Resident Evil's wild inconsistency has made me as disappointed and excited as a person can get about videogames. I'm leaning towards excitement with Resident Evil Village, but familiar concerns are spinning back up. The series is once again following the trajectory of Resident Evil through Resident Evil 3, where sparse combat scenarios featuring one or two slowly shuffling enemies are replaced with legions of zombies sprinting against machine gun fire. We're going to need some huge fucking guns to take out Village's big hammer oaf.
Are we, once again, set to lose the essence of Resident Evil? Not at all: The essence of Resident Evil is that change. This is a series defined and elevated by major departures from what came before, including the many, many failures, and that's worth celebrating no matter the outcome. Resident Evil, warts and all, is a damn wonder.
Surviving survival horror
Some people will tell you the essence of Resident Evil is economic, the constant head-math balancing of ammunition and herb stocks against the risk of venturing down a dark hallway. Some people will tell you the essence of Resident Evil is getting your head cut off by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Some will say it's the celebration of B-movie horror schlock through the distinct master-of-lockpicking lens of Capcom's writing and localization.
All true assertions, but none cover every game in the series, and that's the beauty here. What other series has fundamentally rebooted itself twice? What other series features a new knock-off Matrix or Bond villain every game and still manages to scare me? From isometric to third-person to first-person, from zombies to brain parasites to evil mold, Resident Evil has miraculously managed to survive horrors of its own creation and return to relevance time and time again.
It's why I'm not worried that Resident Evil Village barely registers as Resident Evil based on the trailers. Some shots, like this sickly moleman with a sword, look more like Ultima Underworld HD. Tiny-glasses guy with his big hammer and telekinetic powers wouldn't be out of place in Bloodborne. Once again, the furry hammer oaf lumbers into view and proclaims that Resident Evil is not a fixed point (before flattening us).
I remember feeling panicked and disappointed as I watched the RE4 through RE6 streak unfold in my early twenties. Capcom, through whatever unknowable cocktail of creative madness and desperation, followed up one of the best games of all time, Resident Evil 4, with one of the worst games in the series. And then made an even worse one. My favorite series, writhing around on the floor.
But for all the deserved flak Resident Evil 5 gets, it's easy to forget how novel the co-op was at the time. Resident Evil 4's tense plate-spinning combat system is great with a friend, and tag-teaming that early village siege in RE5 stands out in my mind as a series highlight. Unfortunately, I'll never forget Chris Redfield punching a boulder into a river of lava either. I can barely stand to play Resident Evil 6 for more than an hour at a time, but I'm consistently drawn back to it anyway for all its stupid ambition. It contains three separate, overlapping co-op campaigns. And you can invade other players' games as an enemy. Sounds pretty rad on paper.
RE5 and RE6 were shit on the whole, but they're cut through with ambition. I'm just glad that the new ideas are much more focused and restrained in Resident Evil's latest arc. Resident Evil 7 pours that creativity into theme, character, and intimacy with great success. You can see the whites of Jack Baker's eyes above his horrible grin from across the house in Resident Evil 7. I can distinctly recall the clutter of the laundry room, nearly smell the feast rotting in the kitchen.
Even the remakes are reinterpretations, with RE2's Mr. X as an unkillable, unrelenting stalker—totally missing from the original game. The RE3 remake was a straighter putt, interpreted as an action game, which disappointed folks looking for an even deadlier Mr. X scenario. But it's a pretty damn good action game in its own right, and I loved the expanded bug maze. Again, those new ideas, always present.
What if Resident Evil played it safe? What if Resident Evil had the same cadence and muted surprise of the annual Call of Duty campaign, clean and consistent but barely memorable? You know what I'm pretty sure I'm going to remember? A tall vampire woman (made of bugs) jabbing a sickle through my foot and dragging me around her castle. So what if it isn't recognizably Resident Evil?
If Resident Evil were just Resident Evil 4, again, forever, it would fade. If it were always zombies, gone in five years. If it were always Matrix wall-running Wesker, no one would pay attention. Resident Evil 7's Baker family brought me back. The RE2 Remake's reinterpretation of Mr. X brought me back. And it looks like Village's tall vampire women (I must emphasize: They are made of bugs), steampunk horror uncles, and furry shed-sized hammermen are geared to do it again. There have been seven mainline Resident Evil games, tons of spin-offs and remakes, innumerable failed multiplayer ventures, and somehow, Resident Evil Village still looks unlike anything Capcom has done yet.
Cheers, Resident Evil, for always slowly shambling into uncharted territory.
Below: Teen James and friend play RE4's mercenaries mode, way back when.