A video game series is defined by its iconic elements but doesn’t always have to stick with them until the end. Change might be necessary to combat staleness and bring a series back on an evolving track and CAPCOM is doing just that with Resident Evil 7.
After the main games have derailed towards an action heavy fiasco with a steroids infused Chris Redfield kicking the life out of zombies and all the mutated monsters of the universe, Resident Evil 7 returns to the roots featuring a mysterious house inhabited by science defying monsters in the familiar tone of the series beginning. The game has shifted from the classic 3rd person camera that has more or less defined this franchise for decades into a first-person “isolated view” to better synergize with the setting and obviously with VR, a bold move that I applaud. Resident Evil 7 has a new protagonist, a new look and a new perspective. By opting for a first person view and a new protagonist, Capcom is trying to revive the almost lost survival horror and for the most part of this game it actually worked.
Ethan Winters is haunted by a past that he just can’t let go and follows a lead into the bayous of Louisiana to find his ex-wife Mia. In a landscape almost taken from first season of True Detective, Ethan arrives to an abandoned farmhouse in which no man in his right mind would enter. Driven by a need for answers or maybe the rekindled fires of love, Ethan ventures into a house that puts the setting of most horror movies to shame. Inside, creeping in the shadows await the Bakers, a family of immortal lunatics which for some weird reasons try to embrace the protagonist as one of their own (it’s not a good thing). Overwhelmed by pain and with more questions than answers, Ethan is set on getting out alive.
This series has set some pretty low narrative standards over the years and I saying that Resident Evil 7’s story is pretty good might not mean much. But in a universe filled with powerful monstrosities and even stronger human counterparts this game dials down the crazy in favor of a more horror approach which doesn’t require any knowledge of the previous titles. The story is conveyed through different means using conventional tools like cutscenes and texts to set the course while the visual and audio design builds on the grotesque. The result is a narrative oozing horrific intensity from every corner at the price of just a few scenic clichés. As with any Resident Evil game the seventh does get wacky by the end but in a justifiable way being in tone with the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery as a bad-ass hero. The praise worthy component of the story is the journey of the protagonist which has an almost subtle quality of gradually presenting the progress from being the victim to the emerging survivor that fights back. This is felt through Ethan’s dialogues and vocal tone which change from cautious with a hint of fear to a cocky attitude of familiarity with the disturbing setting.
The story does a pretty good job at sustaining the horror atmosphere while maintaining the mystery for as long as it can in the face of the series fans, which do get some service throughout the game. But the real job of the narrative is to serve as a catalyst for its fantastic gameplay and it most certainly succeeded at doing so.
The gameplay of Resident Evil 7 is a blast from the past carefully combining defining elements into an experience of adventure, action and horror. For a player untainted by spoilers there is a lot to take in as a gameplay experience. It all starts by literally being dragged into the terrifying atmosphere by the roaming craziness that’s Jack, the father figure of a family that will have you sneaking between pieces of furniture to get rid of him just to come back like the malignant tumor he is. The sneaking is pretty simplistic as a mechanic but an extremely efficient option that’s not actually forced onto the player yet well supported by the environment.
The level design while restrictive does manage to stay complex providing a labyrinthine system of houses to explore in a sequential order based on the progress made. Special keys or objects as well as solving small puzzles are required to pass through certain barriers or to unlock secrets intensifying the sense of discovery. Exploration is essential unfolding in some sort of pseudo realistic way which sometimes requires watching VHS tapes to retrace the steps of other misfortuned characters and avoid the same mistakes they made. Both horror and combat take advantage of the level design creating almost a requirement for careful navigation that’s borderlining paranoia, weakening the players for clichéic well placed jump scares from some of the most disturbing villains I’ve seen in a video game.
The combat is a much more complex endeavor than it was in the last two titles of the main series. Guns and ammunition are scarce leading to a certain vulnerability that’s particularly felt in the first half of the game. The resources are plenty in variety but limited in number requiring careful management of the few expandable inventory slots available. The iconic and miraculous stash that’s teleporting items from one spot to another will help with that but it isn’t always an option which means choices have to be made. Items have to be combined to obtain something more potent out of them or can be left behind in order to save space for something more useful.
While the acquisition and management of guns and resources have always been a key part of Resident Evil games, the camera perspective and shooting system are changed mechanics playing a differentiating role in the gameplay. Ethan Winters is by no means the day to day Resident Evil action hero we’ve been used with. His impaired movement and imprecise aiming do reflect a lack of experience and training, which for a game that’s closer to a FPS can be both a good and a bad thing. Blasting a molded monster into pieces with a shotgun is a satisfying shooting experience meant to take away some of the tension that’s bound to reach critical levels when moving through dark corridors with threats looming at every corner. But there is a visible contrast in this experience which leads to moments when the shooting is more terrifying than Jack’s high pitched voice yelling “Ethan, Eeethan!”. There’s a constant trembling during aiming that’s decreasing the accuracy against the dangling monsters which never goes away but made me wonder if it’s an intentional design to tie in the shooting learning curve with the protagonist’s journey of becoming a Resident Evil hero.
Resident Evil 7 gameplay is balancing its composing elements so well making it hard for me to pick on the negatives. For an OCDish player like me searching every nook and cranny of a house complex while dealing with the heavy breathing of the Bakers in my back this was a wild experience and I dreaded the few minutes of streams I watched which spoiled a few moments of clichéic horror. The difficulty wasn’t as tough as I hoped and while there were plenty of moments during my normal playthrough when I was desperate for resources, these moments don’t last on for long. But that feeling of battling for survival lasted more than I expected carrying on the theme of the underdog. The action felt a bit forcibly exacerbated in the second half and for a few minutes I thought things were going back to the way of the fifth while stuck fighting the variation of the same two monsters, but fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
I gave this game two playthroughs in which I experienced its two stages, the unnerving atmosphere of stepping into the Bakers farmhouse for the first time and the confidence of a speed run that still has some fear punches to throw when Marguerite’s disturbing face gets in your way. From the starting point to the finishing line Resident Evil 7 gameplay has been rock solid but short lived and almost begging for the popular Raid Mode.
The graphics of Resident Evil 7 are an interesting subject. The game features a lavish level of details with a normal farmhouse being turned into a hellish place where remnants of normal life are intertwined with grotesque images. Decay and insanity take over the landscape and while moments of respite exist they are shortly shattered by the horror that awaits.
In general the visuals are pretty good with a lot of effort put into arranging an impressive amount of objects in a way to support the level design and theme of the game. The graphics are filmic with a prominent VHS feel that’s enhancing the weirdly reactive first person “isolated view”. It’s quite clear that Resident Evil 7 has been pumped up for VR and the low resolution textures are a testimony for that. But for a game that’s targeting “old” and “new” the graphics don’t seem to suffer all that much. The play on light and shadow might hide some unwanted details and the ever present vignetting effect is tiresome but there is more than enough quality and technology put into the visuals to make you ignore or forget about the mishaps.
The sound is fantastic. From the creaking of the rotting wood or the fleshy noise of tumorous growth to the musical score that feels one with the house, the sound projects a level of fear through every vibration. The voice acting ramps up the fear factor when the Bakers get some screen time. Their abominable personality is reflected not only through their deranged looks but through their haunting voices. It’s a competition of audio madness between the disturbing high pitch cries of Jack Baker, Marguerite’s disgusting motherly talk and Lucas’ psychopathic taunts.
As with graphics, the sound isn’t perfect and a few mistakes can be noticed, the most notable being the voice acting of one particular character which seems to gain and lose the accent after each consecutive phrase. But overall I’ve been overwhelmed in a good way by the twisted sound that Resident Evil 7 has to offer and much of the intense atmosphere is product of the game’s sound design and voice work.
Resident Evil 7 is at the highest point the main series has been since the fourth. The game is closer to the first two titles than some might notice while accommodating a visual presentation that might be familiar to those who played Outlast or Alien: Isolation. The so called isolated view is the wildcard that’s setting this game apart creating terror in a universe where there was little room left for fear. The resulting package is a short and horrifyingly sweet ride of jump scares that by the end leaves you wanting more of its overdosing adrenaline shots.
I’m not keen on the Season Pass DLCs coming shortly after the game’s release or how by the end the story seems to lean again towards absurdity but I can’t deny this game’s qualities. Resident Evil 7 is an excellent start to a potentially great gaming year and I’m looking forward for the free DLC “Not a Hero” to get a glimpse into this series’ future.
+ Labyrinthine level design with detailed environments
+ Sound design and voice acting
+ The Baker family
+ First person camera works really well with the game
+ The first half is a thrilling adventure
+ Iconic gameplay elements like mini-puzzles and inventory management
+ While isn’t all that precise the shooting is in tone with the game’s theme
– Texture quality is underwhelming
– The narrative becomes generic in the second half
– The voice acting isn’t always at the same quality
– Short with moderate replay value
– Almost no monster variety
– No Raid Mode