I’ll admit that the initial signs were good for Resident Evil 7. The trailers were interesting, the Bayou backdrop felt ripe for exploration, and the intention to turn back towards genuine horror after the one-two punch of nonsense that was Chapters 5 and 6 made more sense than adding butter to bread.
Because that’s the funny thing about Resident Evil, the alleged “horror” series. It’s had good moments and it’s had bad moments, but it’s never been very scary. Frustrating, tense and occasionally filled with adrenaline, yes – but that’s not fear, that’s just the natural feeling of claws-in-the-table excitement that comes with knowing that you’re in a difficult situation that’ll go very badly for you if you don’t focus. It's certainly an exhilarating feeling, but it’s not horror. You can get that same experience by playing the more challenging levels in Tetris, and nobody’s going to make the claim that they’re scared of the S-shaped block.
Though if you were actually scared of it, I think that would be called “paizosigmatouvlophobia.” Thanks for the help on that one, friend who studies Classics.
Regardless, when Resident Evil 7 promised to put the horror back in survival horror (a term that was literally invented by the first game), I was completely up to see what the series could offer us after all these years, when it didn’t have me punching rocks or wrestling with dodgy characterisation. Spoiler warning: One of these is apparently here to stay, and there’s not a lot of boulders in the Bayou.
Resident Evil 7 is available on Steam for $59.99.
We begin with a recorded video message from a young woman named Mia, who herself is a perfect signifier of “the closer we get to making CGI look like real people, the more terrifying it becomes.” Mia has been missing for three years with no explanation, until suddenly her boyfriend Ethan receives a very blunt email from her, asking that he bring her home once and for good. Sure, the message only states an address in the Louisiana swampland and the words “come get me,” but why should that be worth stopping to mull over for a moment? He dutifully hops into his car and drives out to find her, and possibly Alec Holland too if he’s between environmental-aware cosmic adventures (who’s gonna be my best friend today and get THAT reference?). Upon reaching her location, Ethan will discover a mysterious old mansion among the marshlands filled with slightly cross-eyed people who're smiling and holding dangerous weapons, and it all goes about as well as you'd expect from there.
It’s not a bad premise, but it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. The big question hanging over this was “why hasn't Ethan phoned the police on his way there?” Mia wasn’t on holiday all this time, she just vanished with no explanation and wasn’t seen again for a third of a decade. Call me cynical, but I do think the cops might’ve pricked their ears when someone was sending emails from [email protected], and it’s not like this is a B-movie universe where the police don’t exist. One of them shows up later to do everything wrong that he possibly could in that situation, so whilst they’re ineffective to be sure, they still have value as meat fodder, right?
Quite frankly, it's a very strange story all around. It's like the plot was written by a skilled horror writer, then given to a bunch of middling-tier action authors to do some very heavy editing, especially in the second half. Hence the scene where somebody starts drifting a car in circles inside a closed garage to run you over, which could’ve easily been out of Twisted Metal. Or the introduction of a flamethrower, which makes you feel about as weak as the average hippo. Or the customised chainsaw fight that’s only missing the arena music from Star Trek. I guess the trademarks of Resident Evil were unwilling to go down without a fight, but you can feel the game struggling to balance those trademarks along the new stuff, and all to very mixed results.
This would also explain the near-breakneck pacing at the start. Part of a good horror story is, of course, the slow build-up in act one which exists to show us an idea of normal life, so that the concept can get buggered in acts two and three. But Ethan shows up at the Evil’s Residence in the first two minutes, and it’s less than five minutes later before we’re in a creepy, dirty house being plagued with various horror tropes.
It certainly feels rushed, and that comes with consequences. For one thing, it’s really difficult to give a damn about Mia, when all the cute character quirks and traits that made Ethan fall in love with her are clearly in a different game somewhere. As such, she feels like little more than a MacGuffin, something you just need to drag out of the house to get a “You Win!” achievement and closing credits afterwards.
But I’ll give RE7 credit – when it wants to do classic horror, it does classic horror well. The comparison to The Evil Within and the movie The Hills Have Eyes is pretty obvious, and anybody could see that the ghosts of PT and Silent Hills are hanging over this whole thing, demanding to know why there isn't a deformed baby lying in the bathroom sink. The real strength lies in atmospheric environments, designed to be small, claustrophobic and confusing, and making you feel the need to keep double-checking behind you to avoid being decapitated by one of the good ol’ boys.
But the game is also quite jump-scare heavy, which is harder to defend. As is firmly established at this point, jump-scares are cheap and easy horror, more about just inducing anxiety attacks than actually making the audience fearful for their safety. So for a while I was ready to get all snooty about Resident Evil 7’s scaring tactics… And then a hideous monster began slowly advancing up the stairs towards me and I nearly wet myself. And then an enemy smashed through a wall when I thought I had escaped him, and I immediately ran in the other direction, mewling pathetically. And then Ethan suffered several physical violations, the likes of which I dare not speak of, but nonetheless had me curled up in my chair biting my fist.
So, yeah – scary at the start. It's not clever or especially deep horror like the kind you’d find in Silent Hill 2, but I can't say I didn’t get freaked out by it. I will even admit to getting nightmares after my first evening playing it, but in my defence I am an immense coward. Oh, and I might've been a little drunk, but that won’t surprise anybody. Most critics are mostly drunk at most times.
The final flaw in the narrative is Ethan himself, determined to carry on the noble Resident Evil tradition of rather poorly written protagonists. This is most obvious on a moment-by-moment basis, watching him bumble through the Haunted Mansion with no real sense of development or growth in the face of the horrors before him. Despite suffering more misfortune than a stray cat in Battersea Dog’s home, Ethan never seems like he’s anything more than annoyed or tired out, perhaps because the wounds he suffers in cutscenes tend to heal suspiciously fast. I do approve of how he’s immediately given visual character, as we can look down and see he’s wearing loafers, beige chinos and a crisp button-up shirt, but whenever somebody gets him with a knife or he has to commit some gruesome act of murder in self-defence, it’s played off as a momentary frustration. I don’t think he even acknowledges the seven-foot tall slime monsters that look like Venom from Spider-Man. “Tcch, just another Wednesday. I don’t know why I bother, I really don’t.”
As I traversed the hillbilly mansion with knife in hand and heart in throat, I was unable to shake a certain feeling of nostalgia and reflection about what was going on around me. Because for all the excitement of how this instalment would shake up the formula with its first-person perspective, it certainly still feels like a Resident Evil game, for Resident Evil has never been a series based on camera angles.
No, it’s about every skirmish feeling like a true fight for survival. It’s about the need to sniff out every green herb and ammo shell in the knowledge that you’ll need them later, and trying to work out what you should be throwing away when your inventory runs full not long afterwards. Resident Evil is about silly door-locking puzzles, about aiming reticules as accurate as blindfolded custard-pie throwing, and about frantically managing your limited ammunition like you’re the foreman at a Smith and Wesson factory. And considering that RE7 has all these things in spades, it deserves its place along any of the other games in the franchise.
It’s definitely hard not to think of the original game as a point of comparison. You're in a big, non-linear, enclosed mansion trying to find your way out, with slow, shambling enemies around every corner and ammo drops slightly less often than that. But as opposed to RE1 (when all the team were highly trained soldiers) now it's just Ethan, who shows up to the party wearing smart-casual attire and a “Stab Me” sign taped to his back. This explains why sprinting is about as fast as a baby’s crawl, why you shoot less accurately than Mr. Magoo, and why there’s no mêlée attack without a knife or axe to back it up. I will say that all this makes you feel vulnerable and weak in comparison to the baddies, which is good for horror, though I did sometimes find myself shouting at the screen for Ethan to run just a little bit faster than if he were dragging himself across the ground by his own tongue. I suppose that’s all part of the… Fun? We'll go with that for want of a better word.
But if anything, I almost feel like RE7 should've gone the extra step further and put some more distance between itself and the series. Many of the returning tropes that make this a clear Resident Evil game end up being the things that I wish weren’t in it, relics of a bygone era that now feel very out of place in modern gaming. The weird door-locking puzzles are a particular bugbear, with one early incarnation demanding that you find the three heads of a metal statue to open up the door to the garden.
Yeah, obviously. Because you know how much yokels just love their bronzework sculptures and needlessly complex home security measures, right? It's not like they'd just shoot at you on sight. Which, come to think of it, I’m not sure any of them ever do.
This kind of gameplay isn't just silly, it’s actively detrimental. Good horror lives or dies (no pun intended) on believable immersion and thinking you’re actually in proximity to the danger. But every time I had to stop and do an odd puzzle based around framing the shadows on a painting, I was suddenly reminded that I was playing a game, and as a result it all felt fake and unthreatening. Same goes for the occasional action sequence that would clearly feel more at home with RE6. You might tell me that these things are staples of the series, but then I’ll remind you that the series just rebooted itself, so the whole point of this new installment was evolution. I can’t say that hasn't happened, but I’m still noticing a vestigial tail or two that needs to go quick-sharp.
The game also has an annoying habit of not telling you essential information, the most galling incident being when one enemy came after me and I spent all my ammo trying to fend him off before he finally killed me and made my flayed skin into a bean bag chair. But it was only on the loading screen as I was waiting to come back to life that a bit of text remembered to tell me that Bubba was actually immortal, and my best hope was to stay out of his way, or try to distract him with old VHS tapes of The Dukes Of Hazzard. Thanks for telling me that now, Capcom. That might’ve been more useful earlier when I was skirting around a bathtub trying to avoid death-by-redneck and waving a flick-knife around like a fencer’s foil. Same goes for the stealth, which is built around a series of rough guesses regarding your skill at hiding and your opponent’s spacial awareness. Both of these pieces of information are clearly none of your business, and the game never gets past its own trust issues enough to tell you.
Mind you, the exploration and optional extras are well-established and become a vital part of gameplay before long. I’m motivated to go on scavenger hunts in order to stock up on supplies and equipment, and going off the beaten path inevitably means that you’re going to walk through the hunting grounds of something bigger than you, which’ll add a certain spice to proceedings. Mind you, the fact that enemies don’t respawn means that once you’ve cleared an area of threats, it’s cleared for good – again, not especially scary as a result.
But hunting down loot is more important than I ever expected it to be. For example, it's entirely possible to miss out on acquiring the shotgun altogether, and whilst this is because it’s attached to some silly mechanism that locks down the room when you take it and requires a puzzle item to solve, I appreciate that the game rewards exploration – which is initially challenging and dangerous – with new approaches to gameplay and more tools for blowing off heads with. That’s a Resident Evil trope I was glad to see come back, partly because the shotgun is really, really useful.
If you’re playing this game on a PC like I was, I hope for your sake it’s a respectable one. Graphically the game looks OK – well, as much as fungus monsters and bloody, open wounds can look “OK” – but it’s quite processor intensive and I found out pretty early on that I shouldn’t push my luck too far beyond the medium graphical tier, which wasn’t that impressive anyway. Anything higher risked baking my hands from the heat off my laptop, and anything less made the landscape go weird, with all the shadows doing some strange, headache-inducing strobe effect when I moved.
I don't mention this to be petty. In fact, I wouldn’t normally complain about graphical quality at all, as that’s what keeps the industry in free-fall and graphical design is more important. But Resident Evil 7 has a habit of putting objects – weapons, corpses, the gurning faces of monstrous enemies – right up in front of the camera for you to appreciate every writhing maggot and nose hair, and when these items are vague and indistinct, I just ended up peering at the screen and trying to deduce what it was that I was being threatened with. In one scene an enemy went for Ethan’s face with a knife, making some sort of cutting motion and then waving a mysteriously pixelated object in front of his eyes, and to this day I couldn't tell you what I was seeing. Did he cut out his tongue? I thought as much at first, but then later Ethan was talking without the mother of all lisps, so I guess not. His ear? Maybe, but the person we meet afterwards doesn’t comment on any bloody stump on the side of his head, so it’s unlikely. Truthfully, I was playing this section with a bunch of people watching over my shoulder, and none of us could make it out, turning what was supposed to be a ghastly moment of body horror into an unintentional optical illusion minigame.
But RE7 is well-designed on a visual level if not a graphical one, with a distinct feeling of disease and corruption that hangs over everything, as though the entire house and all its inhabitants were pulled out of the swamps themselves and were trying to rot back down into it. Every piece of paper is mildewed at the edges, every bin and container is either overflowing with rubbish or sticky, black slime, every hallway is filled with trashbags and unidentifiable pieces of meat, and even the inhabitants appear to be decaying before your eyes. It's the kind of horror that’s based as much in revolting you as it is based on making you feel the urge for self-preservation, and it’s hard to go through certain areas without feeling slightly nauseous.
However, the sound design is a mixed bag. The wet, visceral noises produced by the non-human enemies are certainly chilling, though when it comes down to the crazy rednecks, they’re just shouting everything you’d expect them to shout in a game like this, a blend of semi-Christian weirdness, patently obvious threats and ironic one-liners. No, I don't want to “stay for dinner,” Mr. Baker, now stop asking me.
I know this was a lengthy review, but looking back I recognise that that’s unavoidable, that RE7 is a nuanced game with a lot worth analysing and there's even quite a few bits I didn’t even mention. And, looking back, I find myself wondering why I enjoyed it quite so much at the time. It is certainly flawed, with notable errors at both the level of narrative and gameplay. I suspect it's the strong core mechanics that carry it through, as they really do embody survival horror and they do work, whatever else anybody tells you.
So let's get down to brass tacks. Is RE7 scary? Well, definitely at the start, then considerably less so as the combat get more ridiculous and your equipment gets more potent. Is it fun? Yeah, I’ll cop to that. Even when it fumbles everything else, it’s still compelling enough at a basic level to keep playing, and every kill or escape always feels like a genuine victory. Is it well-written? Um… Sometimes. I’m not sure that gleeful action spectacle and chilling atmospheric horror should be quite this close together, but when they give each other room, there’s some nice moments I can appreciate.
At the end of the day, for all the goofs and missteps, this is a Resident Evil game – and it's the first good one since RE4. Well done on that score, but now it’s time to get the cleaners in.
|+ Can be very frightening early on…||– But not so frightening later.|
|+ Good environment design.||– Hides too many details from you|
|+ Remains fun to play at all times.||– Characters are usually flat.|
|+ A good new direction for the series.||– Difficulty curve is a bit ragged.|
|+ Exploration is well-established.|