One of my favorite moments in Resident Evil Village is small enough that I almost didn’t notice it. After defeating a boss to get the item I needed to move forward, I returned to the titular town for the fourth time, basking in the gorgeous streaks of sunlight that pelted the abandoned houses I would skulk around at dusk. As I did my rounds to see if any new items had cropped up since my last search, I noticed them: a couple of ominous black goats now grazing just outside the graveyard.
There’s no cutscene that announces them, no shriek of a violin to indicate they’re supposed to scare you. They just kind of show up. They’re never brought up or explicitly addressed again, these goats. I wasn’t frightened of them, but I was a little unnerved. Then, a couple of hours later, I was in the thick of the most absurd, over-the-top boss fight I think I’ve ever played in a Resident Evil game.
Resident Evil has always had these kinds of fluctuations between slow horror creep and bombastic action. The first few games definitely had their share of ridiculous plots, but the exploration-based gameplay kept the focus on horror. When Resident Evil 4 adopted its landmark behind-the-shoulder perspective and rewarded headshots (and subsequent games refined the shooting even further), it raised the question: Can something that empowers the player this much still be a horror game?
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From the jump, Village invites the comparison between Resident Evil’s horror and action moods. Its first unsettling moment happens during a conversation between the game’s protagonist Ethan Winters and his wife, Mia. The Winters family has moved to Europe at the behest of series mainstay Chris Redfield, who showed up to rescue the pair at the end of Resident Evil 7; the couple has since had a child named Rose, and they’re trying to live a normal domestic life. After a chat about imported wines and local recipes, Ethan tries to bring up the torture they endured during RE7, but Mia shuts him down with a concerning terseness.
Then, as if on cue, Chris and a team of soldiers inexplicably assault the Winters’ home and shoot Mia dead, kidnap Rose, and kick off a series of events that lead Ethan to a seemingly abandoned village in the middle of Europe to rescue his daughter. It’s a surprising turn, but it’s also Village establishing expectations for what it’s about to do over the next several hours.
Village’s whiplash between horror and action is fierce at first. From the moment I start marching through an oppressively dark neck of European woods, the game is meticulous about how it paces every area, enemy encounter, and set-piece. Even early on, it will startle me with a foreboding look at an enemy in the distance — but won’t let them loose. When my guard is down, it blindsides me. It pits me against overwhelming odds, then, moments before I nearly die, saves me with a bell. Except … wait. Hasn’t something like this happened before? Village often uses my knowledge of the series to surprise me and subvert my expectations. Capcom is hellbent on using any trick to throw me off-balance, but restrained enough to make its shocking moments count.
Building on Resident Evil 7’s move to a first-person perspective and more isolated characters, Village is stingy with ammo and healing items at first, but it does ultimately center around shooting. Over time, I find more guns and ammo and fight a wider variety of enemies more frequently; by the end, I’m not really sweating how many bullets I have left. A shop run by a new character called the Duke lets me upgrade my guns, sell trinkets, and buy ammo (something that not even Resident Evil 4, the series’ first real venture into the shooter genre, allowed).
It’s an enticing system that’s unfortunately anchored to the game’s worst character. The Duke is a boring, eye-rolling caricature of a fat person meant to cut through the tension of exploring all of these dreary locales. Most rooms he sets up shop in are decorated or fitted to highlight how fat he is; his stomach pops out of his clothes, revealing a bulging, desaturated pouch. He’s constantly spouting lines like, “To be hungry … is to be alive.” As if that weren’t enough, health and defense upgrades come from finding and killing farm animals to turn into meals for him, with his leftovers acting as my power-ups. As someone who’s struggled with their weight for most of their life, I found the Duke’s portrayal a frustrating reminder that yes, people still see the overweight as grotesque and slovenly.
Despite my issues with the Duke, his wares and weapon upgrades forced me to put up with him. Each gun feels hefty, and while blowing a shotgun pellet through an enemy’s head feels good, the aiming isn’t so precise that it seems mechanical or easy. I had to actively learn to aim these guns, whether that meant lining up multiple enemies so I could pierce them all with a sniper rifle, or wrangling the aim assist so I could pull off consecutive headshots with a handgun. Even after beating the game, I enjoyed a few rounds of the postgame Mercenaries mode just so I could spend more time blasting Lycans with the game’s guns. Village also has a metagame unlock system that offers plenty of reasons to replay the game multiple times at higher difficulties, which I plan on doing.
In spite of all the firepower I amass, the ramp from survival horror to all-out shooter isn’t as predictable as it usually is. Village is a much larger game than Resident Evil 7, physically speaking, although it takes about the same amount of time to play, coming in at a brisk 10 or so hours. It covers way more ground than the Baker family’s territory and uses that extra room to give each area its own flavor and tone, and it even sneaks in some cool detours to discover. Every time I set foot outside the village, I can feel myself entering someone else’s domain. Some areas stay more linear in favor of elaborate set-pieces, while others are entirely puzzle-oriented.
The first of these, Castle Dimitrescu, has me lurking its halls looking for a way out, eventually being stalked by a formidably tall vampiress named Lady Dimitrescu as I work to unravel her plans and escape. I hate to say it, but despite how much the internet loves her, she’s one of Village’s big disappointments: While she trudges around her castle the way Mr. X haunted the Resident Evil 2 remake’s police station, she’s much too slow and predictable to cause any real tension. Seeing her peek her head through a critical doorway is less terrifying and more eye-rolling as I sprint back to the nearest save room, or run in serpentine paths until she’s bored of me.
Her castle does provide the first real taste of that other Resident Evil trademark: a labyrinthe area full of locked doors and hidden keys to pry them all open. Unfurling the giant puzzle box and turning your in-game map from red (denoting that you haven’t found every item in a given room) to blue (after I’ve scooped everything up) is a slow but immensely fulfilling burn. The actual puzzles to get those keys and clear those rooms are pretty simple, but throughout it all, Village drip-feeds just enough items and clues to nudge me forward, throwing in some fun curveballs as I’m heading toward a lock with a key in tow.
Each of these sections lets Village turn the dial from horror to action on a dime, and each turn of that dial produces at least one incredible moment, whether it’s a major boss fight, a not-so-subtle reference to another Resident Evil game, or a small, creepy detail like those goats.
By the end of the game, I have way more guns and ammo than I know what to do with, and the scale of activities gets as outlandish as the series ever does. But Village is so meticulous about how it paces every area, enemy encounter, and set-piece that it doesn’t matter as much. It regularly offsets my increased firepower with enemies I don’t even want to look at, let alone fight. At one point, the game pits me against a pair of absurdly built enemies in an aggravatingly tight space, and the fact that I have more than enough explosives to deal with them doesn’t do much to calm me down. There’s a potent, albeit different, kind of horror in giving the player all the empowerment they can handle and still finding ways to rattle them.
Eventually, the swings between horror and action became so common that, moment to moment, I had no idea what I’d see next. That’s the cycle that Resident Evil Village keeps chasing: the hesitation, anticipation, and payoff that make both action and horror such powerful draws. It’s definitely an action game, and despite all the shooting, it’s also a horror game. And while it induces both creeping dread and righteous fury, its biggest triumph is in not-so-quietly arguing that horror and action aren’t that different after all. They’re both just ways to get your blood pumping.
Resident Evil Village will be released May 7 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Capcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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