Lady Dimitrescu and kin deserve a better game than Resident Evil: Village

, | Game reviews

Remember that time when Resident Evil tried something new and different?  Resident Evil 5 cast horror in a new light.  Africa’s equatorial sun blew the usual cobwebs out of the series in favor of something different and even controversial.  It finally played like the shooter it had been trying to be for so long.  It even introduced an exciting new character.  And that was back when representation was more a prerequisite for taxation than a cultural imperative.  But what’s become of Sheva now?  Why does Capcom keep going back to the white-bread familiarity of their Chrises and Jills?  Why are they all-in on the tragedy of the faceless Ethan Winters, aptly named for being as bland as the driven snow, searching for his wife and/or daughter the same way he searches for green herbs, handgun rounds, and whatever arbitrary cog, key, or crank handle unlocks the next heavily scripted set piece?  Mia, Rose, press X to Jason, all just meat for the refrigerator.  The shadow of Silent Hill looms over so many games, yet so few of them understand what made it tick.

Since Resident Evil 5, the series has alternated between updated remixes that work well enough and new stories that have been various levels of awful.  Maybe The Village can thread the needle between effective gameplay and a new setting, style, and characters.

Alas, no such luck.  Village is a ponderously paced kiddie-scale rail-ride through a faux Romanian village, castle, and factory, each a discrete section of squalor, opulence, and industrial noise, respectively.  Along the way, I’ll shoot the usual bags of hit points while switching on the usual generators, finding the usual crank handles, and fitting the usual supplies into whatever inventory space I’m allowed.  Now let’s take a break for a boss fight.  The same old Resident Evil, its flashes of promise as unrealized as ever.

There are some great character and creature designs in here.  The thing in the basement of the doll house comes to mind.  As does Lady Dimitrescu, who became an internet meme before Resident Evil: Village was even released.  Which insured that she couldn’t possibly live up to her pre-release reputation.  Capcom doesn’t even really try.  She’s little more than a cutscene.  And then she’s just some writhing mass of indeterminate bio-goo for a boss fight.  Oh, Lady Dimitrescu, we hardly knew ye.  From an absurd tower of maternal femininity gone wrong to a typical Capcom boss fight against a giant bag of hit points with wings and tentacles and who even cares because I’ve seen it a hundred times before.

It’s so telling that this is how the face of Capcom’s latest game ends up.  Such a promising premise.  Curvy, twisted, and elegant, a personification of domineering sexuality, draped in taffeta and sporting a massively brimmed hat cocked just so.  She is a tower of decolletage and malice, attended by three horny daughter witches in low cut widows’ attire.  She should be the matriarch of this village and its castle, where the hero has to cherchez for his femmes.  She should drive the game.  She certainly looks capable when she’s introduced.  

This is where Resident Evil: Village is at its best.  I’ve arrived at this setting, I’ve been introduced to these characters, and now I have to prevail against them.  So how is Capcom going to develop them?  What sorts of cutscenes and especially gameplay will they bring?  Certainly not the same thing Capcom has been doing all along, because these aren’t your usual zombies, it’s not the standard Umbrella Corporation silliness, and this certainly isn’t an attempt at a played-out horror movie trope like the last game’s murderous hillbilly family (even the latest Wrong Turn movie knows that murderous hillbilly families are well past their sell-by date).

But these characters are dismissively knocked down, one by one, starting with Lady Dimitrescu, who is quickly swept under the carpet, never to be seen again.  All this promising character design goes by the wayside.  It’s as if the artists put in all the work, but the game designer just shrugged.  Evocative designs hitched to evocative names — Moreau!  Heisenberg! Belladonna! — hitched to a game that doesn’t know what to do with them.  

Too much of the intriguing art design comes down to rote boss fights in closet-sized arenas.  Whether it’s a giant fish in a maze or a Magneto battle in someone’s relatively modest backyard, so much of this game world feels too small by half.  At one point, you go toe-to-toe with a frost giant in a cave that isn’t even big enough for the poor brute to swing his stupidly enormous hammer!  C’mon, Capcom, I’m fighting a giant here.  How about giving us a little room to breathe, if not dance?  

All those cool characters, so sadly underdeveloped.  They’re just cutscenes and then sequences, and then you’re back to fighting the usual zombies.  The Romanian theme screams “vampires!”, but for some odd reason, the zombies are basically werewolves (if I didn’t know better, I might think there was some lichen/lycan wordplay here).  If there’s one thing the Resident Evil engine can’t do yet, it’s hair.  Yet here are “zombies” covered in weird Final Fantasy era hair effects, getting up in your face with their awful fur.  For some reason, there are also regular zombies as well.  As if it wouldn’t be a Resident Evil without some shambling lurching undead things to shoot.

And it’s all so confused about whether it wants to be a shooter.  As a shooter, it’s simply not very good.  It even seems to know this because for one of the characters, I don’t even get my guns.  They magically vanish while I run around a house doing an extended puzzle.  Later, I will get the best and most badass guns so that I can play it like the clunky action game it’s been trying to be all along.  Except now I’m playing something completely different than I’ve been playing for several hours, and while it’s neat and all, can I please get back to the game I was playing?  To the guns I developed?  To the resources I’ve been managing?  I don’t enjoy this nonsense anymore than having to be Johnny Silverhand in those risible Cyberpunk flashbacks.  Press a button to watch bad guys fall down.  The worst kind of unskippable cutscene is the one you have to play.

When it’s all over, Capcom assumes I’m going to want to play again.  I don’t.  The new mercenaries mode — another innovation from Resident Evil 5 — is as anemic and linear as the main game.  There’s no option for co-op, or multiplayer of any kind.  The meta-progression is based on getting unlimited ammo for your favorite guns, which is definitely useful but once you’re walking around with a bottomless pouch of shotgun shells, there’s not much left to do.  The overarching progress you make in multiple playthroughs of Resident Evil: Village is from shooting underpowered weapons at erratically moving zombies to shooting overpowered weapons at erratically moving zombies; once you’ve flipped that switch, it’s all over but the dyin’.

I suppose it looks good, but any game world squeezed into such tiny boxes better look good.  There are two nice vistas, but they’re strictly for show.  One is even underground.  Enjoy the view before going back into the usual corridors, caves, tunnels, and shacks clogged with as much inert detail as your graphics card can handle.  It all feels so small.  In an early cutscene, there are warriors mounted on horseback, which would make for a pretty cool enemy.  Bloodthirsty werewolf cavalry running you down rather than snarling and juking and rolling while you line up a headshot.  But this is not a place for anyone to ride a horse around in.  So the werewolf cavalry show up for an early cutscene and then disappear without a trace because this is a game engine built for minute detail and shadowy nooks.

The settings are an unconvincing village, a weird castle, and a tortured factory.  The village is the worst because it’s all flimsy fences, ramshackle clapboard walls, convenient wagon wrecks, and fallen trees shunting you through twisting but strictly linear routes.  It feels nothing like a village and everything like the local church’s Halloween maze for kids, but with a hobo aesthetic.  No, you can’t climb over that low wall.  No, you can’t go through that plastic tarp covering that gap.  No, you can’t mantle over that low pile of lumber.  Please don’t even try to move that pile of flimsy debris. Then you get into the larger lived-in spaces like a castle, a mansion, and a factory, none of which feel functional.  Everything is contrived, and nothing is convincing.  You’re taking a tight winding tour in a place with no regard for feeling lived in or even remotely realistic.  It’s all nonsense, glutted with static detail and inert non-interactive set dressing.  My grenade launcher flings explosions without effect.

And why is Resident Evil so taken with the idea of running from indestructible monsters?  At this point, it’s such a transparent trick that it actually leaches tension from a game.  In the course of normal gameplay, the tension is whether you have enough ammo, how far is the next save point, and will there be a scripted jump scare?  These are the questions that drive most of your playing time and they’re effective enough.  But once an indestructible monster starts chasing you, the tension is solely whether you’re going to have to reload from an earlier save.  Which isn’t much tension considering all the invisible checkpoints.  Capcom is trying to scare me with the possibility that maybe there wasn’t an invisible checkpoint before this indestructible thing started chasing me!  I know better.  These typewriters are as pointless as the rest of the scenery.

Furthermore, I can see the indestructibles coming.  It’s always obvious from the level design when I’m going to have to run from something I can’t kill.  When I see paths that split or loop back around for no reason, or spaces where I can “hide”, I know something indestructible is looming.  I’m not impressed.  This is not the stuff of horror.  It’s the stuff of tedium.  Scripted tedium.

I know it sounds like I’m being hard on Resident Evil, and I am.  It’s a AAA series and in addition to AAA production values, it deserves AAA game design and even innovation.  Or at least a confident balance between progression-based shooter and contrived adventure game puzzles.  If I want to go back and play the same old awkward Resident Evils, I can.  They’re still out there.  Capcom is even remastering them!  But as they accrue 6s, 7s, and 8s for their new releases, as they explore new characters and settings, as they move the series forward, shouldn’t they actually, you know, move the series forward?  Shouldn’t they aspire to something more than the usual dime-a-dozen horror walking simulators?  The work of these imaginative artists deserves a better game.  Lady Dimitrescu deserves a better game.  But mostly, Resident Evil fans like me deserve a better game.

  • Resident Evil: Village

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A grand rogue's gallery stuck in a small world and a disappointingly familiar game design.
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