Improbably, paradoxically, Resident Evil is now more Resident Evil than ever.
Through all its transformations, Resident Evil has always been about mad scientists creating life that shouldn't exist. It's fitting then, that Resident Evil 7 marks the second time the series, thought unsalvageable, has been brought back from the dead. Like the monsters we fight in the series' many games, it should be dead, and it shouldn't be so damn strong.
This new direction for Resident Evil — it works. It's fresh and new, and yet it's still Resident Evil.
A shift in perspective
Horror games are a world apart from where they were 21 years ago when Resident Evil hit the PlayStation in 1996, or even when Resident Evil 4 hit GameCube 12 years (and 15 days) ago. Gamers are savvier and harder to scare, and games are capable of things we couldn't have dreamed of.
Resident Evil was a clunky but effective combination of horror and combat. The shift to over-the-shoulder action in Resident Evil 4 gave way to a masterfully-tuned action game with horror elements. The shift to first-person downplays the tactical elements of recent entries in the series to zero-in on horror and nothing else.
In that respect, Resident Evil 7 is a resounding success. More than any game in the series, and even more than some other recent first-person horror games, Resident Evil 7 had me pausing the game to take stress-breaks on several occasions. When I wasn't screaming, I was anticipating screaming or squirming from the other styles of horror the game employs.
It would be simple to dismiss the game as a rip-off of games like Outlast and Amnesia. It's much more than that, but there's no question that Resident Evil cribs a few pages from the notes of recent first-person horror games even as it tries to carve its own path.
Resident Evil 7 protagonist Ethan Winters is not a member of S.T.A.R.S. or of the B.S.A.A. that later games introduced. He's just a dude. A brown-haired white dude, like so many other Resident Evil games, but a regular dude all the same. When he enters the sprawling Baker Estate, he is as unprepared for what lies ahead as we are. There's no hulking action heroes punching giant boulders here.
At first, Ethan is a helpless babe, literally lost in the woods and in way over his head. But I have to give Ethan a hand; he adapts well. His adaptation is organic and well-based alongside the scares offered up by the game.
Jump scares, though, are just the start. They form a foundation that kept me on edge for a huge portion of the game, dreading the next one even as I forged ahead.
After that baseline is built, the game begins to engage with body horror at a level the series has never managed before, making me think of games like Silent Hill 2. Monsters and humans alike grossed me out like few things in games have. Some of the things I saw on the grounds of the Baker Estate felt closer to the twisted effects of a David Cronenberg movie or the skin-crawling work of manga artist Junji Ito than to a Resident Evil game. That is to say, pure nightmare fuel. The human form twisting and morphing in ways it was never meant to. Insects and even mind control enter into the fray, too.
Because all of this happens in first-person perspective, I found it all to be extra frightening. It all felt incredibly personal. These scares wouldn't have worked at all in any previous Resident Evil game, and the shift in perspective is crucial to what Resident Evil 7 is attempting.
But it's still Resident Evil
For better or worse – usually better – this is absolutely a Resident Evil game. In the first couple hours, I was already picking up Green Herbs and combining them with other items to make First Aid kits while searching for animal-shaped carvings to fit into doors.
Mechanically, though, Resident Evil 7 is somewhat of a step back from Resident Evil 4. Ethan isn't a secret agent out to rescue the President's daughter like Leon Kennedy, though, and sharply-tuned mechanics would feel antithetical to the game's intended goal.
With that said, they still work. Aiming, shooting, and running are all fun and rarely frustrating.
The story, too, is still Resident Evil, but it hews much more closely to Resident Evil 1 than later games. Resident Evil 7 connects back to earlier titles in a few ways I don't want to spoil, other than to say that they're there.
While Resident Evil started to get long in the tooth in the 5th and 6th entries, the basic ideas of human experimentation and scientific hubris gone wrong are both still solid and still hold up the story.
Sometimes, it's too Resident Evil
Inventory management is still a major mechanic in Resident Evil 7. More than a few times, I found myself running back to the nearest safe room to put stuff away or get stuff I needed to make just a couple spots available in my tiny inventory.
The layout of the estate and its buildings, though, is so perfect that I honestly didn't mind running back most of the time. There's no question that the tiny and illogical inventories are still around, though.
The way the game treats some of its characters – women, of course – is problematic, too. While Resident Evil as a series has had more capable women than many game series, Resident Evil 7 isn't the best example. One female character is basically there to make you uncomfortable with reproductive body horror, while another is just there to whisper instructions to you through conveniently-placed phones.
Most of the women just aren't offered the same opportunity for complexity that the central male characters are, and with such a small cast it seems even more obvious.
This is the Resident Evil we wanted
I hated Resident Evil 6. It showed a deep misunderstanding of what made the series work and tried to be all things to all people (and failing miserably at almost all of it). Resident Evil 7 is the polar opposite. It understands RE better, perhaps, than any game in the series. It even manages to do what no other game in the series has: It brings together the Japanese and English titles: Resident Evil and Biohazard – and makes them both relevant to the story.
When I finished Resident Evil 7 in just under 10 hours, I was relieved not because the game was a slog but because I could finally breathe without worrying about being scared out of my wits any moment. For the first time since Resident Evil 4, I finished a Resident Evil game satisfied. Capcom injected their series with a new virus and it's back stronger than ever.
DISCLAIMER: We received a retail download code for Resident Evil 7 from Capcom. We played through the entire campaign (about 10 hours) before writing this review.
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