Thoughts: Resident Evil Village

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Well, this is embarrassing. I told myself I wasn’t going to buy another Call Of Duty after they switched back to doing their oh-so-tedious contemporary settings, but with the werewolves and the giant castle this newest one at least looked a bit diff – wait, what? This is a Resident Evil game?

I am being deliberately facetious here, but less so than you might think. I skipped Resident Evil 7 because I was dubious about the series being able to effectively make the switch to first-person perspective, and also because I found its Texas Chainsaw Massacre-derived premise to be considerably less interesting than zombie horror. I took a chance on Resident Evil 8 because there were werewolves on the box and those are a much more effective hook for me, not to mention the game also shipping with Mercenaries mode for the first time in forever. (Also I was extremely bored.) Still, I went into it with a certain degree of trepidation, unsure of quite what I was getting myself into; after two decades of third-person horror1 how well would Resident Evil manage to incorporate first-person mechanics?

The answer is: pretty damn well, as it turns out. Rather too well, in fact, to the point where I think it’s backfired considerably.

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Resident Evil Village is a direct sequel to Resident Evil 7 with the same protagonist and supporting cast and plot threads, which makes certain elements of the story a somewhat confusing experience when you didn’t actually play Resident Evil 7. What I picked up from the intro was this: Ethan Winters and his wife Mia have moved to a generic eastern European town to recover from their traumatic experience of being menaced by the super-hillbillies in Louisiana, and to raise their newborn baby daughter Rose. This doesn’t quite stick, as within the first five minutes of the game Mia is riddled with bullets and Rose is abducted by none other than the Resident Evil series’ noted rock-puncher and steroid enthusiast, Chris Redfield.  Ethan reacts to all of this with about the same level of emotion as somebody watching their freshly-buttered piece of toast fall face-down on the floor, and as Chris is clearly suspicious that he’s been replaced with a robot he decides to abduct Ethan along with Rose. This doesn’t exactly go to plan, though, as the kidnapping van is attacked en route to wherever it’s going and Ethan’s guards are murdered, leaving Ethan himself to stumble through the snowy woods until he comes upon the titular (yet unnamed) Village.

This opening segment is, to be honest, pretty awful. Initially I was very impressed with the absurd graphical fidelity of the RE:Engine — Rose is certainly one of the highest-definition babies I’ve ever seen, including most real-life babies — but the first half hour of the game is an entirely linear sequence where you blunder through various buildings, find a pistol that might as well be a popgun for all the use it has against the incredibly dull zombie knockoffs that are pursuing you (certainly you have nowhere near enough ammo at this point for it to be effective) and then have to just evade enemies until an invisible timer ticks down, at which point they all get bored and go away. The game is trying to tutorialise things during this segment which is why it’s so constrained, except it’s not doing a very good job beyond the standard FPS controls — it seemed to think the shelf-barricading mechanic was a very important thing to teach me, but it’s used perhaps twice outside of the tutorial. I got awfully frustrated here because despite the linearity it wasn’t all that clear what my overall objective was and the game wouldn’t tell me, it just stuck me in a small, closed-off portion of the village and waited while I ran around in circles looking for a scripted trigger that would end the monster attack.

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It was also here, while I was frantically dodging monsters trying to figure out what the hell I should do, that I ran into the first weird side-effect of the first-person perspective. Resident Evil Village feels and plays almost exactly like a regular first-person shooter. Aiming feels the same, shooting feels the same, and while Ethan is just a tad slower than the typical FPS protagonist, when he’s sprinting the movement feels the same. I was expecting a few more concessions to the survival horror side of things, like slower reloading, but as things stand it’s just a normal FPS 90% of the time, except with some added Resident Evil-flavour inventory management. And this is a problem for Village, because it lulls your brain into thinking everything is the same and that you can pull the usual FPS movement tricks. For example, in a normal FPS if you saw an enemy winding up for a melee attack you’d just nimbly skip backwards or sideways, the enemy would go through their attack animation and hit the spot where you just were, and you’d carry on blasting rounds into their exposed backside, and to start with I was expecting Resident Evil Village to behave the same way.

However, despite the appearances and the good work that has gone into getting the first-person gameplay of Village to feel as natural as possible, there are times when it feels the need to revert to third-person Resident Evil rules instead, where dodging isn’t really a thing (you’ll only manage it if you’re sprinting forwards at the time and can actively path around the attack radius of each enemy) and if an enemy starts an attack animation you’re usually getting hit unless you can kill them before it completes. This makes a certain amount of sense in third-person where your movement is slower and the enemies don’t have to do too much bullshit auto-tracking in order to hit you, but since Ethan is far more agile than the typical Resident Evil protagonist it’s incredibly jarring to see an enemy just starting their attack animation as you move past them to get to a better position, continue on for several metres — long past the point where they should be able to hit you — and then get rudely turned around by a canned “oh no I’m being stabbed” animation as they instantly teleport through the intervening space to connect with their attack.

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This made playing through the monster attack event particularly annoying, as my brain was screaming at me that this was an FPS and that I should be playing it in a certain way, but Village wasn’t having any of it and kept punishing me with unwanted close-ups of the bland monster designs as they repeatedly sunk their teeth into Ethan’s neck. I actually died during the tutorial because of this, which is not the best first impression a game can make. Now, as it happens this was possibly the one thing the tutorial did manage to teach me: don’t bother with any dodging, just methodically punt bullets into the enemies while walking backwards until they fall over, and thanks to this harsh lesson I didn’t die once in the entire rest of the game.

Still, I’ve mentioned a couple of times before that the silver lining behind a game having an absolutely terrible opening is that it can only really improve from there. Village’s on-rails intro sequence is obnoxious, but it’s at least over relatively quickly and gets you through to some more familiar Resident Evil-looking gameplay that’s more focused around exploration and puzzle-solving. The story structure turns out to be a barely-disguised videogame classic: Ethan needs to collect four Macguffin items before he can get to the end of the game, and to do this he needs to venture into a series of monster theme parks — the Castle Zone, the Haunted House Zone, the… Being Chased By A Giant Fish Zone, and so on — with one of the Macguffins at the end of each one. After completing each zone he returns to the village, which functions as a hub area for the game that gradually opens up as Ethan picks up the necessary items on his travels; here he does a bit of more freeform exploration and secret-hunting before heading off to the next area, and I’d say that the design of the village is one of the few unambiguous successes that Resident Evil Village can point to. It’s not particularly interesting visually, being mostly a collection of wrecked houses stuffed with corpses, and if you look past the careful camouflaging you can see that Ethan’s route through it is actually pretty linear, with each completed zone opening up exactly one locked door and one new sub-area inside that village that leads to the next one. However, the camouflaging is pretty good to the point where you won’t really notice this unless you’re looking for it, and there’s enough secrets and small side areas squirreled away that it feels like exploration is actually worthwhile. I was always happy to return to the village to see what new things I could discover, and ended up digging up the vast majority of the optional items and treasure there — there weren’t all that many of them so it didn’t take that long, but it was the most interesting ongoing activity Resident Evil Village had to offer me.

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The thing is, though, despite headlining the game the village isn’t really the primary focus of Resident Evil Village. If you have paid any attention at all to the pre-release marketing you’ll have noticed that the village was barely mentioned, in fact, with all of the publicity being focused around the game’s first dedicated theme park experience: being chased around a spooky castle by the tall vampire lady. This is actually a pretty good idea for a Resident Evil game (the castle part, anyway, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the tall vampire lady as the rest of the internet seems to be); castles have lots of scope for exactly the sort of needlessly elaborate puzzles and secret mechanisms revealing hidden rooms that have been the series’ hallmark, and at first it looks like Village is going to realise the concept pretty well. Barging through the front door for the first time reminded me pleasantly of entering the mansion in the very first Resident Evil; it’s a seemingly innocuous environment that has that same feeling of eerie wrongness. The castle is fairly well put-together as an environment, with multiple floors that interconnect in different ways, and it’s probably the least linear part of the game with lots of backtracking and secrets to find. And as it’s still the start of the game the castle doesn’t go too overboard with the monsters, either, and gives you plenty of time to consider your next move, as well as soak in the atmosphere.

Really, the castle is almost a perfect little Resident Evil game in miniature — but therein lies the rub: I had thought, given the publicity that it had received, that the castle segment would be a much larger portion of the game. Unfortunately after I’d been round it once and found all of the bits to open the big locked door you encounter shortly after entering the castle, I was thrown into an extremely tedious bossfight with the tall vampire lady — who up until this point had existed as a sort of off-brand Mr X who slowly chases you from room to room, because every Resident Evil game apparently has to have one of them now — and then when I’d killed her I was rudely booted out of the back door to head back to the village. That was it, the castle was over, and it had taken well under two hours from start to finish. I could have gone back, but there was absolutely no need to because each of the game’s theme park zones is entirely self-contained; you can open 100% of the doors and pick up 100% of the loot there on your first time through, and so I did.

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Because they’re so short, and because you never go back to the locations when you’re done with them, and also because with the exception of the castle they’re all pretty linear, every zone branching off from the village hub is nothing more than a normal FPS level that’s got a few Resident Evil things in it like a merchant you can buy guns and equipment from. You’ve got a haunted house where your guns are all taken away and you’re locked into an extremely sub-par escape room, and while I might have enjoyed the obvious care and attention that had gone into making all of Ethan’s interactions with the items in the room extremely tactile and physical, taking all of my guns away is a sure sign that I’m about to have to put up with thirty minutes of on-rails horseshit, and so it proved. Then there’s a cave/lake bit where you’re being chased by a giant fish; this is also entirely linear, incorporates exciting gameplay ideas like “pushing coloured switches”, and culminates in another tedious bossfight where the fish grows legs and an extremely obvious weak spot and starts chasing you on land instead. And then finally there’s a factory manufacturing robot zombies which is straight out of Wolfenstein; I have fewer complaints about this bit, except to wonder what on earth it’s doing in Resident Evil Village since tonally it’s completely at odds with the rest of the game.

(And then you have the game’s ending sequence, which I normally wouldn’t talk about because of the potential for spoilers but which I kind of have to mention because it includes a couple of things that tie into the overall thesis for this review: it gives you night vision goggles and a machine gun with practically unlimited ammo and makes you run down a linear path blasting hordes of enemies, and then when you get to the end of the path you point a laser targeter at a giant thing so that it can be hit with an airstrike. If this all sounds very familiar, it’s because it could have been pasted in from literally any Call Of Duty game released in the last fifteen years.)

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“Tonally incoherent” is a good way to describe Resident Evil Village in general, in fact. There’s not really any through line connecting its various areas together, it’s more a collection of disparate level concepts that have all been thrown into a single game. Why are there zombies and vampires and werewolves2 and giant fish and a robot man all in the same town? There is an explanation given towards the end, but it’s as nonsense as any of the other explanations behind the many bioweapons populating the rest of the Resident Evil games — worse, in fact, since those could at least use “oh yeah it’s Umbrella again” as a catch-all evil-corporation-up-to-no-good excuse. It can’t decide whether it wants to go for standard Resident Evil spooky, Silent Hill-style psychological horror or a more goofy, actiony romp like the Call Of Duty zombie mode, and so it does all of them at once and none of them particularly well. One of the reasons I quite like the village hub area is that it’s at least (mostly) consistent from start to finish where the rest of the game is awkward and disjointed, like it can’t quite muster up the attention span to pursue a single idea for much more than an hour. The variety at least means there’s probably something in here that’ll strike a chord with you — for me it was the castle, but other people might just as equally enjoy the straitjacketed escape room bit or the Wolfenstein factory — but that enjoyment always has a very limited shelf life as you know it won’t be long until Village gets bored of whatever it currently has you doing and moves you on to the next thing.

Anyway, that’s enough about the level design; I found it extremely disappointing since I’ve always thought the level design was the most interesting part of Resident Evil, but it’s by no means the only one and I also have a lot to say about the combat system, monster design, and a particularly baffling narrative decision that’s been carried forward from Resident Evil 7. As already stated, Village’s combat is practically indistinguishable from a regular FPS save for a few (incredibly annoying) edge cases.  Because this is a Resident Evil game there’s less weapon variety than you might expect from an FPS; while there are eleven or twelve distinct guns in the game most of them are straight upgrades from previous models, so you’ll pick up a new shotgun that has bigger numbers attached to it and immediately sell the old one because it’s now obsolete. The basic weapon archetypes boil down to pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenade launcher — Village is even freer with the explosives than the Resident Evil 3 remake was, with Ethan getting access to mines and pipe bombs very early on — with the magnum existing off to the side as something you use on very special occasions because the ammo for it is incredibly scarce in comparison to the vast quantities of pistol bullets, shotgun shells and sniper rounds the game vomits at you.

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Yes, I’m sorry to say that Village sticks closely to the Resident Evil 3 model of the player being expected to kill every single enemy they come across (on Standard difficulty, anyway), and being handed more than enough ammunition to accomplish this task several times over3.  I almost never felt the pinch of running out of ammo, never felt like avoiding enemies was a better idea than gunning them down, and this is a particularly acute problem in a first-person Resident Evil game because gunning everything down happens to be the exact same thing I do in every other FPS that’s not a Deus Ex or a SWAT. Not only that, but Village is the second Resident Evil game to walk back the detailed damage model shown off in the Resident Evil 2 remake, where you could stagger zombies to run past them or saw off a limb to slow them down; here most enemies just take 8 rounds to the chest or 6 to the head and then they fall over. It’s a much less interesting way of handling things; there’s no higher level tactical thinking going on, no clever use of the smaller weapons on trash enemies to save your big ammo for tough encounters, you just fire off whatever you’ve got at the time just like you would in Halo or Doom, happy in the knowledge that more will be along shortly.

(There was a single moment in Village where I did feel ammo-constrained. I’d found an item that unlocked a crypt hiding some treasure in an area of the village that I’d already been through, and I went back to dig it up. What I didn’t know was that doing this would spawn a late-game miniboss that I wasn’t equipped to deal with at this point. I took it down using every single mine, pipe bomb, shotgun shell and sniper round that I had, leaving me with just eleven bullets for the pistol. I then sold the treasure and bought up the merchant’s entire stock of ammo which meant I wasn’t totally screwed, but it still meant I had to be extra frugal for the next twenty minutes or so until I’d built my ammo reserves back up again. I wish more of Village had been like this instead of the arcade blastathon it actually is.)

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To be completely fair to Village, I at least accept its being this gun-happy as a legitimate design decision in a first-person game — more so than I did in the Resident Evil 3 remake, anyway. Yes, it doesn’t feel much like a Resident Evil game at all (well, except for maybe Resident Evil 4), but it’s not like it does the mechanical business of shooting everything in sight badly. There’s even some pretty okay monster design once you get past the halfway point of the game and it starts mixing in harder monsters with its bog-standard zombie knockoffs: armoured enemies that require use of explosives to remove the armour before you can kill them (this is why Village is more generous with things that go boom than any Resident Evil game before it), who are then upgraded to robots with glowing weak spots that they cover with their hands and which you need to wait for a window of opportunity in order to strike. None of this is anything I haven’t seen a thousand times before, of course, but it does the job of injecting some much-needed thoughtfulness back into the combat; it was much more interesting to fight one robot than it was to have five zombies crawl out of the ground, because the robot required intelligent movement and precision aiming while the zombies just demanded I pay a bullet tax before I could move on to the next room. I will also concede that it was perhaps a mistake for me to play this on Standard difficulty; the harder settings reduce ammo drops and also spawn more of the tougher, more interesting enemies in place of the zombies, which definitely feels like it would bring things closer to what I expect and want from a Resident Evil game.

No matter what difficulty setting I’d picked, though, I’d still have to contend with the last and most baffling design decision Resident Evil Village makes, which is to give its protagonist Ethan Winters full-on Wolverine-style instant regeneration powers. Resident Evil protagonists have always been implausibly resilient, of course, nonchalantly shrugging off being clawed, bitten, stabbed and poisoned with the aid of the omnipresent Green/Red/Blue Herbs, but Ethan takes it to another level. I raised my eyebrow when a baddie telekinetically impaled him through the stomach with a piece of rebar during a cutscene and he just walked it off afterwards, but that’s not hugely out of the ordinary for the series. Said eyebrow was winched further skywards during another cutscene when Ethan has hooked chains shoved through the palms of his hands and is left to dangle from the ceiling; he frees himself by pulling downwards and causing the hooks to slice all the way through to the outside of his hands, which is certainly one way of doing it but which I thought would rather interfere with any subsequent attempts to e.g. use guns, or open doors, or do anything in the game now that he’s cut through all of the major muscle groups in his hands, but it turned out that after pouring a bit of healing chemical over the wound he was perfectly fine.

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Still, while all of this was putting ever more strain on the thin thread suspending my disbelief, I wasn’t expecting Resident Evil Village to consciously and enthusiastically go out of its way to snap it entirely. The moment that caused my eyebrow to achieve escape velocity came towards the end of the castle, when Ethan reaches his hand forwards to pull a switch (there’s a lot of hand abuse in this game, as it’s the only part of Ethan’s body the player can consistently see) only to have it instantly sheared off by something very sharp. We’re no longer talking about something that can be glossed over with Video Game Logic here; his hand remains firmly attached to the switch lever while he pulls the bloodied stump back and screams. That hand was definitively and irreversibly gone — or at least, I thought it was because what’s he going to do, stick it back on? Alas, this turned out to be quite literally what happens; Ethan manages to eventually pull the switch with his other hand, collects the severed one on his way through the opened door, and then re-attaches it during a short elevator ride afterwards.

Again, to be completely fair to Village it’s at least somewhat aware that this is very, very stupid and the hand-severing incident is partially played for laughs, with Ethan’s shredded coat sleeve also miraculously knitting both halves together — does the coat have regeneration powers too? I did a bit of reading later and it turns out that there was some stuff that happened to him in Resident Evil 7 to justify it narratively, but the effect it has on this game is to kill any sense of tension Village might otherwise have had stone cold dead. If you can’t hurt the protagonist, then what on earth are the stakes? Sure, Ethan will die if his health reaches zero, but that’s more of a necessary mechanical detail than anything else, just like the screen getting more and more covered in red jam in Call Of Duty; I watched him get used as a chew toy by werewolves and gutted by robot zombie drills and felt absolutely nothing because narratively it didn’t matter and mechanically the only health point that matters is the last one. Maybe if he had a bit more of a personality I’d be willing to roll with the absurdity of it all, but Ethan is incredibly unlikeable, spending most of his time screaming at people to tell him what’s going on, and then when they tell him what’s going on he continues to scream at them to tell him what’s going on while they very slowly shut a big door cutting him off from the previous bit of the level, presumably because they can’t stand talking to him any more. And when I hate the person I’m playing, and when he’s literally demonstrated to be nigh-on unkillable, why would I give the tiniest iota of a shit what happens to him in the game?

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And so by a somewhat circuitous route we come back to the not-really-a-joke I made at the start of the review. We have established the following points:

  • Resident Evil Village looks and feels indistinguishable from a normal FPS.
  • Resident Evil Village is extremely free with ammo and expects you to kill every enemy you come across by shooting them until they die.
  • Resident Evil Village has long scripted chase/attack sequences, as well as first-person cutscenes where control is taken away from you and you have to watch Ethan doing something irredeemably stupid4.
  • Resident Evil Village is pretty linear, all things considered, with almost no compulsory backtracking aside from wandering back through the village every now and then to get to the next area..
  • Resident Evil Village isn’t scary. At all. It’s not even unsettling. It is, at best, mildly tedious.

So while it is a bit facetious to call this a Call Of Duty game with some light Resident Evil branding, it’s also a description that’s not a million miles wide of the mark. It strikes me as having a lot of the same problems the latter two iterations of the Metro series had, where they abandoned the interesting environmental elements that characterised the first game in favour of making it first into an actual CoD-derivative shooter in Last Light, and then an extremely shallow open world game in Exodus; both games still had a few bits that felt like Metro, and those were good, but the rest of it felt like a low-budget knockoff of something that had been executed on better elsewhere. Village never gets quite that bad, thankfully — I’d say that as much as 40% of the game still feels like Resident Evil, and the parts that don’t are at least competently done — but it’s still compromised far too much on the core series USP of tense, measured exploration in favour of a more mass-market approach where you blast your way through shooting galleries full of zombies5. Sadly it’s looking like this might be yet another Principal Skinner moment on my part, as most people seem to love Village — or at least they like it more than I do — and it’s sold extremely well. I personally can’t help but be disappointed, though, especially since Village has just enough good bits to make me rue the missed opportunity that the bulk of it represents.

  1. Well, if you ignore Resident Evil Survivor, and that other Resident Evil gun game that was set on the boat.
  2. Although it turned out the box art was extremely misleading, since there are only three werewolves in the entire game.
  3. I was chatting about this with friends and a comparison to Doom Eternal came up, because — hilariously — Ethan can and will carry far more shotgun shells in his inventory than Doomguy can.
  4. All Resident Evil games have these, of course, but the tenor is somewhat different when you’re watching them through the protagonist’s eyes.
  5. Yes, I’m very aware that this is exactly what Resident Evils 4 through 6 did as well, but only one of them is talked about as a classic in the same way that the first three games are.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Resident Evil Village

  1. Darren says:

    Honestly, I think REVII would have been more your speed. While I think the enemies it threw at you tended to be too beefy and dangerous for the narrow corridors you often found them in, it was still much more about enemy avoidance and resource management than REVIII (which I liked much more than you, it seems). It also had a few clever puzzles, and more meaningful exploration overall than Village, since you largely weren’t locked out of earlier areas and could backtrack for valuable items basically all the way back to the first area. Whether or not it is scary probably comes down to personal taste, but I found its depiction of Southern America more believable than a weird Eastern European mishmash where everyone has an American accent.

    • Hentzau says:

      Yeah, Village has at least convinced me that there might be something in this first-person RE game business. I did a quick playthrough of the Resident Evil 1 remake as a palate cleanser after Village (it’s still got it, even after 19 years) and found myself wanting to fill in my gaps in the mainline series — I haven’t played 6 or 7, so I’ll probably try and catch up on them before the end of the year.

      And, you know, it’s not like Village is *bad*. It’s extremely well-made for what it is, it’s just not what I’m looking for from a Resident Evil game.

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