Resident Evil Village is the perfect cocktail of horror and action

Image: Capcom

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?

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.

Image: Capcom

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.

Image: Capcom

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.

Image: Capcom

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.

Comments

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.

Resident Evil VII’s biggest flaw was the mid-to-late game switch to pure action. Early Resident Evil games handled this switch quite well, by leaning into the Camp aspects of the series. Later Resident Evil games like VII seem to want to deliver serious horror, but always devolve into a shooting gallery. Sadly that is never scary, nor does it do the horror aspects of the series any favours.

By the end of the game, I have way more guns and ammo than I know what to do with

This was a major problem with VII’s poorly constructed ending. Haw can you be scared when you are armed to the teeth?

Honestly, I can’t remember I single Resident Evil game besides RE 1 and Resident Evil Revelations 2 where ammo was an issue at the end of the game. It’s tough to balance due to the fact you need to have the end game be given enough slack for less skilled players and tougher for veterans of the genre for EACH difficulty.

Well to a degree difficulty settings could address that. It’s hard for me to classify Resident Evil as horror when it’s really just become an action series using horror as set dressing. It’s really sad that between this and Silent Hill, Silent Hill was left to die and Capcom keeps churning out disappointing Resident Evil games. I had really high hopes for VIII, and it consistently delivered for the first half of the game. It was tense, and creepy and you constantly felt like there was no way you could make it out. Jump to the second half and ammo is littered everywhere and nothing is a threat any longer. And then there’s a silly action sequence of a final boss fight that might as well be a QTE. There’s no tension, no threatening elements in the second half. Just lots of guns and explosions. Capcom killed everything great about that game half way through and it’s deeply disappointing. You don’t need to ramp up the action to make a good game, as every decent Silent Hill game has taught us. There’s no reason Capcom couldn’t have keep tension high and ammo low for the back half of RE VIII. But now it sounds like Village is even worse. What’s the point of a horror game if it’s not goign to be scary?

you can truly thank Resident Evil 4 for that massive change in design but even re2 and re3(the originals) had the massive boost in ammo but it felt like you really needed it. Re2 with the new enemy types and the larger game. Re3 with the Nemesis hunting you down. I do fully agree that the first half of re7 was AMAZING and the second half just falls apart. In terms of Silent Hill the horror was always was about what the monsters and setting represented to the main character. Also the fact that in that series its kept vague about Silent Hill rather than Resident Evil’s "it’s due to a virus and human stupidity" really helps sell it…for me at least

Veronica

You can easily amass a stockpile of ammo if you just use the knife for the first area of the game. It becomes even sillier if you know when to dump most of your weapons and ammo as Claire to give to Chris.

"if you just use the knife for the first area of the game."

Which I didn’t:). Hindsight is a cruel misstress.

RE4 could run into ammo issues on the island with the regenerators. Particularly if you missed the scope or didn’t know what it did on your first run, and had otherwise been cruising through the rest of the game so the dynamic difficulty kicked in. But a lack of ammo is more frustrating than scary.

But then any game that encourages you to just shoot the big monsters with rocket/grenade launchers isn’t that worried about being scary.

Never saw that as an issue, frankly. I very much enjoy the ramp up from scared and resourceless to empowered and armed up in most RE games, and it’s what keeps me excited while playing through these games.

Which is great, and I appreciate that people enjoy it. But I went in expecting a horror game, and it stopped being horror half way through. That’s a failure in my eyes, even if it’s still a fun action game at that point.

I don’t know how that can be a failure when it’s the intention. Seems odd that you’re constantly expecting full horror throughout the game when the series never did that, ahaha.

I don’t agree. RE, RE2 and even RE3 are very much survival horror games. Action takes a major back seat in those games, and like I said above, it leans into the Camp aspects which is something horror frequently does. RE VIII doesn’t get campy at the end. It get easy. It becomes a power fantasy. Nothin is less scary than that. They nailed horror so perfectly in the first half of the game, I definitely think you can argue that the tonal shift to action fails the game. It fails to deliver on the promise of the first half.

Oh gosh, I absolutely disagree, especially with the original RE2 and original RE3. You’re blowing monsters with rocket launchers and you have more ammo than what to do with by the end of those games. You simply call that "camp," when that’s 100% power fantasy to me. I am not scared by the end of those games. Hell, I wasn’t scared playing RE3 at all when it came out.

Anyway, you feel how you feel, I suppose.

The rocket launcher is not immediately available in RE. You have to complete the game to access it in your inventory. You need to play the game with all the possible tension before you can just go around blowing things up.

But a rocket launcher, as present in those early games is stupid, and 100% camp. The majority of the game prior to the rocket launcher is tense and you need to manage your supplies or else you are toast. That’s not what happens in RE VIII. You hit hte mid-way mark and the game doesn’t switch to camp. It stays deadly serious, but you suddenly have a ridiculous amount of ammo. And you run through the rest of the game without a care, because you simply can’t die at that point. As soon as you remove the risks that are present in early RE games, or present in the first half of RE VIII, there’s no horror left. And while it’s totally fine to enjoy that, I want something different from RE. I want the feelings I had playing the original game. And RE VIII game me that for the first half. I just wish it continued through the second half. And I wish Village didn’t take after the second half of RE VIII.

RE2 and RE3 amp up the ammo they provide you to a crazy degree and the game allows a lot more mistakes than RE1 where 2 or 3 zombie grabs can kill you. I still would call them survival horror games, but they definitely became a lot more action oriented. Especially Leon who gets crazy powerful weapons by the end game.

PSA: VIII is the Roman numeral for 8, which you refer to Resident Evil VII as several times.

One of the foundational problems with Resident Evil as horror games is that you’re always too empowered to truly be horror all the way through. Back with tank controls, things were scary because you lacked agency in a lot of ways, even though you were often a soldier or police officer with pretty powerful weapons. Now, it’s hard to make games with armed characters without finding your way into some kind of action setpiece, or else people just ask "why did you give me guns if they feel so useless (in RE’s continued defense, they also make guns as useless as they can without making them pea shooters)."

VII seemed like it was going to be a game to say "yeah, you have guns, but your opponents are invincible," but I think they knew that a switch to FPS and unsatisfying action wouldn’t speak to the larger audience and they didn’t want to risk being a disempowered "Alien Isolation" or "Outlast" game with a niche audience.

Ultimately, I think RE is just a series that will always struggle to make things scary without balancing out action. The concepts are just too campy and action is often just an easier balancing element to puzzles and horror than taking risks on completely novel horror gameplay.

Honestly, I think Silent Hill, if Konami ever lets it see light of day again, is probably the more realistic IP for a true "modern horror" game that avoids becoming an action game too seriously. RE is about superweapons, mutations, and biohazards, which will always feel terrestrial and combat-driven, but Silent Hill has more ethereal options that make guns and action easier to nerf or avoid entirely (granted, I think there need to be good mechanics to avoid the modern "walking simulator horror game" approach that a lot of indies now use).

I’ve said it elsewhere on other occasions, but I’d probably be more willing to go with RE’s action if Silent Hill were still a thing. I feel like I expect RE to fill the hole that is in my life thanks to the questionable status of Silent Hill. Maybe that’s unfair to the series. I agree with everything you are saying. I just wish I could play a game that actually made me feel sacred again, lol.

Oh I totally hear you, I just always look at RE on paper like "well, we’re people who solve problems with guns all the damn time, so unless we see a major narrative character arc (lol, right?), it seems like they’re just going to learn to be badasses against monsters."

Silent Hill is so much more disorienting and it has a level of openness that RE just can’t deal with (for better and worse because even bad RE games can be like House of Dead in terms of arcade horror). Fortunately, I think even if a new one never comes out, we will eventually get a true "spiritual successor" that manages to overcome a lot of the problems that the modern indies face when trying to make their approach to the Silent Hills demo. I just think the big challenge for many of them is making the mechanics interesting without falling into walking simulator, boring "inspect this item" detective games, or something that’s too gimmicky (i.e. "you don’t have a gun, you have a flashlight that wards off monsters!") Survival horror has a lot of opportunity, I just think we may need to redefine a lot of what the "survival" aspects look like because RE just highlights that adding more guns begs for more action to accompany them.

I was hoping The Medium was that spiritual successor to Silent Hill. Sadly it wasn’t.

Oof, don’t remind me. I can’t believe Microsoft put so much weight behind a game that managed to do pretty much everything wrong in this environment. It was all the things I don’t miss about survival horror without any of the new or old things I wanted.

Have you tried the original Evil Within? That might be up your alley.

Is camp something the series can go back to at this point? It seems like the limits of the earlier games made for some good level/puzzle design, but now I’m curious if the games could be silly again.

I mean… 6 was pretty darn silly. But maybe not in the intentional sense that would help.

I will never stop loving that giraffe logo.

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