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‘Resident Evil Village’ Casts the Series Into Another New Direction

The latest installment of the zombie shooter manages to pay homage to past titles while illuminating newer characters. Where does the franchise go from here?

Capcom/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The heroic husband and father Ethan Winters has suffered several vivid and grievous injuries in Resident Evil. His hands tell the whole story, as they hold a peculiar prominence in the latest generation of these games.

The earlier titles tracked the heroes from a distance. The first-person camera perspective in these latest entries—Resident Evil 7, released four years ago, and now Resident Evil 8, otherwise marketed as Resident Evil Village, released on Friday—means you’re always confronted with Ethan’s hands. They’re wrapped in bandages and holding guns, knives, and explosives as he stumbles through his latest fun house captivity.

Ethan’s wife, Mia, in a brainwashed state, severed his left hand at the wrist in Resident Evil 7, but he was able to reattach the hand to his arm with a stapler. Early in the latest game, Ethan arrives in the titular village and a zombie ambushes him, eating his left pinky and half of his ring finger. Later, the local countess Alcina Dimitrescu severs Ethan’s right hand at the forearm. He’s able to reattach his limb by sheer force of will, holding bone to bone until the cut somehow reverses, even healing his shirt sleeve, too; but then Lady Dimitrescu hangs Ethan by tenterhooks through his palms, and under the player’s control, Ethan escapes Lady Dimitrescu’s bedroom by pulling the hooks through his hands until he falls to the floor. Thankfully, Ethan can still shoot. So he pursues the village priestess, Mother Miranda, who turned the townspeople into ferocious mutants and kidnapped Ethan’s daughter, Rose (who is implied to have supernatural properties), before cutting her body into four pieces to be used in a mysterious ceremony. Ethan believes he can reverse his daughter’s dismemberment. His own miraculous limbs give him reason to hope.

Launched in 1996 for the original PlayStation, Resident Evil spans nine primary titles and two dozen remakes and spinoffs—not to mention the live-action movie adaptations—revolving around a core story line about zombie outbreaks engineered by the corrupt pharmaceutical conglomerate, Umbrella. The first couple of games in the series established the core cop ensemble, including the spec ops meathead Chris Redfield, the only “classic” character to appear in Resident Evil Village. In the first game, the special forces unit, S.T.A.R.S., based in Raccoon City, investigates a remote outbreak that escalates into a series of global catastrophes. Gradually, Resident Evil advanced from backwater B-movie horror to globe-trotting blockbuster action, the games and the movies rebranded zombies as “bioweapons,” and the franchise became a long and unwieldy soap opera about bioterrorism. The escalation culminated nine years ago in the infamous Resident Evil 6, a bloated and bombastic game spanning four story line campaigns and several continents. In Resident Evil 7, Capcom reoriented the series, introducing Ethan and Mia and also ditching the traditional third-person player perspective in favor of a new first-person camera. The developer returned the series to its traditional scale in its rural, interior setting: Ethan rescues Mia from a decrepit bayou estate in Louisiana that is overrun with mold monsters and owned by a brainwashed family determined to kill him. It was a great game and, more importantly, a fresh start for a popular, but beleaguered series.

Still, Ethan and Mia posed a problem for the franchise. Neither character, but especially not Ethan, ever settled into the main ensemble—Ethan’s no supercop, he’s a family man—and so these latest games, as great as they may be in their own right, formed a tangent. In the four years since Resident Evil 7 reinvigorated the series, Capcom didn’t head straight for a sequel but rather released remakes for Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3, and these remakes only further underscored the distance between Ethan Winters and the dominant story line in the series. But Village takes great strides to resolve this divergence from the core series. Chris kills Mia in the game’s opening sequence, and though we later learn that the Mia in this sequence was in fact Miranda, the larger implication for the game’s direction seems clear enough: Village will mark the end for Ethan and Mia as major characters in the main series. Village reveals Ethan died in the opening minutes of the previous game, only to be reconstituted by sentient mold, as sentient mold, hence Ethan’s ability to reverse so many amputations and withstand so many impalements. But Ethan sacrifices everything to save his wife and daughter in Village. In the finale, Chris leads a Black Ops raid on the village, rescuing Mia and leaving Ethan to demolish the underlying mold construct and its outgrowths, including himself, once and for all. His martyrdom reverts the series’ focus to Chris. “The father’s story is now done,” read the end credits.

The gameplay in Village also seems even more determined than its predecessor to reconnect with the earlier games—specifically, Resident Evil 4, a game that reinvigorated the series 16 years ago and developed a bold new style of camera perspective and character movement for third-person shooters in general. But there are some crucial components that frustrate the homage, chiefly the first-person perspective. Unlike Resident Evil 7, Village doesn’t always make the most of its camera; save for one tight, dark segment in a dollhouse, Village isn’t very scary, and so the whole reason for introducing the first-person perspective as a sightline limitation in Resident Evil 7—a game filled with dark rooms and narrow corridors—seems lost on this latest game that largely takes place in broad daylight. The player explores the town square, unlocking doors and closed gates as the story progresses, and fighting zombie hordes that often prove challenging, but never quite frightening, in many open-air confrontations. For all the outdoorsiness in this game, Village excels in its traditional interior stretches: Lady Dimitrescu and her three daughters chasing Ethan around a castle, or the doll maker Donna Beneviento and her ungodly creations playing hide-and-seek with a disarmed Ethan in a spooky house on a hill. That said, Chris’s climatic nighttime raid on the village makes for a much stronger finale than these games usually get.

For the most part, Village did right by Ethan Winters. It’s a shockingly graceful send-off for a character in such a ridiculous series. Time and again, for better or worse, Capcom proves willing to sever some limbs and cast the series into a new direction. I still can’t believe Capcom killed the villain Albert Wesker, the best character in the series, at his meme peak in Resident Evil 5. It’s much easier for me to process the rationale—really, the inevitability—in the demise of Ethan Winters in Village. I’ve seen the man’s hands. He’s suffered enough.