horror

Resident Evil’s European Vacation

Last time on Angela Reviews a Resident Evil Gameactually, I was talking about the 2019 Resident Evil 2 remake and its implications for the validity of video games as art. (TL;DR: they are, nyah, nyah.)

But the time before that, I took a good long look at 2017’s Resident Evil: Biohazard, the last entry in the series that wasn’t a remake,* and I talked a lot about how the series was moving forward by getting back to its roots: painstaking exploration, piecing together a forensic narrative, only having one shell in the chamber for three hideous abominations down the walnut-paneled hallway. Resident Evil: Biohazard, or Resident Evil 7 to virtually everyone, also introduced a new protagonist, a genuine departure in a series that had become a paramilitary corporate saga following the fortunes of perennial zombie outbreak survivors Chris and Claire Redfield, Jill Valentine, and Leon Kennedy. The new guy, Ethan Winters, was just an ordinary Joe, no weapons training or anything, lured to a remote Louisiana plantation to find his missing, presumed dead, wife Mia.** The mansion, as it happened, was overrun by the demented Baker family, themselves a collection of classic American horror tropes, and our hapless hero was forced to battle through them until a surreal final fight with a creepy little girl who was, spoiler alert, basically sentient mold with psychic powers. It turns out his wife–alive, by the way!–was a secret agent in charge of transporting scary mold bioweapon girl when things went south. In the end, with the help of series mainstay Chris Redfield, Ethan escapes–with his wife if you chose her over the Bakers’ non-crazy daughter Zoe–and they all presumably have a lot to talk about on the helicopter ride to a black site safehouse.

I felt that RE7 was the scariest Resident Evil game in years and certainly the most fun. I wasn’t alone. It was embraced by gamers, franchise fans and newbies alike. It wasn’t perfect. Besides borrowing Silent Hill 2’s story, Ethan Winters was kind of a dull main character to be wearing around. Sometimes he didn’t seem quite believable. Also, while the Baker family were essentially scattered around the plantation like minibosses, each with his or her own unique twist, there weren’t many other creative challenges to keep Ethan from finding his wife. The one other enemy type, the Molded, were basically zombie plant guys, and we didn’t see any classic Resident Evil monsters either–no Lickers, Hunters, or Tyrants. So in RE7, you mainly take the fight to rednecks and plant monsters. A little thin, y’all. I grew up in the North Carolina foothills and that’s not awful far off from summers on Pa’s farm.

It took four years for the next proper entry into the franchise, this one called Resident Evil: Village,*** developed with the new console generation in mind,**** and it was absolutely worth the wait. Everything that RE7 did well, Village does better. In retrospect, as great as it was, it’s hard to look at RE7 as anything but a beta for Village. 

Village begins as no Resident Evil ever has: with a Tim Burton-esque opening movie. It’s plenty ghoulish, but also hits that perfect vein of winsome spookiness that makes for perfect Hot Topic merch, and pay attention, because it’s also previewing all the bosses you’re about to face. Soon we realize this is Mia, the not-dead wife from RE7, reading a picture book to her baby daughter against the gentle protests of her husband. The player then settles back behind the eyes of Ethan Winters, now in canonical post-game domestic contentment with Mia and baby Rose. We learn that Chris helped the family move to somewhere in generic Europe, and Ethan mentions weapons training in passing. So he’ll know how to shoot this time! Good, good.

Not everything is idyllic; Mia is cranky about discussing their bad time in Louisiana, while Ethan is being something of a dog with a bone about it. But no sooner have we poked around the edges of the Winters’ home life than paramilitary troops burst in, shoot Mia to death, and abduct Rose. The commander of the troops is–gasp–Chris Redfield, who does not explain himself. Chris, honey. It’s not like you don’t know what it’s like being jerked around about the secretive bioweapons op. Anyway, horrified and betrayed, but majorly outgunned, Ethan gets knocked out, only to wake on the outskirts of a creepy village. His first and only thought is to find his daughter, wherever she was taken.***** And so, into the village, where a pack of werewolves–ok, lycans, but basically werewolves–and a cackling old witch woman have a welcome mat all nice and ready for him.

This is just the beginning for Ethan though. Much as the Baker family split off into their own separate horror subgenres within RE7’s Louisiana plantation house, there will be distinct segments in Ethan’s search for Rose, and the titular village is really just the hub for these levels, all with different mechanics and aesthetics. The main enemy for the game is the all-controlling Mother Miranda, but of course, you won’t confront her until you’ve gone through her “children” first, the Lords of the surrounding cursed land. First, we have Lady Dimitrescu, the overgrown vampire matriarch that set the internet on fire with Mommy issues when footage of her first surfaced last year. She and her three daughters, deliberate nods to Dracula’s wives, preside over a mansion to the northeast of the village. Once Ethan turns the vampire mommy and her girls to dust, he’ll face an army of murderous dolls with a slug-like giant fetus chasing him through the darkened halls of another mansion to the east. Third in line is the Innsmouth chapter, a reservoir overrun by walls of slime and a simpering third Lord who might be best described as the God Emperor Mr. Limpett. The last Lord, Heisenberg, talks like a Rob Zombie character and looks like any given indie singer from the aughts, but he commands an army of Borg-like steampunk zombies who are ready, willing, and eager to Event Horizon your whole day up.****** And as Ethan progresses up the cult’s chain to Mother Miranda herself, the Village replenishes secrets and nasty surprises, too. One might look at this uncharitably as giving the player a minimal reason to suck it up and backtrack instead of making even more new areas to explore, but just as uncharitably, since when has Resident Evil ever felt guilty about making you backtrack? Hell, in 1998, having to struggle 30 minutes back through an overrun lab to a sewer just to fetch an ink ribbon so you could save your game was a feature, not a bug. Not to mention, this game is huge. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wheezing PlayStation 4.

I love how much Capcom packed into this game. I love the mood, the vibe, the diversity of scares in every area. It’s freaking beautiful. The village itself is creepy folk horror porn, from its candle-strewn shrines to the scarecrows staked crookedly in the fields, which will gradually be replaced by corpses. Castle Dimitrescu plops you into a Hammer horror with a Universal budget, with Lady D and her daughters stalking Ethan like the Tyrant bioweapons of Resident Evils past or Jack Baker in RE7. The doll’s house of House Beneviento forces Ethan into a helpless game of hide and seek–again, an elaboration of a tiny section in RE7 and a mechanic better known in competitors like Alone in the Dark and The Evil Within. No such thing as a Resident Evil without a detour into a sewer and a final act in a lab/factory level either, and so Village provides a flooded-out reservoir area by way of H.P. Lovecraft and an industrial nightmare factory in the games last laps. The mecha zombies of Heisenberg’s factory probably should be too much of a trope to be scary, but they made me yelp the loudest, especially when the lights go out and my handgun’s chamber clicks empty. And overall, the balance of each boss area with the overarching story and poking around the Village is ideal. Twenty-five years after the first Resident Evil debuted, with this inspired bento box approach, Capcom may have finally created a perfect horror game.

There’s something else special about Village, and it’s actually something that the Resident Evil series has never done well, and that’s including RE7: the story. Now, there’s always been a lot of story in Resident Evil. Partners, families, betrayals, sacrifices, more betrayal, endangered kids, big hulking bioweapons in smart hats, the president’s kidnapped daughter. A lot! But like the Never Ending Salad Bowl at Olive Garden, just because there’s a lot doesn’t mean that there’s much. One of my few quibbles about RE7 was that Ethan was such a bland noodle of a character, and his search for Mia just wasn’t all that compelling. I don’t want to give too much away, but in desperate father mode, Ethan Winters finally got his hands on my heartstrings. He made me not only want to survive, but for him to win. And it doesn’t hurt that he gets hurt a lot. Ethan endured body horror in RE7, but it’s ridiculous the amount of punishment he takes in this one, and, as it happens, it’s also a clever plot point. I’m not sure if it’s retcon and honestly, I don’t care. Not since the original Saw has slaughterporn so faithfully served its story. 

I’m not sure what all this means, either for the series or the genre, except hosht, this worked. It takes a village indeed! At times, Village felt more like a cinematic universe than a game–much more so than the actual Resident Evil cinematic universe, and that, I may remind you, features some of Milla Jovovich’s best work. Several iterations out, I could see naked duplication of the format–surely not the Village itself–becoming hokey and tired. No spoilers, but if they want to build on the Winters story even more, they’ve left room to go that direction…which may be pointing right back to the kind of action saga that the series left in the dust with RE7.  We’ll have to see. Whatever Capcom’s next steps for the series, I’ll still be happy to retrace mine through the Village via DLC, the time trial Mercenaries mode, and new game plus for a long time yet. Resident Evil: Village may not deliver the purest narrative horror experience in video games, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most fun.

* I had to skip the 2020 Resident Evil 3 remake because Jill Valentine’s initial flight from Nemesis gave my child night terrors. So there’s your review of that one. I’ll get back to you one day, Nemmy, hon! Kisses!

** I will never stop noting that this plot clearly copied off Silent Hill 2’s paper.

*** Just as RE7 displayed their logo with the “Vil” in “Evil” as VII, they styled the “Vill” in Village as VIII, so RE8. Super cute, guys.

**** I played on the PS4, and the main noticeable issue was load times. Although those loading screens that were elevator rides actually kind of upped the horror via claustrophobia…

***** It actually took me until the last lap to realize, hey! This is the plot of Silent Hill! Eyes on your own paper, Capcom.

****** A director actually is suing Capcom for one of the monster designs, and I don’t know about copyright law but…yeah, that propeller guy is exactly the same.

~~~

Angela does actually like Olive Garden though.

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