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.