Ethan Winters, protagonist of Resident Evil Village, wakes up from being stabbed half to death to find himself in a scene that feels as much indebted to Hellraiser as it does Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He sees a shadowy castle hall where a quintet of monsters loom over him, slavering and giggling as they argue over which of them will get to horribly murder their captive. A tiny living doll in a wedding dress screams at a drooling, hunched-over mutant whose face is covered in distended boils. A giant vampire in evening wear towers over Ethan with a slender cigarette holder in one gloved hand, bickering with a man in a cowboy outfit and John Lennon glasses.
This group of monsters is hilarious. They’re an assortment of Halloween decorations come to life; the horsemen of the Party City apocalypse. The cowboy spreads his arms as werewolves begin to crowd into the room. “Lycans and gentlemen, we thank you for waiting!” he declares. “And now let the games begin!”
This character’s announcement, sloppy pun and all, feels like a mission statement for Village—an invitation to gleeful, autumn evening spookiness that, if it was properly maintained throughout the entire game, would have made the latest Resident Evil one of the series best to date.
Since its debut more than two decades ago, the Resident Evil series has flirted with different styles of horror (and sci-fi action movie) storytelling. Its first entries were B-movie send-ups where amateur voice actors did their level best to navigate clumsy scripts that functioned as unintentional schlock comedy—an approach that culminated with the more deliberate humor of Resident Evil 4’s one-liners, high-camp villains, and classic horror evocations. By the time 2017’s Resident Evil 7 was released, the series had retreated from a path that ultimately led to absurdist action movie excesses and decided to try, once again, to be intentionally frightening.
Following the well-received deep-south horror of 7, a game that seemed as anxious to please old school Resident Evil fans as it was intent on mindlessly aping the aesthetics of slashers like the Saw and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series, Village largely appears interested in changing course yet again and returning to the breathless, carnival atmosphere of the series’ restless earlier entries. Its premise alone is enough to make this clear. After his daughter’s kidnapping, Ethan finds himself in a fictional Romanian village that the modern world seems to have forgotten. He immediately ends up fighting for his life as crazed werewolves hunt him through a wintery labyrinth of mucky dirt pathways and densely packed rural homes, set at the base of a gigantic castle.
The nonferal townspeople he encounters are all drawn from a 1930s Universal Pictures central casting session: peasant women in 19th-century ankle-length dresses and men in wool sweaters and flat caps who always look a few moments away from picking up pitchforks and torches. Before long, Ethan’s dodging the hulking, aristocratic vampire mentioned above as she and her bloody-mouthed daughters stalk him through a castle whose gothic exterior hides a maze of gaudy, ivory-and-gold baroque chambers and hallways.
In the dungeons beneath their lavishly appointed home, Ethan discovers that these vampires trap prey in order to create an artisanal red wine mixed with virgin’s blood. The ridiculousness doesn’t stop there. Later, after defeating a fish monster who vomits pitifully between transformations into a towering leviathan, Ethan provides a eulogy: “In death as he was in life. Disgusting!” (At another point, he kills a huge werewolf and remarks “Eat shit” as it crumbles into dust at his feet.)
Even aside from its goofy dialog, larger-than-life locales, and the variety of bizarre monsters that haunt these locales, Village is filled with gorgeously absurd running jokes. In particular, the game has an Evil Dead-indebted fixation with brutalizing Ethan’s hands. His palms are pierced through with hooks, his fingers are chewed off by werewolves, and an entire forearm is sliced off before Ethan, applying a kind of cartoon logic, grabs the severed piece of himself, sticks it to his freshly amputated nub, and pours medicinal liquid over it so it miraculously reattaches itself.