While online conversations about video games often veer into unpleasant territory, the discourse surrounding Resident Evil Village has proven an exception to the rule. The majority of gamers have been unified by a common interest in Village, in particular its tall vampiric villainess Lady Dimitrescu. This upcoming installment in the Resident Evil franchise has had an overall positive rush of marketing, but as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.
After one hour of cumulative hands-on gameplay thanks to Village’s two demos, it’s safe to say Capcom has not served up any marketing trickery. It may suffer from some illogical character choices, but Village looks set to capitalize on Resident Evil’s puzzle-based progression, dreary atmosphere, and intense enemy encounters. Both demos play and feel like everything we’ve been promised.
The first and more substantial demo stands out for demonstrating the promised yet unexplored Village setting, opening with an old woman whose appearance draws the eye and raises questions from the outset. Wearing a black cloak and holding a staff bedazzled by human skulls, the woman’s unsettling nature is matched only by the intricate details on her face, like her numerous wrinkles and protruding cheeks. The inclusion of this woman creates an aura of mystery as players try to make sense of her role in the overarching story.
The old woman’s mystique doesn’t only play into the storyline, but also the horror aspects of gameplay. Near the demo’s end, the small figure talks to herself before letting loose a wailing laugh. Hesitant as the player might be to approach her, the woman ultimately does nothing and allows the protagonist Ethan to pass. With thisone scene, Village proves capable of inspiring anxiety beyond the scope of any jump scare.
After the initial encounter with the woman, the player is thrust into a semi-open environment with no clear direction. A statue stands at the center of four different muddy pathways that lead to several wooden structures. The low gust of wind is the only thing greeting Ethan in this seemingly empty village. Village deciding to allow the player to wander for a moment almost comes across as a dare to let one’s guard down, which makes the demo’s time limit a devious act of railroading.
Normally a player could explore at their leisure, but the time constraint creates a hectic urgency to move forward. In no time, Ethan finds a hooded scarecrow guarding fields of overgrown crops. The terrifying roars of Lycans overtake the ominous silence as they scurry around the field, pushing the player into a pitched battle.
This serves as our first glimpse at Village’s first-person combat, which evokes the tension and deliberate vulnerability akin to that of Resident Evil 7. The designed clunkiness and the handgun’s minimal damage output force Ethan to flee from the slobbering beasts. Taking refuge in a cabin, Ethan is only able to hold his ground thanks to the convenient discovery of a shotgun atop the cabin’s fireplace. If the frantic yet purposeful feel of this sequence is any indication, the combat mechanics in Village are primed to deliver intense thrills.
This is all the more impressive considering the unscripted nature of the combat sequence. Another player could have passed the area by exploiting nearby flour bags, which create a smokescreen when struck. Based on what’s shown in the demo, Village has found a way to provoke a desperate response in players that forces them to think fast and search for the optimal escape route. No matter the situation, each scenario feels exciting and invigorating.
The rest of the demo begins to skew in a more linear direction when Ethan finds a villager named Elena, who is hiding with her father in a small house. He escorts them to another house full of survivors who are anxiously pacing around the room or sobbing in the corner. With that, the demo’s focus shifts to fixed storytelling, the strongest aspect of which is the ominous lore surrounding the central village.
Key to the worldbuilding on display here is the presence of Mother Miranda. The villagers worship this mysterious figure in an overindulgent and creepy fashion. In a striking scene, one of the survivors shouts about their chances at survival and even criticizes a grieving widow for crying, only calming down when the group begins to pray to Miranda. Building up a mythic figure like this works well to invest the player in proceedings, nevermind how it creates unease that soon gives way to devastation.
Not long after Ethan and Elena’s arrival, chaos breaks out. Elena’s father transforms into a lycan and proceeds to slaughter almost everyone present. This in turn sparks a fire which starts to engulf the safe haven, leading Ethan and Elena to attempt to flee. A fine scene of brutality and tragedy, it soon gives way to dubious logic that is evocative of Resident Evil’s lowest moments.
Without question the Resident Evil games can be absurd at times, but it’s still difficult to follow Ethan’s logic when it comes to his escape plan. Believing that he and Elena can escape by driving a truck through the house’s wall, Ethan instead manages to flip said truck while also failing to break through the wall. Ethan then decides the next best option would be to climb into the attic, even as the house continues to burn down around them. At a certain point, these kinds of decisions undermine Ethan’s character, already a target of significant scrutiny.
The situation and its implications for the character writing do not improve as Ethan and Elena reach the crumbling attic. Continuing to pursue the duo, Elena’s transformed father manages to cry out Elena’s name between painful roars. Elena takes this as a sign that she should comfort her father, which predictably results in her death. It’s safe to say that this illogical string of events represents the first instance where we have felt trepidation about Village since it was announced.
Much to our relief, the second demo Castle manages to provide immediate reassurance of the full game’s apparent quality, thanks to its intense and claustrophobic setup. Ethan wakes up inside the castle with one goal: to find his daughter. As our favorite Resident Evil protagonist scuddles through the titular castle, he exhales anxious breaths while his gun wavers in skittish hands. The ease with which the Castle demo settles into its unnerving tone makes for a confident showing, keeping us on edge.
The only respite came with the introduction of Village’s mysterious merchant, The Duke. This boisterous yet enigmatic character sits in a small room, waiting to offer Ethan helpful items in exchange for lei, the game’s currency. Imbuing Ethan’s quest with a creepy levity, The Duke has a fascinating presence that is hopefully reflective of his place in the final game.
The Duke’s relative friendliness is quickly missed when one of Lady Dimitrescu’s daughters confronts Ethan, immediately signaling her connection to the nigh-unkillable bosses of games past. Black bugs swarm around her body, masking her quick movements. As with Resident Evil bosses like Mr. X, Dimitrescu’s daughter is impervious to bullets and constantly teleports closer to Ethan, thus forcing the player to turn and run. This tense introduction of a character rooted in one of the franchise’s most enduring traditions also works to shift the demo’s focus towards action.
After the chase, players find themselves in the same dungeon from the Maiden demo, albeit after it has experienced significant change. This time around, the dungeon is infested with zombie-like creatures that are adorned with hoods and wield swords. What follows in this familiar yet altered location is a combat encounter as intense as the Lycan fight, though for different reasons.
Central to the effectiveness of this fight are the dungeon’s layout and the specific integration of enemy creatures. The dungeon is home to numerous small cells, which are all too easy to back into without thinking. In addition, the local enemies quickly grow in number so as to overwhelm Ethan. With this anxiety-inducing encounter, the Castle demo continues to illustrate the ways in which Village might push players to frantically fight for survival.
Setting aside a handful of minor missteps, the two demos bode well for Village. In particular, the new setting stood out as being able to facilitate worthwhile gameplay improvements and a potent sense of dread. We’ll get to explore the rustic village and dreaded castle without the looming pressure of time when Resident Evil Village releases on May 7.