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Friday, February 23, 2024

'Resident Evil Village' Is Too Self-Conscious to Fully Enjoy Itself

Ethan Winters, protagonist of Resident Evil Village, wakes up from being stabbed half to death to find himself in a scene that feels as much indebted to Hellraiser as it does Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He sees a shadowy castle hall where a quintet of monsters loom over him, slavering and giggling as they argue over which of them will get to horribly murder their captive. A tiny living doll in a wedding dress screams at a drooling, hunched-over mutant whose face is covered in distended boils. A giant vampire in evening wear towers over Ethan with a slender cigarette holder in one gloved hand, bickering with a man in a cowboy outfit and John Lennon glasses.

This group of monsters is hilarious. They’re an assortment of Halloween decorations come to life; the horsemen of the Party City apocalypse. The cowboy spreads his arms as werewolves begin to crowd into the room. “Lycans and gentlemen, we thank you for waiting!” he declares. “And now let the games begin!”

This character’s announcement, sloppy pun and all, feels like a mission statement for Village—an invitation to gleeful, autumn evening spookiness that, if it was properly maintained throughout the entire game, would have made the latest Resident Evil one of the series best to date.


Since its debut more than two decades ago, the Resident Evil series has flirted with different styles of horror (and sci-fi action movie) storytelling. Its first entries were B-movie send-ups where amateur voice actors did their level best to navigate clumsy scripts that functioned as unintentional schlock comedy—an approach that culminated with the more deliberate humor of Resident Evil 4’s one-liners, high-camp villains, and classic horror evocations. By the time 2017’s Resident Evil 7 was released, the series had retreated from a path that ultimately led to absurdist action movie excesses and decided to try, once again, to be intentionally frightening.

Following the well-received deep-south horror of 7, a game that seemed as anxious to please old school Resident Evil fans as it was intent on mindlessly aping the aesthetics of slashers like the Saw and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series, Village largely appears interested in changing course yet again and returning to the breathless, carnival atmosphere of the series’ restless earlier entries. Its premise alone is enough to make this clear. After his daughter’s kidnapping, Ethan finds himself in a fictional Romanian village that the modern world seems to have forgotten. He immediately ends up fighting for his life as crazed werewolves hunt him through a wintery labyrinth of mucky dirt pathways and densely packed rural homes, set at the base of a gigantic castle.

The nonferal townspeople he encounters are all drawn from a 1930s Universal Pictures central casting session: peasant women in 19th-century ankle-length dresses and men in wool sweaters and flat caps who always look a few moments away from picking up pitchforks and torches. Before long, Ethan’s dodging the hulking, aristocratic vampire mentioned above as she and her bloody-mouthed daughters stalk him through a castle whose gothic exterior hides a maze of gaudy, ivory-and-gold baroque chambers and hallways. 

In the dungeons beneath their lavishly appointed home, Ethan discovers that these vampires trap prey in order to create an artisanal red wine mixed with virgin’s blood. The ridiculousness doesn't stop there. Later, after defeating a fish monster who vomits pitifully between transformations into a towering leviathan, Ethan provides a eulogy: “In death as he was in life. Disgusting!” (At another point, he kills a huge werewolf and remarks “Eat shit” as it crumbles into dust at his feet.)

Even aside from its goofy dialog, larger-than-life locales, and the variety of bizarre monsters that haunt these locales, Village is filled with gorgeously absurd running jokes. In particular, the game has an Evil Dead-indebted fixation with brutalizing Ethan’s hands. His palms are pierced through with hooks, his fingers are chewed off by werewolves, and an entire forearm is sliced off before Ethan, applying a kind of cartoon logic, grabs the severed piece of himself, sticks it to his freshly amputated nub, and pours medicinal liquid over it so it miraculously reattaches itself. 

All of this is depicted as completely matter-of-fact. Yes, vampires drink virgin's blood. Yes, werewolves prowl rural Romania. And yes, the man who fights against them will shrug off mind-bending hand pain in order to tell them to eat shit as they magically vanish from existence.

Despite the presence of so much joyful, irreverent energy, though, Village often feels unsure of how much fun it’s allowed to have at its own expense. Stretches of the game, often successful in their own right, make abrupt transitions from camp theatrics to straight-laced horror. (The best of these is a detour through a haunted manor where the most genuinely unnerving monster design in Resident Evil’s long history of creating memorably gross and goopy freaks lurks. The worst is the entire ending sequence, which attempts to explain every one of Village's supernatural occurrences while wringing pathos out of its one-note characters and their relationship to the series’ quarter-century of convoluted fictional baggage.) The effect is a sense of reflexive embarrassment, as if Village’s creators were afraid to fully indulge their taste for extravagant silliness without couching those excesses in a larger plot that proves they’re interested in more restrained, “mature” horror too.

The more claustrophobic first-person viewpoint used in Resident Evil 7 itself came across as a response to the success of grimy, almost maniacally oppressive fare like the nightmarish P.T. or the pitch-black desperation of the Outlast and Amnesia games. Bringing its predecessor’s design ethos to Village—the clockwork puzzles and a sludgy character movement that often feels like dreaming about wading through waist-high water—could have shown that Resident Evil, in 2021, was now confident enough to have absorbed its contemporaries’ stylistic lessons while infusing them with its own singularly campy tone. Rather, Village feels conflicted. It’s a game that never quite reaches the delirious heights of its best, least self-conscious entries or the terrifying depths of other first-person horror games more willing to fully sacrifice any shred of levity to communicate a feeling of utter despair.

Instead, Village second-guesses itself, never coming across as entirely sure what it—or modern Resident Evil—wants to be. It occasionally wakes up to itself after overly sober, self-serious scenes to delight in its own absurd imagination, like Ethan opening his eyes to a castle hall filled with gibbering monsters. But too often it sabotages itself, hiding its desire to shout werewolf jokes at the player and cackle over their despair in order to black out again into a more prosaic kind of nightmare.

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