‘Resident Evil Village’: A middling sequel teases with flashes of brilliance



Cover of Resident Evil: Village, the eighth game in the series.

The “Resident Evil” franchise had long been on the decline before 2017’s “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” revitalized the once-titan of survival horror with a refreshing new perspective and a thrilling return to form for the series. “Resident Evil Village,” a direct sequel to “Biohazard,” continues the story of Ethan Winters and his family. Now residing in an unnamed village presumed to be nestled deep within the Romanian Carpathians, Ethan is once again made to contend with a shapeshifting fungal horror, which has decimated a local village and imbued its matriarch and four lords with immense power.

“Village” is actually a rather stark departure from its predecessor, “Biohazard,” in many ways, both tonally and mechanically. Producer Tsuyoshi Kanda has said that the design philosophy of  “Village” was to aim for a less tense experience than the game before it as the team didn’t want players to be in constant fear. Everything about “Village,” from the exotic setting, which is much more spacious and generously lit than the Baker residence in “Biohazard,” to the increased emphasis on combat, upgrades and the inclusion of a recurring merchant à la “Resident Evil 4,” is reflective of this new direction.

But does this approach work? For the most part, I think it accomplishes that goal. Much of the game is solid action-horror fare with a few intense bits sprinkled throughout. The return of the merchant — in this incarnation a comically obese yet enigmatic figure referred to only as “the Duke” — lends itself to some compelling decisions in deciding when best to buy, sell or save. This combined with the expanded inventory management system and the reintroduction of currency — both returning from “Resident Evil 4” — makes the game more logistically engaging than most of its predecessors.

Other changes, however, prove questionable. For instance, there were no mechanical adjustments made with respect to the combat to accommodate the game’s more action-oriented style. Moving and shooting are as sluggish as they were in “Biohazard” — an appropriate feel for that game but dubious when faced with the innumerable bosses and gauntlets of  “Village.” The map, as I mentioned, is more expansive in its design, trading in the filth and rot of the confined Baker house for ornate set pieces and snowy mountain vistas. While the village itself and levels like Castle Dimitrescu and Heisenberg’s factory are quite striking visually, thanks in no small part to the work of the incredible RE Engine and the game’s outstanding art direction, they lack the atmosphere which lent even the less popular levels of “Biohazard” — such as the derelict shipwreck — their intensity. That was Capcom’s goal, of course, but I don’t believe it was the right move to make.

Coming off of “Biohazard,” this game is sorely lacking in the survival horror flavorings necessary to balance out its more absurd and action-oriented tendencies. Take Castle Dimitrescu, for example. Throughout this level, Lady Dimitrescu — who is already an iconic character — dynamically stalks the player in a fashion similar to Mr. X from the recent “Resident Evil 2” remake. Except this whole portion of the game completely foregoes the most essential element of what made Mr. X such an effective and nerve-wracking pursuer: his footsteps, which would, in a stroke of game design genius, telegraph his location to the player no matter where in the police station the player might be. Without any equivalent mechanism to this, Lady D is disappointingly lacking in the presence of something like a Mr. X.

Speaking of Lady D, I arrive now at what I consider to be the game’s most egregious failure. It’s nothing that cripples the experience, but it undoubtedly dampens it. The game’s dialogue is subpar at its best, distractingly atrocious at its worst, and the game’s laughably bad voice direction only exacerbates this deficiency. At almost every turn, in almost every one of the game’s most pivotal scenes, the dialogue completely flounders. An example: Ethan Winters witnesses his wife riddled with bullets in front of him. As she lays dying, Chris Redfield appears before him to finish the job. Having just seen his wife executed, Ethan utters this most venomous and sorrowful of cries: “Chris? What the hell!” Brilliant. Then, as Ethan attempts to confront him, Chris retorts: “Ethan, no.” No? What, is he a dog? What in the hell was going on in the writing room when this was conceived?

I understand that the previous games in the series have never been renowned for their writing and voice direction (especially not the earlier entries), but I don’t recall “Biohazard” or either of the recent remakes of “Resident Evil 2” and “Resident Evil 3” failing so miserably in this regard. It’s especially frustrating in “Village” because it only serves to highlight the wasted potential for engaging characterization and world-building in these cutscenes, something that “Village” commits to, or at least tries to commit to, more than the aforementioned recent entries did.

Again, take the “family meeting” cutscene, wherein the four lords — Lady D, Beneviento, Moreau, and Heisenberg — convene under village matriarch Mother Miranda to discuss what ought to be done with the captive Ethan. Another excellent setup completely squandered. First of all, Heisenburg’s voice hardly matches his character, but worse still, his banter with Lady D is pitifully unengaging. This scene is meant to establish, among many other things, that Lady D and Heisenburg have something of a rivalry. But instead of communicating this through witty repartee and getting us interested in these characters, what we’re treated to is so unrelentingly weak that this moment falls completely flat and I was left more confused than anything else. The delivery of Heisenburg’s dialogue here is questionable, which especially isn’t helped when he’s given such dynamite to work with as: “When a man’s dick is cut off in the castle, blah blah blah.” This is apparently him throwing shade at Lady D, alluding to what may befall Ethan should he be handed over to her, but the delivery of this already shaky line just comes across as painfully awkward. Then, Lady D snaps back: “Quiet now, child,” she says to him, “adults are talking.” It’s just so weak. So juvenile. So cringeworthy. And once again, it’s played as though this is some quick-witted back-and-forth between two old rivals. But nothing about it works.

While we’re on the subject of Heisenburg’s unfitting voice, now is an apt time to raise what I think may actually be the worst offense of all in this regard. I mentioned earlier the voice direction. Well, recall the Louisiana Bayou setting of “Biohazard.” Each member of the Baker family spoke with vocal inflections and cadence in line with the game’s setting. But in “Village,” a game set in the Romanian Carpathians, what are we treated to? Most every character speaks in a plain American accent. Be it an elderly villager, one of the four lords or Mother Miranda herself. Not a single one of them could have been bothered to feign an Eastern European accent. Not a single one of them sounds like they belong. Ethan, who’s meant to be an outsider, an interloper, sounds just as local to the region as any of the rest of the characters do. This pulled me out of the game so frequently that within the first two hours of play, I had to retreat to the main menu and change the language to Russian in the settings. It’s not Romanian, but it’s certainly better than what we got. Frankly, it’s baffling to me how those in charge of directing this game could have been content to overlook something so obvious and so pivotal.

I’ve ragged on the game for a little while now, but I’ve been saving the best for last. And I mean that genuinely. “Resident Evil Village” delivers one of the best survival horror experiences that I’ve seen in any game. Yes, you heard me right. The catch? It only lasts for maybe an hour at most. Once you defeat Lady D, the second lord you must confront is Donna Beneviento and her doll, Angie, which acts as a vessel for Donna. Arriving at the Beneviento Manor after a delightfully chilling walk through a foggy forest, I was surprised to be met with, well, nothing. Nothing much at all for quite some time, in fact. Exploring the manor doesn’t yield much in the way of scares, even as you make your way down to the basement deep beneath the surface. But this in and of itself is a commendable move on the part of the game designers. It’s this very absence that catalyzes an escalating tension, and man does it simmer good.

Deeper still into the basement, Angie finally appears and confiscates your weapons, leaving you defenseless. While you solve the various puzzles littered throughout, the atmosphere compounds masterfully as the game continues to ratchet up the tension and twang at the player’s nerves with impeccable precision. Finally, the game boils over, and the player is assailed with a grotesque and unforgettable payoff which left me slack-jawed in awe. The whole of the sequence which unfolds in the Beneviento basement is, quite simply, one of the most refined and exquisite horror experiences that I have ever had the pleasure of playing through. It harkens back to the best survival horror has to offer. Whoever was in charge of designing this level clearly studied the modern horror classic “P.T.” inside out and backwards, because its influence here is extremely obvious and very much welcomed. It’s just a shame that this level exists almost to the game’s detriment, as it sets the bar so high that nothing else in the game before or after can even get within arm’s reach of it.

“Resident Evil Village” is certainly an interesting title, and not at all what I anticipated from the latest entry in this storied franchise. A direct sequel to “Resident Evil 7” with the action-horror stylings of “Resident Evil 4” and a dash of “P.T.” when the game finally shows its hand for the first, and only, time. The game is of average length, clocking in at around eight to ten hours of game time for a briskly-paced playthrough. Having said all that, would I recommend it? It’s a solid game, to be sure. But I’d first consider the sort of “Resident Evil” experience you’re interested in. Want something more akin to “Resident Evil 4” or just want more of Ethan Winters and his story? Then you may want to pick this up. Want something that plays more like “Resident Evil 7” or want something that leans even further into survival horror? Well, the Beneviento basement level is outstanding, but I don’t think the Beneviento basement alone is enough to command a purchase of the game at full price. In any case, “Resident Evil Village” stands as yet another decent, if somewhat muddled, entry in the continuing success of Capcom’s new era of “Resident Evil.”