Old and new collide in the tense, action-packed Resident Evil Village

Articles: Gaming
May 15, 2021 Written by:Eric Born

Even in the game’s first act, I felt bad for Ethan’s hands. Due to Resident Evil Village’s first-person perspective, a relative novelty for the series, his paws are my only visual connection to him. Capcom gets a lot of mileage of those poor, battered appendages, though. I watched them climb rail by rail down a rickety ladder into an abandoned well. I watched vampires pierce them through with hooks, and then I watched Ethan rip free. When he needs a bit of health, Ethan splatters antiseptic liquid on them. And somehow, with no explanation at the time, one of them is even fully severed and then mysteriously reattached.

Spoilers for Resident Evil Village follow—proceed at your own risk.

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That’s only the physical abuse that Ethan endures in Resident Evil Village. The emotional trauma is equally horrific. Just a few minutes into the game, his wife is gunned down in front of his eyes and his firstborn child is kidnapped. He’s hauled off, as well, but a car accident leaves him alone and helpless in a desolate European village blanketed with snow. There, he learns that the path to rescuing his daughter is blocked by the mysterious Mother Miranda and an army of zombies, werewolves, vampires, and other assorted nightmares.

Ethan made his series debut in the claustrophobic, unrelenting Resident Evil 7, a game that proved that Capcom is second to none when it comes to cinematic horror gaming. Village continues that tradition. Throughout the game’s opening act, I was struck by its careful use of visual framing to rivet my attention to the drama of each moment. Minutes after I found a group of surviving villagers, a wounded man turned into a zombie in front of my eyes, and a fallen lantern set the wooden structure ablaze as he attacked the group. I pushed his traumatized daughter down a hallway toward safety, but my pistol barely slowed the monster down as he followed us. Framed by tongues of fire and fallen bodies, the zombie charged into the crumbling hallway—and was flung backwards like a rag doll. I turned to see his daughter holding a shotgun, a grim look of despair in her eye.

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Fans of the atmospheric, mounting tension so expertly constructed in RE7 will revel in Village’s nightmarish second act in the house of dollmaker Donna Beneviento. Shortly after I arrived at that apparently abandoned building, I mysteriously lost all the weapons in my inventory, and had to make my escape with nothing but my wits and desperate determination. I found that I couldn’t play this section too close to bedtime. The atmospheric sound design and mysterious movements of doors and paintings got my heart pounding, and the rows of dolls and mannequin parts constantly triggered the uncanny valley effect in me. The most difficult section was when I had to closely examine and partially disassemble a mannequin modeled after Ethan’s dead wife. The image of rolling her wooden eyeball around in its socket to find a clue will haunt me for a long time.

village-3Image source: Gamesplanet

Fortunately for my blood pressure, Village gave me more action in its other chapters. It’s much easier to face a nightmare when I can fill it full of lead. Some of my friends would have preferred to see the whole game constructed more like the Beneviento act, but the action-oriented sections reminded me pleasantly of my favorite moments in Resident Evil 4. Like that title, which balances survival horror with plenty of mayhem, Village has satisfying, visceral gunplay. While it made me scrounge for ammunition, it never left my magazine completely empty, either. Customization options made me a more lethal combatant as the game progressed. Through the Duke, an obese merchant with an uncanny knack for setting up shop in the village’s most hostile locations, I can upgrade my favorite weapons, purchase weapon mods, and turn in raw food supplies for stat-buffing meals.

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The sequence of Resident Evil 4 that I’ll always remember is the first major battle in the central village. I’ll never forget the adrenaline-fueled tension of dodging deranged villagers in the tight spaces between buildings, blockading the windows of a small house, and fending off a chainsaw-wielding madman. Village recreates that experience for me, but makes it fresh and new with richly detailed interiors, the labyrinthine twists and turns of the deserted streets, and the relentless attacks of fast-moving werewolves. Every moment of the game is a visual spectacle, but an open stretch of ground in the village covered with overgrown grass showed me how modern graphics are more than just window dressing in this game. Through the swaying grass, I could catch glimpses of circling enemies, but only just enough to plan my frantic route to the relative safety of the next house.

Before long, I learned that the village is a hub that connects four distinct adventures together into one whole. To rescue his daughter, Ethan has to face off against the four lords and ladies of the village in addition to their mysterious leader, Mother Miranda. Each adventure emphasizes different aspects of gameplay without feeling like a separate game.

Lady Dimitrescu’s castle offered me the compelling blend of action and horror that I was hoping to find in this title. This section sparked the imagination of fans worldwide in the leadup to the game’s launch, and it’s the one that I’m most looking forward to playing again on my next time through. The pacing of this act is impeccable. Village gave me time to explore the opulent interiors without a monster lurking around every corner, and then dialed up the tension through desperate fights deep in the castle’s cellars and a series of encounters with Lady Dimitrescu’s vampire daughters. Once the castle’s elegant mistress decided to take matters into her own hands and dispatch me herself, the chapter became a breathless getaway culminating in a hair-raising boss fight on the rooftops.

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Castle Dimitrescu is a masterclass in level design, and it also renews my excitement for the direction that game graphics are going. I’m still pinching myself over the fact that real-time ray tracing is not only here, but playable at high frame rates. The glittering of light across elaborate chandeliers, the smoky translucence of aging window panes, and the realistic play of reflections across a rippling pool of spilled wine in the cellar—or was that blood?—make the castle uniquely realistic and immersive.

The best Resident Evil games know exactly where and when not to take themselves too seriously. As monstrous as his final form was, I never could resist mocking the stature and outrageous tricorn hat of Salazar in RE4. Village, too, knows when to intersperse moments of moments of levity with the horror. After watching a young woman fall to a fiery death after foolishly attempting to save her father, Ethan melodramatically shouts, “Why’s everyone dying on me?” If you have to ask that question in a ruined village ruled by monsters and overrun by zombies and werewolves, Ethan, maybe you are the “stupid man-thing” that Lady Dimitrescu says you are.

Dialogue like that adds just the right amount of camp to the game, and suggests to me that I’ll be enjoying this game for many years to come. I played Resident Evil 4 during every Halloween season for many years, and Village might be the game to finally take its place. As when I rewatch The Princess Bride and say all the best lines along with the characters, there’s a special fun in replaying a well-loved game and miming its dialogue as it happens. Village lets me indulge that inclination with a memorable selection of meme-worthy lines.

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I’m not quite ready to declare whether Village is a great Resident Evil game or the greatest Resident Evil game, but I can say that I started to eagerly anticipate my next playthrough even during my first run. The graphics are incredible, the villains are unforgettable, and it offers a unique and satisfying blend of horror and action. After sixteen years, Capcom has finally released a true sequel to the genre-defining Resident Evil 4, and I can’t recommend Village enough to series diehards and newcomers alike.