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Resident Evil quietly became a horror anthology

The best parts of Resident Evil Village have little to do with Resident Evil

The big vampire Lady Dimitrescu prepares to attack Ethan Winters in Resident Evil Village. Capcom
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

The official title of the eighth mainline Resident Evil game, recently released to fawning praise, is Resident Evil Village. Its creators opted to ditch the established numerical naming for the more evocative and stand-alone “Village,” but frankly, they haven’t given a strong justification for the decision.

Having now played the game, I believe I’ve uncovered why this small verbiage tweak marks a grand reimagining of the series. The canonical title should indeed be Resident Evil Village. I swear I’m not just being a pedant.

Resident Evil Village has little to do with previous Resident Evil games — its story progresses just fine as a stand-alone experience or a loose sequel to its predecessor, itself a sort of reboot of the series. In fact, the main Resident Evil series has now transcended numbers, embracing a modern and proven approach: the horror anthology.

Village takes place after the events of Resident Evil 7 biohazard (itself a loaded name, since “Biohazard” is the original name of the series in Japan). Our hero Ethan Winters has rescued his wife from a swampy Louisiana household infected by a monstrous mold. Now the couple has a suburban home and a baby named Rose and a bland homemade dinner on the table that suggests the repetitive normalcy of domestic life. At least, that’s the status quo, until iconic Resident Evil lead Chris Redfield shows up, grabs the plot, and presses the reset button.

The meat of Resident Evil Village transpires across a fictional Eastern European village and the surrounding lakes, mountains, and estates. The majority of the story, more than its entire first half, has no connection to the events of the previous game, let alone the extended series. Instead, Village is a game about a father navigating a series of fractured fairy tales in hopes of retrieving his kidnapped child.

The game’s creators aren’t exactly subtle about the genre pivot. Before we leave Ethan’s home, we get an extended cinematic sequence set within the fairy tales the family reads to Rose. The break from expectations is early and intentional, a message directly to the player that this won’t be another story about zombies or evil science corporations or, ya know, residential evil.

A werewolf-like beast prowls around a wooded area at sunset in Resident Evil Village Image: Capcom

We’re left with no reason to believe the next game will continue the fairy tale motif, just as Village doesn’t expand on Resident Evil 7’s rural American horror. Each entry of the rebooted series appears to be riffing on its own branch of the genre, akin to modern horror anthologies like American Horror Story, the long-running FX TV series that has featured stand-alone seasons riffing on cults, haunted houses, mental health asylums, and other horror standards.

The shift has saved the series from its worst instincts. The original six Resident Evil games suffered from the challenge of escalation, each game becoming more action packed than the last. In the fifth game, you fight a Matrix-style reality-bending boss on a volcano, and yet Resident Evil 6 somehow finds ways to swan-dive even deeper into a creative low point.

Now, each Resident Evil game has the opportunity to surprise us, and give fans future genres on which to speculate — an even more elaborate riff on how Assassin’s Creed fans anticipate new historical settings. Will the next Resident Evil mine 1970s demonic horror like The Omen and The Exorcist? Or perhaps it will pastiche the Japanese horror boom of the 1990s? Will we eventually get Resident Evil in space? (Wait, do we even want Resident Evil in space?)

This philosophy is so central to the new games that you can spot it within the stories themselves. Resident Evil Village in particular operates more like a series of connected vignettes, each enemy’s lair having its own tone, play style, and pace. But to appease longtime fans who crave consistency, the series’ caretakers have shrewdly bookended both Resident Evil 7 and Village with appearances from Chris Redfield, the Umbrella Corporation (now Blue Umbrella), “mutamycete,” and the ongoing Ethan Winters saga, a bizarre journey of a boring dude with some not-so-boring unnatural talent for surviving whatever the world throws at him. In both games, the connective tissue is just that, a few bloody tendons holding together mostly discrete video games.

Will the anthology format prevent Resident Evil from ever turning stale? Of course not. (I mean, have you watched recent seasons of American Horror Story?) But the format has given the current entries a path away from old habits that had left it a lurching, brainless shell of itself. Decades into its existence — an eternity for video games — Resident Evil has new life.

The next level of puzzles.

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