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It’s hard not to compare Resident Evil Village to Resident Evil 4. The villagers turned into ravening beasts by a parasite. The suspicious merchant selling you weapons. The big-ass fish monster. The ten foot tall hot vampire lady and her three comely daughters. OK maybe not that last part but the similarities are undeniable elsewhere. Although Capcom really got their mojo back with the remake of Resident Evil 2 it was Resident Evil 7 that allowed them to find that creative spark again. By doing something different they found a new way to make the original survival horror series scary again. Village doubles down on that.
Four years after the events in Louisiana Ethan Winters has settled down in Eastern Europe with his wife Mia and their infant daughter Rose. Their new life, compliments of series heavyweight Chris Redfield and the B.S.A.A, is disrupted when Chris Redfield arrives and seemingly murders Mia and kidnaps Ethan and Rose. When the truck he’s travelling in is overturned Ethan finds himself in a snowbound village infested with ravenous werewolf-like creatures overseen by four nightmarish lords. All are in the thrall of the mysterious Mother Miranda and it’s up to Ethan to rescue Rose, end the Lycan threat and find out why Chris Redfield pumped his wife full of lead.
Resident Evil Village might just be the scariest Resident Evil yet. Although it’s not the best it still has a lot of fun moments that cancel out the ultimately disappointing boss battles and the awkward shooter it becomes in its final hour. Where Resident Evil 7 felt like a reset with all the uncertainty that came with it Village is confident in itself. There’s a ton of variety to the enemies and the exploration of the village and its surroundings is just as satisfying as exploring the Spencer Mansion was 25 years ago. The scares come fairly organically for the most part in Resident Evil Village. Whether it’s the tense siege situation reminiscent of both the openings to 4 and 5 or seeing a group of hooded ghouls crawl up out of the dark and start shambling toward you Resident Evil Village delivers on the horror end of the scale. That the scripted stuff, particularly in a section clearly inspired by the likes of P.T., is some of the scariest imagery in any video game, ever.
On the other hand the game’s combat is like a beefed up version of the FPS style shooting in Resident Evil 7 and that has its ups and downs. While there’s certainly more variety in enemies and ways to shoot them it can still feel a little awkward moving and shooting as Ethan. He’s still slower than almost any character in other first-person oriented games outside of a walking simulator and although the ability to hop over low walls and ledges makes him more mobile than any Resident Evil protagonist before it’s hard to deny that a little more speed wouldn’t go amiss. It makes boss battles feel a lot more desperate but in the later stages when the game is throwing enemies at you from every direction it can feel overwhelming and, every so often, irritating. It’s as if Call of Duty: Zombies just woke up from a long nap but even when it’s gameplays gets repetitive Resident Evil Village’s story finds new ways to surprise.
Ethan Winters was a bit of a damp squib in Resident Evil 7. He has almost no personality beyond that of wife guy and doting dad this time around but he does talk more. More importantly he stays in the grand tradition of a male Resident Evil protagonist in that he’s a bit dim. What Chris lacked in smarts he made up for in muscles. What Leon missed in the brain department he made up for with his boyish charm and Backstreet Boy hair. Ethan is literally just stupid. And sometimes simple (in both senses of the word) is exactly what you need. He’ll often see things so beyond the frame of human reference it would shatter the mind of a smarter man. Ethan will just scream “Jesus Christ!” and shoot it or calmly observe “There’s something wrong with this place.” There’s a certain charm to Ethan’s idiocy that makes this faceless cipher of a character far more sympathetic than he should be.
It fits then that the puzzles the game drops on you every now and again would be fairly simple in design. Nothing as complicated as the puzzles in Uncharted exist here. There’s nothing in the game that can’t be solved by thinking moderately hard on it for a few minutes. Trial and error, as always, is your best friend. Unfortunately this means that most of the game’s puzzles are pretty forgettable. Ditto the boss fights, which although impressive in scale, never reach beyond shoot-the-glowing-weak-points. At least in 7 you could hit Jack Baker with a car AND duel him with a chainsaw. They’re a fun distraction at best, the real meat of the game comes in fighting off the Lycans, gargoyles and the dudes with drills for arms.
Resident Evil Village takes a lot of its cues from Resident Evil 4 but the best bits are those that push at the boundaries of what Resident Evil can be. The nasty mansion-set psychological horror, the Universal Monster-inspired enemies and the hub-like nature of the titular village all push at the traditional Resident Evil mold and look forward at how this mutating franchise can evolve even as it roots itself in at least some of the aesthetics of Resident Evil 4. It’s the furthest this franchise has ever been from zombies and this expansion into other areas of horror is exactly what it needs. But it also needs to rediscover what made Resident Evil 4’s combat and boss battles so compelling and invest in some more challenging puzzle design. If that can be done there will be none that can try take the survival horror throne.