Is jumping in blind to a beloved franchise really the best way to start reviewing it? Is Chris certified to review horror games? Is that going to stop him?
Introduction (and Disclaimer)
First and foremost, I’d like to get a few things out the way. I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to jump scares, and I’m not generally a fan of horror games. It took me awhile to get through the Dead Space franchise because I had to get up after every chapter to take a nice walk in the park or relieve myself. The anxiety of talking to normal human people gets me in a bit of a state sometimes depending on the day, so giant grotesque beings of pure unadulterated evil being my primary conversation partners in a game doesn’t bode well to a quick playthrough for me.
Beyond that, Resident Evil is a franchise that I’ve looked at for the last decade or so as “that franchise I’d like to play except for all the spooky stuff”. I like zombies occasionally, and the franchise definitely loves to shuffle it up, so I was excited when the REboots started coming out. However, with work and a pandemic going on, the last thing I wanted to play after a long day dealing with mindless zombies (yay, retail) and a plague was dealing with more mindless zombies and a plague.
So, take it with a grain of salt when I say I don’t quite get some of the nuances of this horror game coming out as a section of a beloved franchise. This is not the game made for me, a newcomer, who hasn’t played the franchise (or worse, the direct prequel that came before this). For the most part (except for one fairly decent rant), I’m limiting my review to things that I can argue bolster or weaken the experience of Village as an entertainment experience, and not as a part of an established series. I could easily talk at length on how some things don’t make sense, like a briefcase inventory in a game where no briefcases are ever really shown, or a heart monitor for a healthbar instead of something more sensible, or a fat merchant that somehow moves faster than me from location to location. I could say these things are weird in a brooding horror setting, but it’s also part of the Resident Evil charm, wherein all these things I call flaws are, as an expert in the field called them, homages to previous entries in the series.
So, with that incredibly lengthy disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin… or let’s continue, I suppose, the story of Ethan Winters.
Part One: Story
Village continues where the prior installment left off, with Ethan Winters enjoying a lovely non-monstrous evening with his wife and daughter. It’s crazy to me that all these horror sequels act like the life-changing events didn’t scar them for life or leave everyone catatonic, and for once, our protagonist seems to break the mold. See, Ethan wonders aloud why everyone just seems okay with brushing the horror of Louisiana, and it really pisses everyone off how wound up he is about near-murder all the time. It’s a hell of a good way to get the ball rolling though, by establishing a rift between the protagonist and his would-be allies, as well as providing a frame of reference for the horror that’s about to unfold. See, in most horror games, there’s this annoying sense that there’s no life outside of the creepy crypt or the creepy castle. Here, we see Winters just relaxing by the fire for about ten minutes, giving me the sense that he’s gotten a bit of rest since his previous adventure. At least he doesn’t have to deal with that insanity for too long, though, because his wife gets shot in front of him and he and his daughter are taken into the custody of Chris Redfield, series veteran and until-now supposed protagonist.
Upon waking, you’re down one baby and your captors, leaving you stranded on the side of the road with only one goal: finding your baby. Now, this is a second thing that I gotta give this game: finding your baby is a definite goal for both the player and the character; I just finished holding this tiny tot about five minutes prior, and I want that baby back and safe. Ethan, not to be outdone, would stop at nothing to rescue her as well, giving both sides of the gameplay experience the motivation to proceed.
Now, as this game is fairly story-centric, I won’t go too hard into spoilers until the bottom of this segment (hidden from view, away from those who wish to avoid them). However, I do need to talk about few hairy issues that keep me from loving this game. So, as a compromise, I’m writing two different versions, one with spoilers and one without. Feel free to read one or the other, depending on your preference.
The most notable takeaway from the main contingent of reviews on this game’s story is the praise heaped upon the pacing. Now, maybe I’m a simple man, and don’t quite understand the nuance of grandiose screenwriting, but for the most part, I don’t quite get that conclusion. This game has four acts, each with a definite conclusion, yet the timings for each act feel very off to me. The rising tension of the first two acts is perfect, and I was absolutely on the edge of my seat for all of it. Coincidentally, this was the part of the game that hooked me. In fact, if the first two acts had been the whole game, I’d probably be giving this game more praise. The pacing was incredible, and the second act ends with a certain level of finality that has to be seen to be believed. However, at the end of the second act, the pacing slows down as Village crams in another three to six hours of gameplay and story.
At this point, all tension melts away as I slog my way through two fetch quests or varying degrees of intrigue, waiting with bated breath for the pace to pick back up. Alas, the slow burn continues until the start of the third act, where we have an abrupt, but not entirely unwelcome, uptick in pacing until the end of the game. This however, is where my interest in the story died. Too many false starts and too many plot threads getting launched at my head made me long for the game to finish properly. I felt like there were two games in here, one about a man rescuing his daughter, and one episodic anthology about scary things that go bump in the night; while I wouldn’t mind either on their own, I couldn’t get into both at the same time.
All in all, though, the conclusion seems to wrap up the story nicely enough, and I was happy with how things ended up (for the most part, despite a few issues with how certain characters get handled). I can’t say I’m a fan of cliffhangers or sequel-setups, but it’s a relatively minor gripe and wasn’t so overpowering that I felt like it devalued the ending.
Starting with the first act, we run into our first major problem: too many cooks in the kitchen. Upon entering the titular village, you learn of Mother Miranda and the gang of evil that haunts this town. This gives you your introduction to the main opposition, but doesn’t quite know how to squeeze them all in. Heisenberg feels important, and Dimitrescu takes center stage, but Mother Miranda is a bit too vague of a threat, and Moreau/Beneviento are just kind of present in the scene. I don’t really see much need for so many villains, to the point where there’s already a clear bias towards three individuals.
The second act giving you the Mistress of Memes and her daughters is all well and good, and the tension throughout the castle is palpable. I thoroughly enjoyed sneaking around, and while the boss fights with the daughters are a bit jarring, I liked exploring and trying to find Rose. The biggest gripe here is with the potential fix for the rest of the game. If we’d seen a bit of an extended second act, one that swallowed the last two acts, I’d have been more than happy. Imagine, if you will, the castle and village being the focal points, with Lady Dimitrescu working more closely with Mother Miranda in her castle, and Heisenberg mostly controlling the rabble outside. Traversing between the two dynamically to further your progress, in turn keeping the focal point on Rose being kept in the castle, would have potentially given me more drive.
Instead, we conclude the second act with a grandiose finale, one where the second-most charismatic villain turns into a giant beast and flies about the place. I’ll be honest, my thought process at this point was “damn, this game is shorter than expected, I wonder what all that fluff with Heisenberg was about, maybe sequel-bait”. When I grabbed a vial of goo at the end, I was thinking it would be some sort of continuation story, or maybe I’d be replaying the game with different branching paths.
However, I return to town and the merchant gives me the exposition dump. “You only have part of your daughter, and you’ll have to get the other three parts in order to fix her back up”. At this point, I was in the downhill stretch of my waning interest. I just had a big climactic fight with a demonic dragon, and now I’m collecting stuff? But then again, maybe these fetch quests will be quick and painless.
Unfortunately for the game, I slog through an (admittedly intriguing) escape room that takes a little bit too long to finish, culminating in a bit of an anti-climactic hide and seek game. Now, I actually enjoyed the plot threads here, but after dealing with some insane terrors of the night, I didn’t particularly feel the fear in this section. I was on autopilot after seeing the wife hallucinations, and actually marched right up to the creepy baby fetus thing and died the first time. That didn’t help the tension, actually, since once you die to the grotesque thing, it loses all terror and becomes just a slightly annoying obstacle.
At least I can agree with most people on Moreau being the weakest of the bunch, however. I either got through his section quicker than planned, or there wasn’t much to begin with, because I don’t think I ran into more than three dudes before hitting up the boat and engaging with the boss fight. However, Chris Redfield’s surprise appearance was the thing that sealed this section as the worst for me. He comes in, drops some self-redeeming bullshit, and gets whisked away back to sideline-ville before he can do anything remotely interesting. He could’ve shown up at literally any point during this act at the village and given us something more, and I was honestly waiting for it after seeing his shit piled everywhere in the church. Yet, all we get is a small glimpse in the middle of arguably the weakest boss fight in the game. Moreau was better than Beneviento, if only because he seemed to have some tenuous connection to the plot. Yet, grabbing my RoseBits™ from the sea monster, I was left wanting this to be DLC or something, some side character dealing with a creepy story (hell, the storybook at the beginning gives us ample room to have a fantasy world of DLC sidequests that handle these encounters).
Dealing with Heisenberg was perfectly fine, if a little over-long. I can’t say I was a big fan of the factory, not because of the pacing but because of the “catch and release” that’s been going on with Ethan. I could’ve mentioned it earlier with Miss Vampire, but it’s at this point I start really wondering why we have villains that prefer to grandstand as opposed to finishing the job. Sure, Heisenberg wants to overthrow Mother Miranda, and wants Ethan’s help, but once Ethan refuses, why leave his killing to a henchbeast? That said, it’s at least more interesting than the previous two villains, so I’ll give the slightly extended encounter a bit of a break. Until, at least, Chris shows up out of nowhere with a big fuck-off tank contraption. It’s a bit out of left field, and it feels less like Ethan overcoming adversity against evil and more like Ethan got a stimulus bonus from Mr. Government Man. At least for the most part, it kind of makes sense with Heisenberg’s theme of innovation and evolution for Ethan to kill him with an innovation of Heisenberg’s own design. That said, you don’t get to relish in your victory too long, as Mother Miranda unceremoniously dumps you to your “grave”, ripping out your heart and working on finishing her ceremony. This is also where you begin to learn about your true nature of being Molded, a gentically mutated super-soldier capable. Or, you would be learning about learning your true nature if it weren’t telegraphed by your unnatural healing abilities throughout the game.
Shifting protagonists briefly works really well as a framing device for the story, as going from a “just barely surviving” father to the “no-nonsense veteran” hero gives you a bit of catharsis. I was scraping through encounters with massive hits to my health and sanity before, but playing as Chris, with fully-automatic gear and a brilliant support team, left me feeling refreshed and prepared for the rest of the game.
The final fight, however, felt a bit like a cop-out. Mother Miranda turns into a big beastie, and dicks you around for a bit before dying. I have more to say about that, and a few other boss fights, in the next part of this review, but suffice to say it was a bit anti-climactic from the story side. This was the grand puppet-master, and she just hulks out on you? At least you get to rescue your daughter before collapsing into despair at being a pile of mold, but all of this feels a bit unearned and a bit defeatist. Turns out the only thing that you need to beat the embodiment of evil is a couple of bullets, and the only reward you get is watching your player character have a hissy fit at the end where they sacrifice themselves for no real reason beyond “I’m not a real person so I guess my entire drive has disappeared”.
Part Two: Gameplay
Story problems aside, the gameplay in Village is, according to my “insider source” (read, roommate and longtime fan of the franchise), some of the best in the series. The gunplay feels tight and the crafting isn’t too obtuse. I love feeling like my misses are my fault, as opposed to a glitch in the system, and my favorite moments are finding ways to deftly handle a mob of enemies without taking too much of a resource hit.
The difficulty is interesting, however, due to a few small issues. I played on stereotypical default difficulty, since I didn’t want to be burdened by perfect gameplay execution nor did I want to breeze through it (for more on difficulty), so I wasn’t expecting immediate death, yet I breezed through this game without more than a handful of deaths. In fact, there’s only five deaths off the top of my head, and the first two were entirely due to misunderstanding a particular objective. It’s a bit tough for me to consider this a challenging game when I never really felt like I was close to death… except when the threat could kill me instantly. I died twice on encounters that had two states: success or failure. Most enemies take a few hits to kill you, which is no big deal if you keep a cool head, and this is where I enjoyed the difficulty. Timing death traps or assuming something isn’t dangerous due to past experience, however, is something where death or survival becomes rote pattern memorization. This goes beyond two scripted sequences in the story and into the oft-lauded creeper enemies of the game (Lady D in this game). I don’t mind a bit of tension when wandering a creepy place, but just with complaints I’ve heard of about Mr. X and Nemesis, there’s something less tense about the situation once you know there’s not much to be done about them except waiting for them to mosey out of your way.
As a quick aside, you know what made me tense in all the right ways? Night sequences in Dying Light, where you were pursued like crazy by a bunch of faster, stronger, and more durable zombies that could really lay into you. I always felt anxious going out at night because I knew it would be a race to safety. How are these different from the creeper enemies of the RE franchise? Well, for starters, I could take them down given enough firepower, which gave more of a choice with the creatures. Normally I’d want to run away, but getting cornered didn’t mean the reversion of a save or a respawn back at a camp, but instead a hopeful moment of survival (and the slim chance that I’d have enough skill to defeat both the mega-zeds and the horde they’ve now attracted). To me, it’s this sliver of hope that kept me on my toes. With the RE Village creepers, there’s nothing you can really ever do about them except dance around them. Maybe the fact that they’re just present in the scene makes me less stressed and more bored?
I’ll ignore the death that happened due to a bug throwing me off a plank and into a lake, because that’s not really meant to happen, I would imagine, though I’ll not that there were several times where an objective left me scratching my head. In the first big setpiece moment, you’re beset on all sides by a horde of monsters, with the vague objective to get to a special house in order to survive. However, this house is beyond a locked gate that doesn’t open until a scene triggers after surviving for an arbitrary amount of time. I died those first two times due to having no idea what they wanted me to do, and the time I managed to finish it, the trigger was essentially the same monster throwing me out of a house the same way he threw me out the last two times, except, I don’t know, I survived better that time?
There are cool ways of handling these “holdout moments” in gaming (Halo: Reach was a masterclass on this). Provide players with enough context to understand the hopelessness of a situation, and provide a seamless transition to the next scene. Did it really matter if I got knocked to death’s door two minutes in versus five minutes in? If the end result is the same, why punish me for not making it harder to kill/main/capture me? In fact, I’d argue it would make for some pretty interesting replays if there were different comments from certain characters depending on how well you did in certain sections like that, but alas, you either survive to hit the imaginary timer, or you die. To me, it’s such a waste.
But, should I say the game is “a bit easy” if I was running on fumes the whole time? I asked my roommate about why I was always so low on ammo throughout the game to complain about the balancing of the ammo-to-threat ratio, and he told me it was odd for me to not have enough ammo throughout the game on my difficulty. The game must be doing something right if I’m burning through ammo so fast, so I’ll give Village the benefit of the doubt there. I could’ve probably used my knife more here and there, but I guess it never dawned on me to use the knife against enemies that are all melee-based. Something about using a knife to attack dudes with axes when I have a shotgun handy just seems a bit wrong to me, but hey, to each their own!
The gameplay is pretty spot on, despite my seemingly endless complaints from above, and I enjoyed ninety percent of it. The ten percent that left me a bit upset was perhaps a bit petty. See, puzzles are near and dear to me, and I enjoy cracking them. When the game fails to mention elements of a puzzle, however, or pieces of said puzzle don’t mesh naturally with the game world, I take a bit of an issue. Why, for instance would there be a key to a commonly-used door hidden in a piano? Why would we need to remove the eyeball of a statue to enter a room that seems well lit and well used? Why would I need to shoot out a window in order to open a secret door (and coincidentally, wouldn’t it get expensive to use that secret room if I have to damage a window or two every time I need to use it?). But beyond that last one being impractical for the denizens of the castle, why not give a riddle/clue that doesn’t lie to you?
“Let the five bells of this chamber ring out.”
Sounds like all the bells are in that room, right? Wrong. In fact, only four bells are in the room, with the last one being in a bell tower about fifty light-years away. Cheeky puzzle, to be sure, but perhaps change the clue wording around? That said, the castle holds my only major complaints from the puzzles, as most were fairly well laid-out. I liked a few of the combination lock puzzles, and a particular “escape room”-esque location had a very nice series of puzzles that, while not entirely difficult, felt thought-out.
So, we’ve gotten through two parts of this review, and my reaction seems decidedly mixed on this whole affair. Why am I writing so much about a game that seems to be getting about fifty-percent of my praise?
Part Three: Presentation
Guys, I promise I like this game, and this section, for me at least, is the time for Village to shine. It’s like RE: Village was given two bonus stat points at the beginning of development, and the team collectively dumped all three into presentation. Here’s how they distributed them:
First point went to the atmosphere. This game has atmosphere like none other; absolutely nothing went to waste here, from character design to setpieces to set design. The village feels both abandoned and lived-in, with alleyways piled up with refuse of an age long-since passed. The castle isn’t dingy or damp, but instead a well-kept daunting abode, almost untouched by grime, giving credence to the haughty nature of its inhabitants. The night sequences are adequately spooky without much reliance on jump-scares, and the characters you meet, from the one-liner fodder characters to the in-your-face villains, are fully realized on screen. I saw the flaws in everyone, and I felt the oppressive weight of the situation with every encounter. These people weren’t just put here to die, they had their own drives. I felt like there was going to be an ensemble cast of heroes at the beginning, only to swiftly be proven wrong by a gut-punch of an opener, and every part of the setting reinforced the feeling of hostility. The air felt cold and biting, and the town seemed like it was waiting to swallow you.
The second point went into sound design. Gunshots felt powerful enough to rip through anything, and the enemies sounded visceral both when attacking and when dying. But for all the effort they put into sound, the main thing I want to point out is the absence of sound. It’s a great way to provide to the presentation of a spooky sequence by having no score. Let the footsteps and breaths of a character, the clicks of a reloading firearm, and the sound of a crow taking flight score the scene on their own, rather than having a composer take full control. The silence adds to the ominousness, almost as though the music is too scared to come out, or perhaps has already been butchered by the creatures hunting you. If anything, this game could have had no backing music at all and I’d have been totally fine with it. That said, when the score comes in, it comes in sharply and with intent. Boss fights gain tension through a heart-racing beat, and I feel on the edge of my seat as I hear the laughing of a villainous character chasing me through dark corridors.
These two points took this game from an otherwise mediocre horror game for me and elevated it to “actually this is good” territory. For me, horror games need good presentation, because it’s really all you have for conveying a sense of terror. A scary story doesn’t really work if there’s nothing about the world that feels scary. Sharp gameplay can’t help horror feel good unless the sound and visuals can come together to provide tension. I’m not just talking about high-fidelity visuals and sound as well. Fingerbones and Lone Survivor are both titles that stand on presentation alone for most of the horror, and they do so effectively. If you can make daylight scary for me, you’ve done it, and walking into that village for the first time felt terrifying because I knew that if we were here in the daytime, nothing would stop the horror from coming at me. It was masterfully done and I won’t disparage any moment of their work here.
Part Four: Cohesion
So, with that praise out of the way, how does the game come together as a whole? This game lifts itself up out of mediocrity with its unflinching persistence in its overall themes. It’s a horror game with more than a bit of camp that maintains itself throughout the game, not once feeling like I’ve left the game for a different one. This does highlight the flaws that I have with the game, but it also highlights its strengths. The atmosphere and presentation throughout this game are never lost, despite the occasional hiccup. I did, however, find myself growing more and more tired as the game went on. I would say that the game is more cohesive than most, but in this instance, perhaps it’s to a detriment. I was done after the third act. I was worn out and ready to move on to a different game because it felt about twice as long as it needed to be. The presentation was never lost, but the feeling of awe and the shock started to feel a bit deadened by the length. Maybe if this game were more bite-size, or episodic, it would have felt fine to me? Maybe this is where a majority of RE fans will digress, but for me, I can’t find myself replaying through this game a handful of times because the middle four hours just feel tiresome.
I mentioned in the last two sections that a horror game can be made or broken off the back of its presentation, and this is no exception. In another game, the gunplay might feel clunky and obtuse, or the story may seem a bit far reaching, but this is Resident Evil: Village. It’s unmistakable for any other game out there in part due to how each element works together. Is it perfect? No, and not even close. I liked the gameplay, but it felt just convoluted at points that it took me out of the horror. I liked the story, but at times it took me out of the action. This is a game that tries so hard to be so much, and in trying to accomplish everything, it stumbles. Maybe it’s a great expansion of the existing story, but it feels so disconnected to me that the RE-verse elements contribute to neither the game nor the franchise. Maybe it’s got a superb atmosphere, but sometimes the atmosphere is revisited a bit too long, wearing out the otherwise pinnacles of setpieces. Maybe it’s a fairly competent shooter, but the survival-horror management system gets in the way of blasting through things.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I’d not disparage the game based on its predecessors, since they’re out of my frame of reference. However, I know enough to understand that there’s camp-action games and horror games in the franchise, and this tries to go the horror route whilst retaining just enough elements of camp that it (in my opinion) detracts slightly.
All of that negativity said, this game would have been less well-received on my part had it not been for the absolutely stellar presentation. I have to give credit where credit is due and say that this horror game had me on edge for longer than it should have. I should’ve been done by the second act, but I was still working with raw nerves by the end of the third. Had the game not dragged a bit longer than necessary, I’d have been on the edge of my seat for the entire game. I’m impressed. Will I be playing every game in the franchise? Probably not. It’s not for me, and I have come to terms with that. But for people who love this franchise, I doubt they’ll have many qualms about this game, and I’m inclined to give much of this game a bit more credit than usual for keeping me interested in a genre I don’t usually seek out.