Game Review: Resident Evil Village – Xbox Series X

Game Review: Resident Evil Village – Xbox Series X

I know this isn’t retro, and I’m weeks behind any other reviews that actually mattered to anyone, but as well as having some form with Resident Evil, when I finished the game I wanted to try and reconcile some of the feelings I had about the experience, especially in relation the well-known fourth entry in the series, so I thought why not!

With the possible exception of Shaolin’s Road coming to ZX Spectrum in 1986, I’m not sure I was ever as excited about an upcoming game as I was Resident Evil Village. It was the January 2021 first gameplay trailer that did it, when the doors of the castle swung open and you were greeted by this majestic, shimmering chandelier hanging from the grandest of intricately carved vaulted ceilings, over the grandest of intricately carved wooden staircases, accented by gold and flames and all that fancy next-gen lighting! In fact, it was that very moment that I decided it was time to take the plunge, leading to weeks of Xbox Series X hunting, but I had five months and it arrived long before panic needed to set in… In fact, the only moment of panic was the day before the game’s release, when my wife informed me she’d never actually had an order confirmation (for good reason, it turned out!), so the two day wait I was already prepared to endure between 7th May and my birthday on the 9th was about to stretch to ruinous levels!

It didn’t, thanks to the eighth wonder of the world when you live in the middle of nowhere, one-day delivery! Anyway, why all this excitement? Firstly, even from the trailers, you could tell that the stench of Resident Evil 4 (more here) was all over it. And that’s not only my favourite Resident Evil, but my number three favourite game of all time; now, I might have been very late to that party, it being the last major game in the series I’d never played because back in 2005 I didn’t like the look of the first chapter that was in all of the screenshots we got, but this year alone it’s been played on GameCube twice, and Wii, and PlayStation 4. I love it, and so by extension, I should love this as well! Then there’s secondly, which is how it looks. Again, a moment in a trailer was all it took – I’ve written a bit about favourite sights in all of gaming, a couple of times in fact (here and here), but that castle hallway stomped all over what’s come before. I think it’s breathtaking! And as trailers became bizarrely timed Sunday night-only demos spanning my PS4 then Xbox Series X, I was getting similar feelings about the village before the castle, and then the rest of the castle… I’ve always said I could retire to Super Castlevania IV, and Castle Dimitrescu was that wonderful Super Nintendo pixel art brought to the most stunning real life in 2021! From what I’d seen in the trailers and the demos, they really couldn’t have made a game look more personally appealing to me than this one, and combine that with the Resident Evil 4 context and influence, and we have what might be the best game ever just over the horizon…

Before we go any further – even more important than saying I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers – is turn on ray tracing if you’re on a next-gen console! It’s off by default but needs switching on to make a great-looking gaming the most sumptuous, gorgeous game you’ve ever seen! As I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, we’ll start with graphics, and confirm that this is a really beautiful game; I know we’re only scratching the surface of next-gen consoles so far, and with this being available on the old ones there’s sure to be some compromise, but all the same, apart from some of the gorgeous lighting effects in the enhanced Dirt 5, this is the first time I’ve really felt that I’m experiencing Xbox Series X. The domestic scene setter at the beginning of the game is fine (and we’ll come back here shortly), but it’s when you’ve taken in a stunning vista of everything that’s about to come your way, then you finally arrive in the titular village that you start to really notice all the shadows and reflections, the glisten of snowflakes and flickering candlelight, and stunning details literally everywhere you look.

You’re going to have some of these shoved right in your face very early on too – hair effects are always a mark of next-generation machines, and lycans and werewolves (there is a difference!) are the perfect showcase for seeing these in action! There’s just so much fidelity in everything, whether static or in motion, and some of these early encounters are not just graphical showstoppers, but they also serve to absolutely terrify you with the prospect of everything else that’s going to be out to get you in the ordeal to come! An early introduction to pre-launch sensation Lady Dimitrescu and her three fellow Lords also hints at the variety to come, and even very deep into the game I was constantly jumping into the pause menu, opening up photo mode and getting a shot of the latest thing to blow me away as we travelled through their various distinct domains. Some of these had a real Universal horror vibe as well, which I really appreciated, both literally and also where everything exists to have an atmospheric purpose. And you’re constantly encouraged to take all of this in, looking for that tiny glint that tells you there’s something valuable to be dislodged by a bullet, but sometimes you’ll also just decide you need to sit back and admire it, whether the sight of a mass of crows circling some ruined battlements, or just watching resident merchant, The Duke, ignoring you and enjoying his cigar before hunting out a book, flicking some ash out of it as he finds the right page, then exhales a puff of smoke as he starts reading. So much effort has gone into not only creating a realistic gothic fantasy with startling attention to detail, but also by bringing almost everything in it to life. There’s no doubt that this is the best looking game that these eyes have ever seen!

Quick note on the story. This is a direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7, continuing the story of Ethan Winters after he rescued his wife from supernatural Texas Chainsaw country, but now they’re in exile somewhere in Eastern Europe and he’s got a baby daugher to rescue this time. After being kidnapped by Resident Evil stalwart Chris Redfield and his cronies, she’s kidnapped again by our aforementioned four supernatural crime-lords, who are all at the behest of wicked witch Mother Miranda. As well as being the best looking game I’ve ever played, this is undoubtedly my game of the year so far, trumping even Ghosts ‘n Goblins Ressurection, Outriders and Cyber Shadow, all of which I thought were utterly wonderful, then there’s Genesis Noir, Narita Boy, Pac-Man 99… And we’re still in May! Anyway, I choose to say this now because the first time I was introduced to this baddies collective in a very early cutscene, all of that pre-launch excitement about having a new and improved Resident Evil 4 on my hands got a teeny bit tempered. Lady Dimitrescu was fine, and her three insect-infused daughters even more fine to this particular old goth! Modern-day Frankestein Karl Hesienberg was alright too, even if he was no Ramon Salazar. But then there was this doll running about shouting like some crazed Harley Quinn nerd figure, who turned out to be representing Donna Beneviento, a creepy dollmaker. Now, I’m not saying that either of the first two are any kind of realistic, but they were at least grounded in the same kind of horror reality that we were treated to in most of the previous game with the Baker family, but all these in-your-face Bride of Chucky histrionics just seemed a bit out of place at this point. As did the fourth Lord, an oozing, deformed aquatic worm-man thing by the name of Savatore Moreau – I might have loved the lake monster boss from Resident Evil 4, and this might have been a strong hint towards something similar to come later, but all the same, it’s not really what I wanted as I transitioned from a lycan-infested scene of rural slaughter into the golden vampiric opulence of Castle Dimitrescu; a couple of Scooby Doo villains making an overly dramatic entrance was all a bit jarring!

Fortunately, you’re not given too long to dwell on this as you’re dumped into a rip-roaring Indiana Jones-style set piece; it really is a testament to the game design that when I finally got to the end of this frantic little interlude that I wondered quite how I’d managed to escape first time and in one piece, but some clever pacing and some subtle funnelling quietly served its purpose here, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have a similar feeling after some of the game’s later set pieces too. This might be a good time to mention the puzzles, which is something else I really appreciated, though for reasons that others might bemoan them! I’ve never come to Resident Evil for the puzzles, and anything beyond the lightweight brain teasers we recently saw in Resident Evil 3 Remake have been things I’ve learnt to tolerate more than enjoy; thankfully, the puzzles here might be even more lightweight, sometimes being a test of your brightness settings as much as your logical thought! As I said, maybe a turn-off for some, but you’re rarely going to be scratching your head about what to do or where to go next, especially if you’ve played any of the series before. There are definitely some secrets to find off the beaten track though, and after my first playthrough I had a list of various non-critical puzzles to go back to that I’d encountered but not found the right gear to solve, or just stuff I knew must exist but I hadn’t had the right gear to access at the time.

I’m not going to describe much beyond what everyone with any interest in the game has already seen in either trailers or demos or bigger boys’ reviews, but after spending a good chunk of time in Castle Dimitrescu, you are going to use the village as a bit of a metroidvania-inspired game hub, and then travel through each of the other three Lords’ themed worlds doing things very much inspired by every Resident Evil game you’ve ever played, and not just spiritual predecessor Resident Evil 4. Although one of them very much reminded me more of Doom 3 than any previous Resident Evil, but as my favourite shooter ever that’s something I can forgive! Actually, as I think about it, it did go a bit Call of Duty at one point too, though again, in a fun, chaotic scrap with guns kind of way, so again, quite forgiveable! As I may have hinted, the castle is my favourite area in this game, but there’s not that much to where you’ll spend the most time while exploring here, and whilst that’s not necessarily a criticism – especially from someone with my sense of direction – I did feel that you were too-quickly whisked through some of the later areas it expands into in comparison as you reach the end of your time there. On a related note, there’s one dominant puzzle that appears here very early on, but you spend several hours not being able to do much about; and when I say several hours, it may be less if you’re not soaking in every decadent detail like I was! Anyway, that puzzle contain various elements, and the first and even the second of these are going to take some tracking down, but then this was where the pacing caught me out a bit as suddenly the rest of it all fell into place in quick succession; pacing is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of Resident Evil 4, and this could have taken some cues from that game’s castle area by just taking its time a bit more instead of excitedly getting you on a roll and then out of there.

Another hallmark of Resident Evil 4 for me is the boss fights. I’m not a massive fan of boss fights in general, but I did enjoy most of those, as well as some of the other giant enemies it introduced in between. I also really enjoyed most of the nerve-shredding but ultimately dumb Nemesis fights in Resident Evil 3 Remake, and I think it was these I missed the most here once the first main boss fight was done – which it should be said was great, with its frantic and often overwhelming chase around the ramparts! After that, and right up to the final boss fight where things get a bit more traditional again, I was just a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the bosses, and none more so than when one of them turned out to be a very straightforward game of hide and seek, with absolutely no user input outside of a glorified game of Where’s Wally!

I’m going to stop finding fault in a second, but while I am there’s just a couple more things that bothered me. Before launch there was a big debate about the pronunciation of Dimitrescu, with everyone that had ever had any exposure to anything Eastern European (i.e. not an American being told what to say by a Japanese guy at Capcom) knowing it’s pronounced exactly how it’s written. But in the game, it is actually pronounced “Dimitreesc” and having worked for a Japanese company for exactly twenty years and one week at the time of writing, I’ve a feeling that this is grounded in the Japanese language handling of the letter “u” at the end of a word being assumed to also directly translate to Romanian. A mistake, in other words, but even if not, it sounds ridiculous every time you hear it! Final moan is the punishment that Ethan’s hands take in the first hour of the game. Even more ridiculous! One of them literally gets torn apart, and there’s fingers bitten off, and you find out exactly why people say that if Jesus was crucified like the popular story says then the nails would have gone in his wrists and not his palms in the most graphic detail (twice), and he even has one sliced completely off. But a bit of rag and some magic healing juice and they all come back again, which is fine, but what about the sleeves that get sliced off too? Did I miss the magic sewing kit as well? And if you’re planning on explaining that away, do it sooner before it becomes an ongoing annoyance rather than later, by which I mean during the absolute end-game.

I know, to the normal person neither of these are likely to be a showstopper, but these little details can nag away, and combined with similar, relatively minor issues definitely contribute to why Resident Evil 4 is my number three favourite game of all time and this isn’t even in the reckoning, as good as it really is over its ten hours or so duration! As an analogy, there’s a well-know way of approaching seemingly insurmountable ingrained problems in large corporations, like a huge giant block of stone that’s stopping you continuing down the path; you just start chipping away a the corners, and even though getting rid of each tiny bit isn’t going to let you pass, eventually you’ll be able to roll the block out of the way. And that’s how I feel about Resident Evil Village versus my beloved Resident Evil 4, but in reverse. I think! All that said, I’m sure there’s also an argument somewhere in my head for the groundbreaking and more epic nature of 4 over this one’s eye on the past to add to its sense of wonder.

And make no mistake, it is wonderful, so let’s talk about some more good then, and a really nice nod to Resident Evil 4, The Duke, who even knowingly spouts a line from his Resident Evil 4 counterpart, The Merchant, and over time you’re going to appreciate this guy (and his familiar backing music) just as much. For me, his first appearance was actually one of more horrific moments in the game too; this huge obese aristocrat crammed into the most unlikely of spaces, found in the most unlikely of places to sell his wares. As well as selling ammo and upgrades, and taking unwanted treasure off your hands, he’s also going to offer weapon upgrades and permanent stat boosts by taking meats you collect from killed wildlife and crafting them into various recipes. It’s worth saying that the crafting scare stories you might have heard before launch are no more than this, so take it from someone who dislikes crafting almost as much as stealth, but not as much as deck-building, that it’s really nothing to worry about! The Duke is also going to move the story along in places, and a bit more besides, and for something I initially took to be little more than window dressing lifted out of Tod Browning’s Freaks, he really became a surprise highlight, full of character and full of detail, as well as that familiar source of relief when you see him so you can save and fiddle with your inventory in peace for a while, just like with The Merchant before him!

Apart from The Duke, the Four Lords (and saucy insect offspring) and Mother Miranda, you’re going to come across a skull-wielding hag to also point you in one direction or another, various villagers in various states of panic, illness or death, and they all combine to keep the story moving and giving you just enough rope to hang yourself with too! There’s also much more than lycans and werewolves of all varieties to fight, with zombies, fire-wielding archer ghoul-things, mechanical soldiers, living gargoyles, big hairy things and everything in between waiting around any given corner, alone or in a big group, ready to spell your doom. They’re not massively scary, and running to preserve precious ammo is often an option, but there’s good variety and plenty of ways to strategise when you do have to take them on. Shooting stuff feels really good too, and the non-stop parade of upgradeable guns, explosives and other supplies you’ll come across, then picking and choosing what to do with them is also a fun side-story that really adds some extra depth to proceedings.

What else? For all of its gameplay and character influences from earlier games, as well as the direct link to Resident Evil 7’s plot, if you’re perceptive (and by the end, even if you’re not) you’re going to get some nice loose ends tied with regard to the Umbrella Corporation; I’m not saying the narrative isn’t bonkers by any means, but there’s more to it than I expected! As I’ve mentioned, it’s not especially horrific, but there are some great moments of tension, in many cases relating to your lack of ammo, which is classic Resident Evil design! As is the sound – stick some cans over your ears and that tension is ramped up another 100%! Much like the graphics, there’s enormous attention to detail in this department too, with all sorts going on in all directions, and as much as you’re going to be constantly panning up to the ceiling for that tell-tale glint of some precious jewel, you’re also going to be listening for the creak of a bird cage and its hidden bonuses, or just what direction the next insane danger is coming from! The soundtrack is suitably haunting, and also injects the adrenalin when it needs to, but its not especially memorable; that said, I’ve a feeling it might be a bit of a slow-burner, and is something I’ll definitely pay more attention to on future play-throughs. You’ve got some trademark Resident Evil voice-acting too, but let’s stay focussed on the very, very good!

Resident Evil Village is definitely a Resident Evil game, but for me it’s not much of a pure horror game despite the vampires and werewolves; there’s no sense of dread, shock or revulsion, and you’re not going to get scared like I know some did in Resident Evil 7’s claustrophobic opening few hours, though there is one area that some might find disturbing in a similar way to why some people won’t watch the movie IT! But that’s absolutely fine because the very best of the previous Resident Evils took a similar approach, and as was just pointed out to me, just because I wasn’t scared doesn’t make it not a horror game altogether! Overall, the tense, varied and mostly brilliantly paced gameplay, combined especially with the jaw-dropping, atmospheric visuals, makes Resident Evil Village absolutely essential, especially if you’re already on next-gen machines. It’s not perfect, and even though it controls like a dream in first-person, it’s still not quite up there with Resident Evil 4, but apart from Feud on the ZX Spectrum and Kick Off on Atari ST, what is? That beautiful, beautiful castle though…

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

My Life With… Resident Evil 4 – Nintendo GameCube

On the 1st August 1996, I was a couple of months into a five year career working for an electronic components distributor in the glamourous town of Leighton Buzzard. As well as being notable for rampant inbreeding (so a bigger boy told me!), it’s also known for the Great Train Robbery, Kajagoogoo and actor Rusty Goffe, who was a Jawa and several other similarly-sized things in a film called Star Wars, though many of us will be more familiar with his work as The Canary Dwarf, Britain’s bounciest weather man, on the sadly defunct Live TV’s Topless Darts. None of that is relevant whatsoever here, except there wasn’t anywhere to buy games in Leighton Buzzard, so I had to call in to Toys R Us in Bedford on the way home to buy Resident Evil, because that was the day it came out here and I needed it immediately!

And there begins my rather disfunctional history with Resident Evil. There was never any question of me getting it the instant it came out – the violence, the realism, the zombies… It was going to be the best game ever! And for quite a long time, I absolutely loved it. Wandering around the best spooky mansion since Scooby Doo, shooting stuff in the face to that epic soundtrack, the first (and still one of the greatest) jump scares in a video game was all fantastic. But there was this ridiculous inventory system, and I kept finding all these items that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in working out what to do with. Then Wipeout 2097 came out and Destruction Derby 2 and Twisted Metal 2 and WWF in Your House and Legacy of Kain, and then it had no chance of being the best game ever!

That didn’t stop me going through exactly the same process with its sequel a couple of years later though! Or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1999, though in my defence having just played Remake on PS4, I reckon I was most of the way through that one when I ditched it! When I got a GameCube at the end of 2001, more than enough time had passed to justify getting its shiny new remake of the original, as well as Code: Veronica and Zero as a bit more time went by!

I think I just liked the idea of Resident Evil more than actually playing it! And that’s partially behind my decision not to buy Resident Evil 4 the day it came out, or, indeed, for about thirteen years afterwards (when I’d then sit on it for a couple more). For all the hype the game was getting ages before it came out in 2005, to me it just wasn’t Resident Evil – I was interested in zombies, not crazed Spaniards in mud huts. Even if one of them had a chainsaw and a bag on his head! I really was the worst hardcore Resident Evil fan ever! Anyway, I didn’t like how it looked in screenshots either – all that brown was like playing on a Commodore 64 all over again! I just wasn’t interested, no matter what the reviews said, ironically echoing all that best game ever stuff I’d had in my head when I handed over my money for the first game.

Before deciding I was finally going to play through Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube over Christmas 2020, there’s a bit more history to add. I finally played through the remaster (such as it is) of the original on PS4 a couple of years before that, prompted by being lent a copy of Resident Evil 7 and thinking I can’t play the new one without at least a refresh after all those years, particularly after it had been free one month with PlayStation Plus. And lo and behold, this time something was clicking here, no doubt down to the patience that comes with age; or more likely getting less good at just shooting stuff! I finished it then immediately dived into Resident Evil 7, and being decades beyond all about my aforementioned misplaced loyalty to the original games, loved the tense Texas Chainsaw vibe of the first two-thirds before it get a bit more mundane and unnecessarily dragged-out towards the end. Then I went back to my original PS1 disc, this time on the PS3, then the same with the original sequel before playing the absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 2 Remake on PS4 in 2019, followed by the less brilliant but – in my opinion at least – fun all the same Resident Evils 5 and 6 on Nintendo Switch. And through all of this, my impulse (i.e. cheap) eBay pick-up from some time over the last few years, Resident Evil 4, still sat there unloved next to my GameCube; and also next to a to-this-day equally unloved copy of Zelda: Wind Waker, but that will be another story!

In summary, aside from two GameCube games, we’re now caught up in the series to a respectable level at least, having at the time of writing in January 2021 literally just finished the also absolutely brilliant Resident Evil 3 Remake on PS4, so that makes it time to talk about its sequel! And would you believe that for all the years of first having an aversion to it, then having complete indifference to it, Resident Evil 4 has now had a remarkable impact on me and my long history in gaming.

We could go all the way back to way before the start of our tale here when the first one came out, and if you’d asked me what my favourite games were, without any hesitation whatsoever I’d have said Feud on the Spectrum, Kick Off on Atari ST and Renegade, also on the Spectrum and not that arcade version with its weird controls. And whilst my favourite games list has got much bigger, after all these years the bit at the top has never changed… And then we get to about halfway through Resident Evil 4, and this voice in my mind-brain starts telling me that this 15-year old imposter might actually be my favourite game ever, however outrageous that was sounding and however much I genuinely didn’t want to hear it! I mean, Silent Hill 2 (more here) entering the top ten not that long ago was bad enough – poor old Elevator Action – but now we’re talking about complete disruption to a load more things that have been not only been even more deeply pondered over, but have also been even more utterly sacred for so long…

It ended up at number three; nothing will ever top Feud and Kick Off! What’s even more shocking, though, is that it ended up there after such strained beginnings! By the time we got here, right at the end of 2020, having been through all those Resident Evils and developed a proper affection for what the series actually is – even if affection was all it was – I really wanted to get stuck into this. I duly inserted tiny little GameCube Disc 1 (which thankfully has you covered until the final chapter), pressed start and got into the opening Umbrella and its misdemeanours in 1998 recap; jump to six years later and returning hero Leon Kennedy is in “rural Europe” looking for the American President’s missing daughter, who was kidnapped by a strange cult just before he started an assignment to protect her. Someone’s spotted someone that looks like her, so here we are in the back of a police car with two distinctly Mexican-sounding local police escorts, on your way to your start point at a distinctly medieval-looking village, in the middle of nowhere in what is obviously meant to be Spain!

A couple more cutscenes later and we’re on our way, in what was a revolutionary over-the-shoulder viewpoint that would completely re-write action-adventure gaming… Except now, after all those re-writes you’ve been playing for the last fifteen years, the controls absolutely stink! And that’s before you’ve drawn your gun or pulled out your knife. Oh dear! Okay, we’ve come this far down this very atospheric dirt track in the woods and that looks like a house in the distance, so we’ll have a look. Now, this being a Resident Evil game, you’re obviously not going to use any gun ever given the choice because you have to save up all of your ammo for the final credits, so this first guy you’ve got to kill because you’re now in his house is going to have to get stabbed up. Shoulder button, knife out, slash, try and slash in the right direction, and what the hell is going on with this direction button??? Now we’re dead. Restart the game!

A couple more deaths later and you’ll have resorted to your gun; it’s twitchy as hell, the sight is moving wildly all over the screen in the opposite direction to where you want it, and you’ll be lucky to shoot this guy anywhere, let alone in the head where you know he wants it! He’s dead, so time to search the house then jump out of an upstairs window to go through the same process with two more guys (at once if you’re not quick enough). A couple more restarts later and you know where the items near them are, so decide to grab them then do a runner instead of fighting, right down to a save point in a shed! At this point I decided not to save but keep practicing my knife skills instead, but they didn’t get any better, so we save and move on down towards the village that had turned me off in all those screenshots, occasionally stopping to shoot one of the loads more enemies hanging around the trail if you have time to line up a shot because their back is turned, but otherwise just running, stopping only to try and smash open item boxes in more sheds with that stupid knife, then get out before one of them comes in and corners you!

Big gate ahead signifies a checkpoint and we’re in the village and there’s tons of angry villagers with a dead look in their eyes, and you know perfectly well that for all the creeping around you do at the start, you’re in for the most hellish fight you’ve ever been in – just because of these awful controls! Eventually you’re trapped in a house, and it goes all Night of the Living Dead with you trying to block up windows while you try and shoot and stab (good luck!) your way to some kind of safety upstairs, where they’re also now coming in through the windows on ladders! Somehow you get by and get out of one of them, and just start running frantically – at least you’re getting used to how that works now, even if you can’t shoot anything! And then the guy with the chainsaw and the bag on his head appears with a load more psycho-villages, and you can keep running but you can’t hide and eventually – more checkpoint restarts later – you concede that you’re going to have to get some tactics down for a scrap, but at least by now you’re starting to get used to shooting stuff, and eventually you’re starting to appreciate the incredible tension of being stuck in that house with loads of stuff coming through windows, or coming up against Dr Salvadore, the chainsaw guy, because now you’ve got a chance.

A couple of hours later, with the village sections behind you, the archaic controls are going to feel the most natural and pretty much perfect you could ever wish for, even by today’s standards! You’re going to be combining quick leg shots with knives and kicks, jumping between pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and grenades, dodging and spinning and knowing what’s going to work for cover or just slowing things down, and then you can relax a bit and start marvelling at how everything looks because it turns out it’s not all about brown!

So far I’ve liked the initial creepy but too short woodland stroll, and the wooden-hutted village and farm bits actually turned out to be pretty cool as you run around them, with tons of detail giving a real sense of oppression and a surprising amount of claustrophobia, like that you might experience being stuck in a big city rather than rural Spain. You’ll eventually emerge into a valley, absolutely riddled with wooden platforms, rope bridges and all kinds of huts and a swarm of different enemies, and this is where you really first notice both the scale of the game and also its incredible visual quality. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking visual quality on a GameCube on a modern TV, so when it came out I can only imagine how impressive what they were getting out of that little purple box must have been! What really got me though, not long after this, was going up an even creepier wooded path then emerging into a big graveyard with a church towering over it on the hill in the distance. At this point I actually stopped playing the game, turned off the lights, and started taking photos of the TV, adjusting Leon until I got the shot of the scene over his shoulder that I wanted, and with the benefit of hindsight and far more thought than you should give something so trivial, can say it’s one of my favourite sights in any game ever!

After a bit more killing (zombie wolves not dogs for a change!) and a bit of classic Resident Evil item collection and puzzle-solving, it’s around here that we’re going to find Ashley, the President’s daughter, and oh no, next disappointment, she’s coming with us and it’s not only going to be dreadful escort missions, but she’s a 20-year old American girl that acts like a 15-year old American girl! Actually, neither turns out to be so bad, and for a mostly non-playable character from 2005, she even displays a modicum of intelligence and tactical nouse in combat! Anyway, I was going to say, this is probably a good point to expand on the plot, because it’s now clear that there’s more to all of this than just finding your newly un-kidnapped sidekick!

This mysterious cult that kidnapped her is called Los Illuminados, and it turns out that all these villagers that keep attacking you have not only renounced farming to pledge their lives to it, but have also become infected by a parasite called Las Plagas that’s taken over their minds! On your travels so far, you’ll have been captured and infected by it too, and while captive you meet Luis Sera, an investigator who was researching the cult; once you both escape he’ll become useful for filling you in on the plot throughout the game! And then we find Ashley, who it turns out was also injected with the parasite, and the cult leader’s plan is for her to take it home to inject her father with it, which will in turn allow him to take over the world. Once you’ve found her, you’ll end up in freaky man-child Ramon Salazar’s castle, get separated then have to start searching for her all over again. In the lead-up to fighting mutated Salazar, you’ll meet saucy blast from the Resident Evil 2 past Ada Wong who’ll both help and hinder you as you go on.

Next you’ll go to an island research facility to find Ashley, and someone else from Leon’s spec-ops past, Jack Krauser, appears as the mercenary that kidnapped Ashley. Now we learn that both he and Ada Wong are working for star (also STAR) of original Resident Evil Albert Wesker, now a born-again nutcase who also wants a piece of the Las Plagas action. After dispatching him you’ll find Ashley again, discover a big machine that can cure the pair of you, then have a showdown with the also-mutated big bad cult leader, assisted by Ada Wong and her inevitable Resident Evil final boss rocket launcher! As a final twist in the tail, Ada’s going to do a runner with Leon’s parasite sample, and all that’s left to do it escape the island on a jet-ski before it explodes!

The parasite enemies versus zombie enemies of previous Resident Evils do change things up quite a lot, where they’re quicker and have some intelligence about them, though shooting them in the head still works fine – especially when it’s from miles away with a fully-upgraded scope on your rifle! It’s not just zombie cult farmers, tooled-up chanting monks, very well-armed (and sometimes shielded) soldiers, walking suits of armour, chainsaw bag-head guys and the like you’ll be shooting up though. There’s different, much tougher (and far more sinister) versions of them that wouldn’t look out of place in Silent Hill; there’s various parasites, flying bugs and those undead wolves; there’s lumbering giants that act as regular mini-bosses and Iron Maidens with extending spikes on the outside; and there’s the regenerator – no doubt one of the most feared monsters in gaming history, relentlessly moving towards you, with multiple parasites regenerating body parts, each requiring individual attention from your rifle (or just shutting a door on them)!

That’s regular enemies, but you’ll come across a wonderful menagerie of bosses too. I’m not that keen on boss fights, but I think I only really struggled with Salazar when he turns into a humungous zombie flower and you need a bit more precision at speed than I’m capable of any more! It only took a few goes though. The rest are wildly varied, from a set-piece filled epic with superman Krauser to more regular shooting all the pulsating sacs filled with ooze Lovecraft-style monsters. The final boss – cult leader Osmund Saddler now mutated into a huge four-legged oozing thing – is a lot of fun, and when that rocket launcher is thrown into the mix there’s a great feeling as you realise you’ve just about done him in, but my favourite boss I think was the very first one. This was a lake monster, brought back to life by Saddler to stop anyone crossing it, and you’re hunting it down in a tiny fishing boat that is being dragged around by this giant whale thing after it got caught up in the anchor. And it’s from this vantage point that you’re trying to harpoon it, while steering and trying to avoid being capsized, which results in a frantic swim! Once its done for, it’s not over though because you’re still attached and now being dragged to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick-time events – one of many you’ll experience throughout the game, but I don’t remember this one being quite as punishing as others that may assume far more familiarity with a GameCube controller than you may have so long after the fact!

The aftermath of this fight sees you end up in a cabin on the other side of the lake, and another visually stunning moment as you look out of the window into the rain. This was another favourite moment for me, and that went straight into another! As you go outside and peer across the murk of the lake, you can just make out some blue flames, which you’ll now be starting to recognise as the welcoming signal of the Merchant having set up shop there. As fantastic as this guy is, you don’t want to be thinking too much about him and his various impossibilities though, like why he’s not dead, how he travels in the blink of an eye, who else he’s selling to and various other stock management issues – just enjoy this constantly out-of-place walking weapons shop with his wares hidden inside his long black coat or in his backpack, or in some of the more permanent establishments he frequents around the game, like this one! You’ll be buying new weapons and upgrades using coins you’ve found or by selling him treasures or stuff you don’t want. At certain locations he’ll also have an optional shooting gallery on the go, and he’s usually near a save point too!

Recalling all these things I enjoyed one after the other is testament to the game’s pacing throughout the 25 or so hours it took me to complete it. From the very start, it’s relentlessly pushing you forwards, whether to progress the story or to progress your ability to progress the story. You’re rarely going to be wondering where to go next or trying to fathom obscure puzzles involving myriad items and all the related back and forth Resident Evils before this loved to throw at you so much. There’s a bit of backtracking and a bit of puzzle-solving, but I’m struggling to remember anything that bothered me whatsoever, and on the whole you’re on your way from one set of set-pieces in one area to another set in the next, interspersed by different levels of adrenaline rush. This might be from something as simple and frequent as taking down a regular enemy with some style, getting through an onslaught of firey catapults, completing one of the frantic on-rails sections, or finding yourself face to face with Dr Salvadore and his chainsaw in a minecart, but the biggest rush for me came from just turning around and looking back at one particular room…

In Chapter 4 (of 5, each split into 3-4 areas plus one final chapter), you’re after a lion ornament to go into something else and open up a new part of the castle – all classic Resident Evil! You go through a door in from a very steampunk area to be faced by a cavernous room full of maze-like stone stairways and walkways across a sea of volcanic lava spraying all over the place. There’s also a load of dragon statues ready to spit flaming death all over you too, manned by monks in skeleton masks that you’ll need to snipe while taking on a load of their mates out to get you as you make your way across various platforms and obstacles. This took me a few goes, but once you’ve got the lie of the land you do fine, and the pay-off when you pick up the ornament and head back is incredible! You’re faced with this incredible, impossible set of structures across this vast flaming pit, smoke and fire everywhere, and you just think did I really just do that? Absolutely stunning. Again! When you combine so much fun from so much variety with that pacing we talked about, you’re getting close to perfect gameplay, but surely there’s a catch?

It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without some inventory management, so you’re going to spend a fair amount of time playing Tetris in your attaché case and making painful decisions about what to store or just abandon. As usual, it’s expandable as you make your way through the game, and key items and treasure are kept separately so they’re not taking up slots. And as usual, you can combine some health items, ammo and bits of weapons. I think there was one instance where there was a rocket launcher that just wasn’t going to fit, but otherwise there was usually space for all that handgun ammo I didn’t actually need!

We’ve not talked about how things sound yet, and as you’d expect from a game in this series (and genre in general) there’s some very ham-fisted dialogue delivered in typically unique ways! Actually, the voice acting isn’t bad – it’s certainly no Silent Hill 2 – and the script is mostly fine, even offering up a couple of genuinely funny lines, but it definitely gets cringeworthy at times, and I’m sure that in any remake that might come along in the future, Luis won’t be talking about her dad equipping Ashley’s with ballistics! And probably no close ups of his crotch when he says he’s got something for you guys either… You are going to get a lot of abuse coming your way in Spanish too, which is probably more effective if you don’t know Spanish (which I assume Leon doesn’t which is why it’s never translated), but it is proper good abuse!

The soundtrack is responsible for so much of the horror you’re going to experience throughout the game’s duration. It moves seamlessly from disturbing localised ambience to pulsating primitive rhythms, and from minimal almost industrial pieces to climactic gothic orchestrations. There’s thankfully a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighties action movie like Cobra or Bloodsport too! Sound effects layer on even more disturbing ambience – love those killer monk chants! – and it really sounds like they’ve gone the extra mile with things like gunshots, where each distinct sound is going to include the chink of spent cartridges and the sounds of a reload as well.

I’ve talked about how impressive it still looks even being pumped out of a GameCube onto a modern TV. I know I have the benefit of being a complete luddite when it comes to things like resolution and frame rate though, where the upscaled PS4 version doesn’t look all that different to me, although that said I’m not certain it actually is! Some of the locations like the swamp, any of the woods, the church and a lot of the castle are pure Hammer Horror though, which might be a good analogy for how it looks – Plague of the Zombies (best film ever created!) looks like it was made when it was, but it still looks great! The polish might have tarnished a little with the years, but the creativity and artistry on the locales and their inhabitants (especially some of the nastier-looking bosses) haven’t one bit, with all the character models looking and moving great through brilliantly lit environments (especially when night comes). Details like the heat haze in that lava room, or just smoke rising or rain falling would also still impress today, bouncing realistically off of different surfaces, and those effects when you pop something’s head off are still second to none!

What else to say? Well, it’s oven got its own zombie dogs through the window moment! Like what I did there? Otherwise, looks great, sounds great and eventually plays great; is full of atmosphere, full of horror and full of variety; and the gameplay is just outstanding. And that’s even in 2021 as I write this, having now played the GameCube version twice and the Wii version once in the first three weeks of the year! I have to say that on one hand I expected a bit more of the Wii version, having heard many lauding its motion controls and it being the ultimate way to play, but I wasn’t that fussed. On the other hand, it cost me £1.10 on eBay so I can’t complain!!!

Now that it’s firmly entrenched in my top three games of all time, shockingly relegating the definitive version of Renegade to number four after all those years sitting pretty there, do I regret not playing it until now? If it wasn’t for those pesky screenshots, I’d have probably bought Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, day one, just like all its predecessors! But just like them, I’d have probably played it for a bit before being distracted by God of War, Call of Duty 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2… What a meathead! But for me at the end of 2020, it was perfect! And now that remake would be pretty perfect too…

Retro Arcadia Top Ten Games of 2017

I very rarely have the impulse to buy anything day one, and I’ve spent most of this year playing catch-up with stuff I’ve been given for birthdays or Christmas that I’d directed people to get for me at bargain prices – Wolfenstein The Old Blood, Doom (which was the only game that’s ever induced serious motion sickness in me then outstayed its welcome a bit but I finished it), Dishonored, Dirt 3 and the marvellous Trackmania Turbo were highlights. Lego Dimensions, particularly the Midway Retro Arcade level pack and all the old favourites of mine it included, has also been a mainstay, as has No Man’s Sky, which I’ve now pumped hundreds of hours into and it remained my go-to game until November when I decided I just didn’t want to play it any more. Special mention also to Super Mario Run which appeared right at the end of 2016 and I’ve continued to play throughout 2017. I also got a New Nintendo 2DS which opened up a whole new world of Nintendo games that I’d missed out on since the Game Boy Advance – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Tennis and much more…

1. Elevator Action

Seeing this appear out of the blue on the PlayStation Store new release list towards the end of November was a console generation highlight for me, only previously (almost) equalled by the same for Renegade a couple of years ago! Every time I play it I’m standing in front of an arcade cabinet in the cafe area of our local leisure centre in 1984, with the music from the Saturday morning roller disco in the background and a can of Dr Pepper from the only vending machine in town to stock it on the table beside me. It’s the arcade version of Elevator Action, released on PS4 as part of their Arcade Archives series, and by default is the best game released in 2017 on any platform.

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

This is one of the most joyous gaming experiences I’ve ever had! It also gives me the chance, as someone living on a farm in the country with no intention of ever farming or even vaguely embracing country life, to experience all of that stuff from the comfort of my own living room! You just do whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s clearing some land, doing up some buildings, growing some crops, fishing, looking after your chickens, playing the arcade games in the village pub, mining, building a fence, beach combing, helping out villagers or just wandering about the place. Slow-paced, open-ended, great looking and wonderful – just like the life waiting right outside my front door if only it wasn’t so much hassle!

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

For this game I did get that rare impulse to buy day one! Pokemon Gold (see below) very recently introduced me to a series I’d missed out on for decades, but this brought me right up to date with a stunning handheld masterpiece. The world is brimming with life (including some great Pokemon), the story will cost you hours that you thought were minutes, and even the necessary grinding stays fun. So much gameplay here and I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you’re still the sceptical non-player that I was until a couple of months ago.

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

I’ve never really played as much Everybody’s Golf as I should have, given I’ve owned iterations on various platforms since the original Playstation release. I have made up for that a bit with the latest one though. It’s still instantly familiar, albeit with a PS4 sheen and all kinds of modern gaming depth, maintaining a very simple mechanic that makes it very easy for a quick nine holes to turn into ninety!

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

Okay, it’s another pure re-release (but definitely not the last one in this list), this time of an ancient GameBoy Colour game with no 21st century bells and whistles added, but it was my first ever Pokemon game, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it and its fantastic immersive world hasn’t aged a day, so definitely deserves to be in the top half of this list. Check out a more detailed post I did on this here.

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

Before you think it, it’s a remaster and not a re-release! But anyone, I’m playing by my rules here so anything that came out this year goes! This collects some of the more recent titles, updating them with incredibly fast moving and great looking graphics, but the core gameplay remains, meaning it’s still the best futuristic racer out there and was a joy to come back to.

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

For a free-to-play game built around loot crates, this is an incredibly generous, very focussed tactical fighting game. Production values are off the charts; it’s accessible but deep; there’s some very saucy characters, and in my 30+ hours with the game I collected the strongest possible units and rinsed every mode in the game without ever feeling I was grinding for it; without ever spending a penny.

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

This game is pointless. And that’s most of the reason I love it. I don’t care that it’s constantly (though completely unobtrusively) reminding me that I can spend money that I won’t spend. I’m quite happy waiting for stuff to appear that I can use to help out the animal people hanging around my campsite who give me money and materials to buy more stuff then wait for that to appear while I fish and catch bugs and rearrange things. The most casual, relaxing, mindless and fun waste of time I’ve played this year.

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

I’d have loved it if this didn’t have the word “Biohazard” in the title and been able to maintain the feeling of Texas Chainsaw inspired anxiousness that built up in the first few hours before the ooze started appearing. I’d also have appreciated it being a few hours shorter. But all the same it takes the series back to its horror roots, even including a nice nod to the dogs jumping through the windows in the original. It’s a lovely looking game, great attention to detail with surprisingly varied settings, and happily the puzzles aren’t too obscure, the inventory system isn’t too restrictive, and the save points aren’t too far apart.

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

Some of the mechanics are creaking a bit by today’s standard, but this remaster (the last on this list I’m proud to announce) will bring a tear to the eye to anyone that’s not read Rogue Trooper since they were a kid in the 80’s! Okay, it’s not a patch on the Spectrum version that everyone’s forgotten ever existed first, but just to spend a few hours running and gunning across Nu-Earth and bringing back all those 2000A.D. memories makes it essential!