with her isn’t the way I would have done things), but on balance, the game finds a nice balance between gunplay and the need to run, hide, and avoid.
I also would have liked a greater emphasis on puzzles. I know that puzzles in action games are a risky proposition – make things too difficult and some gamers will give up and organise a review bomb on Steam or Metacritic – but puzzles played a vital role in the earlier Resident Evil games, both in building setting (by forcing you to concentrate on the environment) and pacing (by forcing you to slow down). In Village, the level design in the “dungeons” is primed beautifully for some classical puzzles a-la Resident Evil 1, but in practice the puzzles don’t amount to much more than “this part of the level is blocked off to you for a while, but you’ll cycle back here soon enough with the “key”.
While the above might sound critical, I never wanted to stop playing Village, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, the presentation is just beautiful. Every location that you visit is detailed to the most minute degree, and the winding labyrinths do a great job of dolling out new things to look at at a spot-on rate. The pacing is excellent and energetic, boss battles are truly memorable and intense, and the game does a good job of maintaining the sense of mystery that is so critical to the gothic genre. The why comes quite late into the piece and, while the payoff is questionable, the intrigue that sustains you to it hits all the right notes.
A few years ago, if you had have told me that there would be a gothic horror Resident Evil, I would have laughed. What RE has traditionally done and the gothic tradition are so far apart they’re almost antithetical. And yet, that is what Village has delivered. While this might be a direct sequel to the previous Resident Evil, that dramatic shift in atmosphere and theme makes this game, ironically enough, a Resident Evil for people who have previously not been Resident Evil fans. Don’t worry, existing fans, there’s still plenty there for you too, but Capcom’s willingness to redefine its marquee horror franchise so substantially deserves real credit. The future of this venerable series seems bright when these are the moves that the developers are making.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb