Let’s be clear – the developers at Capcom behind Resident Evil 7: Biohazard have been paying very close attention to the way the horror winds have been blowing. They’ve played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, Alien: Isolation (to my joy). And yes, they played P.T., and its influence is so clear that it is easy to imagine the designers at Capcom gathered like many others did, in the middle of the night, to be astounded by that hallway and the horrors within.
But what may not be so obvious, from the trailers and advertisements and demos, is that Capcom has also gone back and examined the old games. Resident Evil, 2, 3, a little bit of Code: Veronica. The old ways of Resident Evil are more apparent in their influence on Resident Evil VII than not just the other games in the series but the horror genre at large.
What results is a game that straddles the decades between the modern and old ages of that malleable term of “survival horror.” That is a massive distance, and Resident Evil VII’s attempt to bridge it isn’t without serious cracks and faults. To walk across it, however, is a breakneck rush of genuine terror and tension, a successful fusion of the past and present that creates a promising future for a series that only recently seemed to be lost in the woods.
Resident Evil 7 Review | Many Happy Returns
In the woods is where Resident Evil 7 begins, as Ethan Winters journeys to the Baker family farm outside of Dulvey, Louisiana. There, somewhere in the farm’s structures half buried under vines, bugs, and an atmosphere so thick you can practically see the sweat in the air, is his wife Mia. She’s been missing for three years. She sent an email telling Ethan to come and get her at this address. Things go terrifyingly wrong, and Ethan finds himself at the whims of the monstrous Baker family on a farm that is far more than it originally seems.
As far as Resident Evil plots go, this is by far the simplest the series has ever been. It’s a smart decision, to step as far back from the globe-trotting trend of the last few games as possible, and Resident Evil 7’s narrative high points involve the intimate, small scale nature of the story. Keeping things personal keeps it focused. Keeping things personal means that when things begin to grow stranger, darker, more outlandish and horrifying, they feel like natural, earned progression of horror. And make no mistake, the strongest parts of Resident Evil 7’s are the times it goes for the scare, because with alarming, exciting efficiency, it succeeds.
There’s one problem with this; Ethan. Resident Evil is loaded with iconic protagonists, but Ethan is a colossal disappointment. He may utter “fuck” a lot in reaction to things that are worthy of a “fuck,” but “fuck” isn’t enough to make a protagonist interesting or relatable. During major moments he is silent as the grave. He is an unseasoned holiday turkey of a lead character. If it seems like I’m harping on this, it’s due to the game’s new focus on intimate, small scale horror – it brings every element larger, and the elements that don’t work are both more visible and more negatively effective.
As a result of Ethan Winters being a wash, the rest of Resident Evil 7 is forced to work overtime, from cast to design to mechanics. Almost across the board, it’s a success – and, as an ancillary note, it is also the second best Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever made.
The Baker family, owners of this horrifying homestead deep in the swamp, owe their existence to many things. There is more than a little of the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw in their brutality and relentlessness, but a healthy dose of fellow haunted Louisiana story True Detective also exists in the bizarre gory creations that dot the house and surroundings and religious fervor with which they speak of their power. They represent the smartest decision Resident Evil 7 makes, and are a microcosm of why it works so well. These are average individuals whose terrifying capabilities seep out from them with every interaction, and represent a healthy blend of gameplay styles.
KEEPING THINGS INTIMATE MEANS THE MOST OUTLANDISH THINGS HAVE REAL IMPACT
And there can be no mention of characters without mention of Mia, Ethan’s wife. To talk about her role in the game would ruin almost all of the myriad surprises in store, but she more than covers her husband’s lack of anything in particular to lend the story emotional heft. She’s been gone for three years, and the way Resident Evil 7 slowly reveals what happened to her is the backbone of the game’s most effective scares (and is the source of a middling attempt at branching narrative, but it doesn’t undermine much).
Perhaps even better at filling in the hole left by Ethan Winters’ non-existent personality is the design of the Baker farm itself, visually and structurally. Every building is an oppressive, rotting hulk. Wet wood, mold, rooms half destroyed. Maggots, roaches, leeches. It’s a visually stunning wreck of an old home that feels as dead and gone as the Bakers themselves. A strange thing to take notice of is the size you take up in hallways and rooms. As opposed to most games where you feel less like a body and more like a camera with hands, here Ethan has a physical presence in the world that feels realistic to the size of the house. It means hallways feel claustrophobic. Rooms feel like traps. You don’t have the space you believe you have to maneuver.
The best element of this, which means most terrifying, is when the lights are off, in any room, at any moment. Resident Evil 7′s engine is a master of lighting and sound, and darkness is a thick sludge that feels like it actually presses against you.
Every corner of the Baker farm is designed to enhance that feeling. As a work of design, it’s a masterful, terrifying thing, and it is perhaps Resident Evil 7’s strongest gameplay mechanic. Each segment of the farm is a labyrinth that loops back upon the others. Familiarization of layout is first a process of gaining power and then, in a smart trick, made threatening through change, either through layout or visuals or gameplay. It plays on the strongest elements of modern first-person horror, which is that the less opportunity you have to explore new areas, the less likely you are to be jumped by something awful.
RESIDENT EVIL 7’S STRONGEST MOMENTS COME FROM THE TIMES IT GOES FOR THE SCARE – BECAUSE WITH ALARMING, EXCITING EFFICIENCY, IT SUCCEEDS
However, rarely does Resident Evil 7 give you the comfort of knowing a door is locked. Scattered throughout the house are doors obviously embroidered with elaborate animal designs, to be opened by matching keys. Shadow puzzles sit in the open. Panels waiting for statuettes and keycard slots wait for you to find the right object. For the first time in over a decade, Resident Evil has classic Resident Evil puzzles in it. It lays them out in front of you, presents them as matter of fact, offers little explanation, and best of all lets you mess them up, and attempt them without finding the proper clues yet. This is the game’s most impressive trick, somehow managing the balance of the new, more intimate tone and the classic Resident Evil style of absurdly complex locking mechanisms. If anything, it makes them more unsettling than ever before.
If Resident Evil 7 has a design weakness, it is in a section of the game’s final hours, where it moves from careful set-up/subversion to a dead sprint. While this section of the game feels closest to the long, winding battles of Resident Evil 4, and is still rather fun, it doesn’t click with the how it plays.
If you were to view footage of someone playing Resident Evil 7 from the perspective of a camera latched into the corner of a room, it would look exactly like one of the original, fixed-camera games. The principals – speed, gunplay, enemies – are remarkably faithful to the first game in the series, but in a first person perspective. Movement is deliberate, slow, and methodical – helpful when aiming shots, terrifying when the various monsters move in. Dodging the whip-fast attacks of enemies, whether it be sprinting backwards or carefully timed maneuvers, is absolutely essential.
These combat encounters, against the Bakers or the game’s secondary enemies, feel specifically constructed to fight back against the modern horror trend of “you cannot fight back, you have to run,” the idea that combat isn’t frightening. Combat in Resident Evil 7 is claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. You have to be precise, and every battle feels like it requires preparation. In no other Resident Evil game has a save room felt so essential, because in them is where you’ll do the vast majority of your crafting. Raw materials, scantily scattered around the Baker estate, can be combined like herbs in prior games to form first aid and ammunition. You will need to be judicious with both – “survival horror” is an applicable term. Headshots are required. You will be forced to fight under pressure. I am not talking about the game’s non-Baker enemies on purpose – their first appearance is so reliant on reveal that I feel it would be robbery.
“SURVIVAL HORROR” IS AN APPLICABLE TERM FOR A RESIDENT EVIL GAME FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A LONG TIME
In an odd reverse of fortune, it’s the boss fights that hold up longer with this new-school/old-textbooks gameplay system. The largest error Resident Evil 7 makes is a bizarre moment, halfway through the game, where it feels as if every single enemy gets tougher, and it becomes clear it won’t introduce any completely new enemies. The boss fights, however, make great use of every tool in the arsenal, from puzzles to weapons, and mark the most the game pulls from the latter games in the series. It is a testament to Resident Evil 7‘s control over tone that many of its bosses wouldn’t feel out of place in Resident Evil 5 or 6, and a high mark for its slow paced gameplay that it is able to make those originally outlandish concepts terrifying again.
That is, after all, the ultimate success of Resident Evil 7. It takes a series that has, for better *and* for worse, distanced itself from horror for over a decade and takes it right back almost without missing a step. It redeems the most overblown, overzealous elements of the most recent games by making them just as scary as a single zombie in a mansion hall. Welcome back to survival horror, Resident Evil. We’ve missed you very much.
(P.S.: Playing through the game multiple times is so, so worth it)