Ladies and gentlemen, it’s back. If you’ve been a longtime fan of the Resident Evil series, you’ve surely experienced the ups and downs of playing each and every game along the way. From the experimental and communally controversial titles like the Outbreak or Survivor games to the direction of anything post Resident Evil 4. The ability for the Resident Evil series to consistently deliver on stellar titles that perfect their field like say, Resident Evil 2 or 4, has been shaky at best. Until now. Resident Evil 7 serves to not only breathe new life into the series by modernizing it, but also pays respect to the earlier games in the series that gives it its heritage.
Tell Me a Story Daddy…
The game starts fairly simply. The main character, Ethan, travels to the Baker family mansion in the Southern U.S to investigate an email sent to him by his significant other who disappeared three years prior. After going to investigate he is plunged into the ever spreading madness and sadism of the Baker family. The not so happy family is not only mad, but clearly infected with some kind of mutagenic disease that disallows them to die. In their madness they turned their house into a death trap filled with locked doors and horrible aberrations. After besting the Baker family, Ethan’s journey is seemingly at an end. But a twist in the story exposes him to the true horror behind this backwater abomination.
Keeping the Horror Alive
From the outset, Resident Evil 7 establishes itself almost immediately as something entirely new to the series. The first person perspective is a far cry from the series’ third person cameras and serves to create some effective jump scares with the use of excellent camera work. However, even with a few pop up scares here and there, the game does not rely on them entirely. From the second the game begins there is a constant feeling of dread that never leaves until the moment you put the controller down and step away. From the oppressive atmosphere, to the relentless and invincible enemies, to the scarcity of resources, you never feel prepared for what is coming next. But you do feel compelled between the intriguing storyline and the rewarding feeling of having conquered an area using your own ingenuity. Every time you stock up on ammo and health kits and get ready for the next area, the game throws in some drastic new obstacles. The first area of the game has you dealing with a single, invincible enemy that constantly stalks you. Then it adds in a few killable, standard foes before mixing the killable with the unkillable. This formula permeates the first third of the game before bringing you into a whole new area that focuses more on puzzles and combat than on stealth and planning.
None of this feels like an artificial way to make the game horrific or challenging. Rather, the game goes from a walkthrough simulator style horror game, to a shooter with stealth elements, before ending as a full-blown survival horror game that balances combat, resource management, and some pretty unique puzzles. It takes a solidly natural progression throughout each new area of the game.
Something Old, Something New
Resident Evil 7’s best asset is its ability to adapt some of the older concepts of the Resident Evil series to its new take on the franchise. Old mechanics such as resource and inventory management harken back to days of planning ahead on what to bring with you and deciding what resources are most important to grab when running through an area. This led to a few moments where I felt like my stockpile of resources simply wouldn’t last which only increased my dread and forced me to make some risky decisions with enemy encounters. Locational damage from the post-RE 4 era makes a return as well. While some enemies can be put out of commission from a well-placed head shot, others require you to make use of different weapons to dismember them almost completely. The more classic mode of progression also makes a return in the form of keys from new areas opening up previously locked off sections of the game world. It calls back to Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, 0 and even the Remaster. Speaking of “harkening back,” it bears mentioning that the Baker Residence of Resident Evil 7 is painfully adapted from Resident Evil 1 and the Remastered Spencer Estate, complete with East and West Wings, an outdoor area set away from the mansion, nonsensical puzzles, and an all-too-familiar shotgun puzzle. It’s clear to see where their influences came from.
The most noticeable change in the formula is the first person perspective that left quite a few fans worried. Fortunately, the transition went over smoothly. While deviating from the normal third-person controls, the first-person perspective still keeps to the same tense gunplay of the Resident Evil franchise. A confrontation usually comes down to a flight, due to waning resources, or fight decision. Every encounter feels tailor-made from a room to room basis and the slightest miscalculation in which enemy to take out or when/where to shoot can be the difference between life and death.
Enemy encounters in Resident Evil 7 are also unique in that several enemies in the game cannot be killed. Instead you have to find alternate ways to incapacitate them temporarily until you can either escape or find a way to kill them permanently. One memorable encounter has you pit against such an invincible enemy in a caged in pit. You start by using whatever guns and melee weapons you brought to the fight. Once you’ve done enough damage it evolves into a chainsaw duel that has you use the environment to best your invincible foe. This is a prime example of a well-designed boss fight that takes into account your pre-planning, ability to adapt, ingenuity, and proper use of the environment. And regardless of how many one-on-one boss fights and enemy encounters, they manage to stay fresh the whole way through.
Keep the Circle Closed
The writing over the course of the Resident Evil series is a mile wide and an inch deep. It has a grand over-arching story of corporate greed, the horrors of biological warfare, and the fight of a few good men and women against a greater evil. But take it down to the moment to moment dialogue of each game and you have lines like, “It might be useful if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you,” or the concept of a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company building secret labs all over the world to harvest and develop biological weapons of warfare to sell to the highest bidder. It’s some pretty over the top comic book style writing, big plot points with little connecting exposition, and each game has you fight through hordes of enemies, beat some horrific monstrosity, and then narrowly escape with your life.
Resident Evil 7 still does all that, but it does it with subtlety and brings about an ending that makes you rethink most of what you went through in game. Early lines of dialogue or documents you think you understand become key pieces of the overall plot. Seemingly innocuous assets in the game world become telling signs of horrors lurking right before your eyes the whole time. And every time you think the game is wrapping up it throws a whole new area at you with a new set of challenges and ways to understand the gameplay.
The Brass Tacks
Resident Evil 7 sets out to be a survival horror game and does just that. It combines the survival elements of limited resource management that make one feel helpless with moments of genuine tension and terror. The combination of elements, both old and new, is a nice way for the series to appeal to longtime fans of the series as well as any newcomers. Resident Evil 7’s most glaring flaw has to be its length. My first playthrough on normal took me about eight hours to complete. It’s fairly short, although paced well. However, the unlockable Madhouse difficulty changes the placement of enemies, supplies, and implements a limited save system that adds a whole new dimension to the game.. It’s a game that demands multiple playthroughs in order to get the full bang for your buck. The overall story is the most cohesive in Resident Evil’s history. It constantly raises questions as to who you’re dealing with and what is going on but wraps them up nicely in the end while still leaving you wondering what else is to come.
If this is only the beginning of Resident Evil’s rebirth I’m eagerly awaiting its triumphant reclamation of the survival horror genre.