“You’re about to see something wonderful.” Jack’s freshly charred skin is peeling off his body. But he’s still alive, and strong. He’s clutching your wrist, pulling it to his face. He wraps his mouth around the handgun you just plucked from the desiccated cop now lying dead on the floor. With a resounding pop, a chasm erupts from the top of his skull. His body falls limply to the ground. You survived, but you didn’t win. Jack will be back. He deliberately ate a bullet just to prove a point.
It’s been a long time since Resident Evil has scared me. For the better part of a decade, Capcom remodeled the franchise that coined “Survival Horror” into gun-centric action games meant to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Familiar draws were included to bait fans that remember the fixed perspective, tank controlled days of yesteryear — whether it was tangential ties to the sinister Umbrella Corporation, hulking bio-weapons, or the franchise synonymous living dead. More often than not, though, these nostalgic additions felt like window dressing. While latter day sequels like Resident Evil 6 coated their levels in shadows and foreboding atmosphere, at their core, they were third-person shooters. True horror, the kind that the original trilogy is lauded for to this day, was left behind.
With Resident Evil 7, Capcom has finally returned to the franchise’s roots. It takes inspiration not only from its own past but from other stand-out horror experiences in order to rework and revitalize the genre they helped inform. The result is an expertly paced, incredibly tense hell-ride through a literal madhouse — and it’s actually pretty goddamn scary. Long-time fans have been yearning to hear this for years: Resident Evil 7 is pure survival horror.
Eschewing the tradition of military trained, boulder boxing heroes, you assume the role of prototypical everyman Ethan Winters, whose wife, Mia, disappeared three years before the story’s start. Beckoned by an ominous email from his estranged love, Ethan travels to an abandoned homestead located in a forgotten slice of southern Americana called Dulvey, Louisiana.
The Dulvey estate is a decaying wreck slowly being digested by the thick marsh that surrounds it. Inside, what’s truly unnerving isn’t how empty the house is, but how lived in it feels. Family portraits and hand-scribbled notes lie side by side with festering trash bags and dirtied pots filled with putrid meat. Somehow, people live here, and your surroundings do a fantastic job of letting you know that there’s something very, very wrong with them.
The new first-person perspective (rather than the third-person view in previous entries) introduces a newfound sense of dread since you’re vision is narrowed and you can’t see what’s behind you. It serves to make the experience eerily intimate and allows you to soak in every meticulously rendered inch of house. Passageways are splashed in pervasive darkness (some of the best shadow effects I’ve seen in a game) while the sound design pummels you with constant creaks, groans, and distant footsteps. Walking through the house is gloriously nerve-wracking.
I won’t spoil the first thirty minutes or so, but I will say the proceeding goes from Zero-to-Evil Dead fast enough to blow a gasket. It’s a joyfully malicious intro that perfectly sets the tone for the game to come — one that’ll have you laughing and recoiling in disgust in equal measure.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Before long you’ll encounter the main villains of the show: the Baker clan. There’s Jack Baker, the stern head of the household; his wife Marguerite, whose disposition flashes between motherly to vitriolic in a heartbeat; and their son Lucas, the only one of his kin that could pass for normal until you see the bottomless pit of insanity swirling in his eyes. There’s a certain level of camp to the Bakers that the game is unafraid to play with. Only horror aficionados would get this reference, but they call to mind the maniacal Sawyer family specifically from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (just one of many cinemacabre influences found in the game).
It’s apparent there’s more affecting the Bakers than a simple case of the batshit crazies. They’re inhumanly strong, can regenerate severed body parts, and worship the notion of ‘family’ with a murderous zeal. Figuring out what’s wrong with them, and how it pertains to your missing wife, reintroduces a story component absent from the series since the very first game: an engrossing mystery.
Each Baker is tethered to specific areas of the plantation — castellans of their hillbilly castle. But they serve a more dynamic role than just the inevitable boss fight earmarking a section. Jack, for instance, will patrol parts of the house, and if he spots you, will relentlessly chase you down until he can bury a shovel into your soft dome. There’s a sick thrill to tangling with Jack. He’s a walking bullet-sponge and difficult to shake-off until you learn to out maneuver him by running serpentine patterns all around the house.
Marguerite will also guard her part of the residence with a lantern in hand in case an intruder is hiding in the shadows, and when she finds you… well, I hope bugs don’t freak you out. Unlike the horror games these segments are derived from (namely Outlast and Amnesia), RE7 has little interest in being a hide and seek simulator, and uses these encounters sparingly. That restraint goes a long way, making an appearance from “Daddy” feel more surprising and random, keeping players constantly off-kilter as they trek through the house.
BACK TO BASICS
Given the change of perspective and overhauled, backwoods-y tone, you might wonder why Capcom bothered to slap a number on this seeming reboot. Despite its modern influences, the gameplay is most reminiscent of the original Resident Evil. Just like the granddaddy of survival horror, there’s a huge emphasis on exploring your environment, managing inventory, and picking which battles to fight or take flight from.
You’ll navigate the Baker house in search of keys that unlock new parts of the homestead and its surrounding areas. Arcane puzzles will block your progress, but they can typically be solved using simple order-of-operation: find Item A, combine it with Item B, slot Item C into hole. Not exactly Witness level headscratchers by any means, but they serve to break up the tension. And they’re just so quintessentially Resident Evil— a kooky house filled with inexplicably placed puzzles.
Apropos to the genre, the amount of items you can hold at once is limited. Thusly, item boxes — the bottomless chests that are magically linked to each other — return along with the save rooms that harbor them. Whereas completing some puzzles will condemn you to do battle with some unholy aberration, save rooms are the one true respite that allow you to breathe and collect yourself. (Special shout out goes to the calming, ambient melody that plays whenever you reach one of these bastions — that shit is lit).
There’s also an extra meta to how you organize and use items you find. You can find healing herbs and use them raw (I guess… I guess Ethan chews them?) but they become much more potent if you combine them with a Chem Fluid. If you hang on to the very same Chem Fluid until you’ve found some loose gunpowder, on the other hand, you can craft your very own handgun bullets instead of having to forage for them. Combining items also frees up inventory slots which in turn can be filled up with more ammo, health, or key items. It all cleverly underlines the “Survival” in “Survival Horror,” rewarding savvy mixologists with a longer lease on life.
You’ll attain weapons to beat back the creatures of the night, and the UI lets you organize them within your inventory so that they’re mapped to the D-Pad. It’s a useful appropriation of one of Resident Evil 5’s better ideas especially given the fact that digging into your inventory doesn’t pause the action (you’ve been warned).
It wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without monsters. Enter the Molded — humanoid tarmen formed from a viscous black goo. They’re mostly slow but they have wolverine claws, they’re dangerous in numbers, and their faces are roughly eighty-percent teeth. Helpfully, they haven’t mastered the art of opening doors, so they’re easy to trap, and you can also block incoming attacks to soak up the brunt of their damage. Eventually, though, you’ll have to go on the offensive.
You’re equipped with a pocket knife early on, but that’s only a rung more effective than harsh language– it’s the handgun and shotgun you’ll be relying on. It’s important to note that, despite the viewpoint, this isn’t a first-person shooter. Aiming down the sights slows your movement to a crawl and can actually put you in harm’s way which means placement is as paramount as precision — a concept not altogether foreign if you played the original games. There’s a value play to using weapons, too: if you mow down every single critter that jumps at you in the dark, you’ll find your clip empty the next time you’re truly up shit’s creek.
Ammo scarcity forces you to plan and act accordingly. Do you feed your last few bullets into a Molded so you can search an area in peace? Or can you evade long enough to save those shots? There’s few things more satisfying than the pus geyser that erupts whenever you relocate a Molded’s head, but I was more thankful to have ammunition whenever Jack would burst through a wall like a redneck Kool-Aid Man. It’s the kind of on-the-fly strategizing that has been sorely missing from Resident Evil.
True to genre form, you’ll be tasked to engage in boss fights. Unfortunately, not every battle is a memorable showdown of wits and brawn. I’ll keep it vague, but there’s one sore thumb in the bunch, early on, that forces you to rely on the game’s clunky melee mechanics. Thankfully, the bar raises as you keep contending with the Bakers. Again, I’m being purposely vague, but one cool bit has you hopping between levels of a decrepit greenhouse as you hunt down a baddie, expertly making use of space; and another is such a wickedly good callback to Resident Evil 4, it’d bring a tear to Leon Kennedy’s dreamy eye.
When you’re not juggling items or tip-toeing in the dark, the game has you watching VHS tapes. Playing tapes isn’t as passive as that, however, since you’ll be tasked to control the character within the video. It’s a really ingenious narrative tool that not only gives you insight into what the hell happened before Ethan arrived, but also spotlights crucial clues in your current environment. One tape stands out in particular — “Happy Birthday.” In it, you play as an ill-fated cameraman that has to solve an intricate puzzle to escape from a sealed room. The Saw inspired conundrum is by far one of the most impressively realized pieces of design the game owns — it had my jaw to the floor by its conclusion.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY
Biological terrorism, global domination plots, superhuman villains… Resident Evil’s stories have arguably degraded into over-the-top comic book fare as the years have gone on. RE7 wisely reigns in its scope to tell a much more grounded story. It follows the beats of a low-budget horror movie, and it’s a great direction. Like a lot of those same films, it’s a plot driven vehicle.
Subsequently, character work is on the thin side, especially in regards to Ethan. His few spoken lines keep him from being a silent protagonist but it’s obvious he’s meant to be a blank slate for players to project onto — sort of in the vein of Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman or the mute soldiers from early Call of Duty games. Mia, his wife, fares a little better — and she should; she has five times the amount of lines as Ethan — but at no point would you even think her and Ethan are married if it wasn’t explicitly stated. But it’s a double-edged sword: much of the momentum of the plot is owed to the fact that it doesn’t linger on personal details.
Whereas the first two-thirds of the game are brilliantly crafted and paced, RE7 loses a lot of steam on its march to the endgame. Again, in an attempt to not spoil any surprises, I won’t name the location you reach in the third-act. I will say that it feels like by-the-numbers horror fare — a disappointing contrast to everything the game so confidently builds beforehand. Disappointing, but nowhere enough to derail the experience.
It’s right around here that the game decides to increase the amount of Molded you fight by tenfold, totally inoculating players of any fear the bizarre tarmen might’ve wrought. We’re talking a small island nation’s worth of Molded. While there’s three distinct types of Molded to contend with — including a spider-y leaper who I hate so much — more enemy variety would have spiced up the final stretch considerably. If you can get through this gauntlet of pus-bloods, you’re treated to a Big Reveal, and get to find out what the hell’s really going on in Dulvey. As a fan, I was pleasantly surprised that they found a way to tie these seemingly discrete events back into the greater whole of what Resident Evil is about (while also leaving us with plenty of questions).
HAIL TO THE KING
After one of my very first sessions with the game, I took a break (game manuals used to suggest you do this often, when game manuals were still a thing). Naturally, it was night and, of course, I was alone. I absorb a ridiculous amount of horror media, games and otherwise. They don’t get to me very often. Yet, my skin was crawling. I started jumping at small noises. I was watching shadows. I was still bugged out from my time inside the Baker house. The last time a horror game lingered with me like that was when I first played Resident Evil 2 on the Nintendo 64– I was 10.
Resident Evil 7 is a phenomenal course correction for the franchise. It’s unashamed of celebrating established cliches but, like any great horror movie, knows how to subvert them. Capcom’s crafted a legitimately harrowing ride that also manages to never sacrifice its playability. While other games of its ilk will try to depower the player as much as possible to instill a sense of vulnerability, Resident Evil 7 smartly balances its challenge with fun gameplay mechanics. I wanted to get right back into it even as the credits rolled (and I did… four times since).
The game feels fresh, yet it builds on time-tested conventions of the genre. Capcom has proven they understand why we loved the original games, and have found a means to modernize that formula. I can’t see the series going back to the over-the-shoulder, co-op shoot-fests. This is the path to stay on. Not just because Resident Evil 7 is one of the best games in the series, but because it’s one of the best survival horror games ever made.
[If you purchase the PS4 edition of the game, you can enjoy/endure the entirety of Resident Evil 7 in PlayStation VR. I’ve yet to make the $400 plunge into Sony’s virtual space, but I did get to play the Beginning Hour demo in VR at Capcom’s booth during last December’s PSX. Though my time with the VR version of the game was brief, I was thoroughly impressed. Anecdotally, I’ve heard it’s the scariest and most immersive way to experience RE7. Apologies for not having more extensive impressions!]