There’s no series more synonymous with survival-horror than Resident Evil. The release of the original game practically birthed the genre, and since then the series has spawned many sequels, spin-offs, and even a successful movie franchise.
With the release of Resident Evil 4 nine years after the original, developers Capcom refined the formula to an art-form, and created what many believe to be the epitome of the franchise. After that high point, Capcom struggled with which direction to go next, and in the following few years Resident Evil lost its way, at least in terms of genre identity. By overcoming issues with controls and opening the door to a more action-oriented feel, RE4 sacrificed some of the player-vulnerability that was previously fundamental to a Resi game, and started a trend which continued with Resident Evil 5, which added co-op play and stripped away more horror elements. By the time Resident Evil 6 came along, the gameplay had become a mess of different influences. Either the developers were trying to please too many audiences, or they simply weren’t sure what they wanted Resident Evil to be any more. The resulting game was jumbled stealth-action-shooter hybrid, a mutant ugly enough to fit right in with the series’ most grotesque enemies.
However it arrived at that point, the series had lost its identity.
Obviously aware of these problems, when Capcom revealed Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, they were keen to present this game as a reinvention of the series. A fresh start, but also a chance to go back to Resi’s roots. This was to be a true survival-horror game.
And that’s exactly how RE7 feels. Once you’ve adapted to the new first-person perspective, the game begins to introduce hints of the comfortably familiar. It brings back that feeling of vulnerability that was so much a hallmark of the series, along with many other touches that long-time fans will recognize, whilst also creating a fresh, modern feel that brings the franchise right up to date, and makes Resident Evil seem relevant in a way it hasn’t for years.
Ethan Winters isn’t a S.T.A.R.S. operative, a government agent, or even a cop. He’s just a regular guy who, out of the blue, receives a mysterious message from his wife, Mia, who has been missing for the last three years. The game begins with you as Ethan arriving in the fictional town of Dulvey, Louisiana in search of Mia. It isn’t long before you end up at a dilapidated, empty-looking mansion. Unfortunately for Ethan, the mansion is far from empty, and that’s where the fun begins.
My very first reaction to RE7 was how absolutely disgusting it looks, which of course is a huge compliment. Capcom have rendered every inch of the game’s central setting, the imposing Baker mansion, in unbelievable, sickening detail. The sheen on a plate of putrid entrails; the deep grain of the rotten floorboards; the filthy opacity of standing water. This wealth of repellent beauty helps to craft the strongest sense of place I’ve seen in a game for a long while. The Baker mansion feels real, feels lived-in. It’s a place I hate to be in, but love to experience. It’s complicated.
Contributing to the acute sense of place is the sound design, which is utterly brilliant and not only head-and-shoulders above anything that has been achieved in any previous Resident Evil game to date, but also sets new standards for eerie ambiance in the horror genre. There’s nothing random here, every noise has been carefully placed to keep the player on edge, and boy, does it work. Every floorboard creak, every distant muffled thud, stirs a primal fear of the unknown as you creep around the crumbling house.
That fear is no more acutely felt than in the game’s tense opening section, during which you could be forgiven for thinking that Capcom have fully embraced the style of modern first-person horror that has evolved recently with games like Outlast and Alien: Isolation. The first hour-or-so does mimic the intense cinematic style of those games, along with their use of minimal lighting to increase the jumpy atmosphere, and their only token implementation of weapons and combat. This opening is supremely effective in introducing the setting, the situation you find yourself in, and most importantly, the Baker family as the game’s principal antagonists.
And while we’re on the subject of newness, another departure from the Resi formula can be found in the various found-footage videotape sections. If you witnessed the original demo, you’ll be familiar with these. At various points you’re given a videotape and a VCR. Play the tape, and you’re not just an observer, but a character in the video. You’ll usually have to escape one of the Bakers here, and solve some small puzzle to complete the video. Interestingly, when playing through these tapes, you can sometimes effectively rewrite history by changing something which, when the action returns to Ethan, will also be affected in his present reality. This ‘time travel’ conceit is fun, and these sections certainly add a welcome bit of variety to the action, and crucially, give the developers another interesting tool with which to tell the story.
These new elements certainly add a different flavor, but don’t really reflect the game as a whole. After the intro and the first found-footage tape, you’ll notice a little more of what you’d expect from a Resi game start to creep in. For me, the moment I realized I really was playing a Resident Evil title came after I had the freedom to explore for the first time. I entered one room, suddenly heard music…and then instantly began grinning from ear to ear. I’d stumbled upon a safe room, that most Resi of features, a place to store items from your bulging inventory, save the game (the typewriter of-old has morphed into an only slightly less outdated tape recorder) and, most importantly, take a moment of blissful relief.
I mentioned inventory, and yes, that classic Resi staple, the inventory-Tetris that fans love to hate, is all present and correct. Inventory management is, as always, the game-within-the-game, as you must constantly make tough decisions on which supplies to leave in the safe room, which to combine to create more useful items, and which to take into the field with your limited space. Which will keep you alive longest, the handgun ammo or the green herb? It’s the age-old question.
And as you journey deeper into the real meat of the game, its impossible not to be put in mind of the series’ past, particularly the original game, and its 2003 remake. Carefully, deliberately, you explore each room, gradually revealing more of the sprawling mansion as you go, usually with only a handful of ammunition for your only reasonably-effective weaponry. Simple puzzles need solving if you are to progress into the various impassable areas, and if you’ve ever played a Resident Evil game before, you’ll be right at home with the sort f thing you’re required to do here -- finding a statue to cast a shadow of the correct shape onto a picture and unlock a new area, for instance, or collecting pieces of a puzzle that make up the lock of a door to be opened. It works well because you’re always aware of what you should be doing next, leaving you to figure out how exactly to achieve your goal. It’s this that gives RE7 its delicious momentum. The dramatic instances punctuate things brilliantly, but even in the game’s quieter, puzzling moments, you’re always moving forward, never floundering without purpose.
Combat also feels familiar, despite the new first-person perspective. You’ll battle dumb, predictable enemies which require plenty of ammo to take down, so you’re always faced with the decision whether to deal with an enemy right away, or avoid the fight and conserve ammo. It’s during fights with these lesser enemies where RE7 is at its weakest. Tackling this game’s zombie-analogues, the Molded, can be frustrating, as Ethan feels a tad slow and awkward (intentionally, I’m sure) especially when walking backwards, something you’ll be doing often. This limitation to movement sometimes feels unfairly restricting, increasing the difficulty of fights in a what could be considered a cheap way. There’s a quick-turn option, but it feels a little unwieldy in first-person. And that’s probably the issue. Capcom have ported a version of their tried-and-true combat that works in a third-person game, but in RE7, where the view can’t help triggering comparisons to first-person shooters and their invariably more fluid movement, it feels notably cumbersome.
The Molded themselves are where my other main criticism lies. I could handle their predictable attack patterns and their ability to sponge your bullets (like I said; zombie-analogues). What I do have trouble with is just how terribly uninteresting they are. In a game full of incredible detail and thoughtful design, the black sludgy look of the Molded just feels a little uninspired, even generic.
I didn’t have this problem with any of the RE7’s other adversaries, especially not the brilliantly-realized Bakers. Much more interesting combat can be found in the sections where you get up-close and personal with the family, each serving as a boss of sorts… yet they’re far more than that. Their characterization, and the way they’re interwoven into RE7’s narrative is pure genius, and you can never be quite certain when one is going to pop up next. All bets are off when tackling the Bakers as they’re basically invulnerable to standard weapons and utterly relentless in their pursuit of you, making the sections where you’re forced to confront them the most intense and visceral in the game. An early section has ‘daddy’ Jack relentlessly hunting you down through the opening area of the mansion, grabbing and mauling you with his grotesque weapon whenever you get close. Creeping around, listening for his rabid mumbling while planning your escape route, then, at perfect moment, tearing off into another part of the house with him howling behind you is an exhilarating experience. It’s that thrill of making split decisions on the fly, your brain working hard to outsmart these maniacs while on the constant verge of panic, that makes these encounters so memorable. You’ll face Jack and the others, Marguerite and Lucas, multiple times in various situations, and to go into specifics would be to lessen the impact each confrontation has. But rest assured, these always-surprising set-pieces are not just the highlights of this game, but are also some of the most cleverly orchestrated moments of the whole series.
The ever-present threat of these brutal antagonists mixed with the overall oppressive atmosphere makes this, for me, easily the most frightening Resident Evil since the first, effortlessly matching recent horror masters like Outlast in the terror stakes, while relying less on jump-scares than that game and so many others in the genre. Play this in a darkened room, headphones on, volume right up, and I challenge you not to tense every muscle in your body each time you creak open a door to a new room. I didn’t get the chance to try RE7 in VR, but I can only imagine the feeling of dread is heightened even further wearing the headset.
It’s not magic that creates that tone of terror. RE7 is a product of serious, dedicated, intricate design work, and you feel every bit of the effort that has gone into it. The mansion and surrounding area that make up the game world never feels small, far from it, but you sense that the scale is nowhere near the magnitude of some of the previous games in the series, and this has helped Capcom focus-in on every aspect of this world they’ve constructed. It’s obvious from the very first moment you step into the Baker mansion that every single intricate detail has been carefully placed, every tiny element considered before inclusion, and that’s true of the game as a whole.
When this slavish attention to detail comes together with the worthy new elements (which only add to the experience without taking anything away) and the perfectly-selected components of Resident Evil’s tried-and-tested formula, they form an immensely satisfying trinity. RE7 is work of exquisite quality that’s rarely seen these days.
And it’s in bringing these elements together that Resident Evil 7 triumphs. Capcom have managed to reinvigorate a series which had become increasingly stale, giving it a fresh, new, modern feel, whist retaining the personality, the quintessential identity of a Resi game. Some slightly uninspired enemy design, and very minor movement issues don’t do anything to prevent this being the best in the series since RE4, and, if you prefer your survival-horror a little less action-oriented, even surpasses that classic.
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