CUT AND RUN
The Resident Evil (RE) franchise is now twenty years old, spanning multiple console generations with countless spin-offs, tie-ins, and even a live-action film series that desperately needs to be taken out back and put down. The shockingly terrible Resident Evil 6 threatened to derail the series and alienate fans, but does the seventh installment beckon us back into the shadows?
Resident Evil 7 (otherwise known as Resident Evil VII: Biohazard) was marketed as Capcom’s grand return to survival horror, and this is true — eventually. Horror games have gone through many changes over the years, and RE7 was seemingly designed to pay tribute to each and every iteration in various ways. Its opening is quite slow-paced and lacks combat like most trendy walking simulators, and then picks up when Condemned: Criminal Origins-like melee weapons and combat mechanics are introduced, which then eases into firearms and limited ammunition ala classic RE games, until finally picking up steam with a third act very reminiscent of the action-packed Resident Evil 4.
This escalation could have easily resulted in a messy game if mishandled, but it all feels quite natural and goes hand-in-hand with the story written by Richard Pearsey (F.E.A.R., Spec Ops: The Line). As Ethan Winters, an “average Joe” designed to contrast the damn-near superheroic protagonists of previous RE games, you will travel to Dulvey, Louisiana in search of his wife, Mia. Things go awry when he steps foot onto property owned by the reclusive Baker family, and the horrors unfold from there.
With a smaller-scale, more personal story focusing on only a handful of characters, Capcom decided to abandon the established third-person perspective in favor of a more immersive, first-person point of view. Many feared this would detract from the atmosphere of the series (I myself thought so, before wising up) but the verdict is in: this is Resident Evil in its purest form.
When broken down piece-by-piece, it’s amazing how similar RE7 is to the original. The sense of isolation in a creepy mansion filled with strange puzzles, left with few options to defend yourself in a place where everything wants to kill you. It is such a tremendous return to form that the first-person viewpoint becomes almost trivial.
The earliest hours of RE7 are spent tip-toeing down tortuously long, foreboding corridors with only your knife, a handgun, and a single bullet present to instill confidence within players. Without a doubt, Resident Evil 7 will scare untold numbers of gamers. Like the best survival horror games of yore, the game offers just enough ammunition suitable for the task at hand with little room for error. Aiming your gun and missing the target is legitimately painful, and keeps the icy tendrils of panic lingering near your spine throughout the start of RE7. New villain Jack Baker, who makes his presence known from the very beginning, starts his unrelenting chase much sooner than you would think, and I can definitely imagine lots of people being overwhelmed with terror quite quickly.
Your offensive capabilities will be quite limited throughout your exploration of the main house. A pocket knife will allow you to slice at your enemies, but it’s about as effective as a kitten scratching a chunk of steel. The handgun is an improvement but boxes of ammunition is scarce early on, plus aiming can be awkward because poor Ethan is too dumb to make use of the sights. Earning the shotgun resembles a gift from the heavens… but its reload speed is like the devil’s bad joke. The full arsenal at your disposal will grow from here, though I’ll allow you to discover that for yourselves.
While finding a box of bullets is a reason to celebrate, there are other ways to acquire ammo. For the first time since Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, gamers can utilize gunpowder to create their own ammunition — although the mechanics are a bit different. Gunpowder and chem fluids can be combined to create handgun ammunition, while gunpowder and strong chem fluid results in the creation of more powerful handgun ammunition. That seems simple enough, until you realize chem fluid is also required in the creation of health items. This leads to an interesting mental game of tug-o-war, where you have to constantly choose between going offensive or defensive at any given time. Genius!
A small inventory with limited slots also adds to the strategic elements mentioned previously. The shotgun is a great source of courage, but also takes up two valuable slots — plus a third if you bring ammo. You can choose to leave your knife or handgun in a storage crate (of which there are several in the house, all sharing the same contents) but committing to a single weapon for an encounter is risky. Knowing a boss fight or chase can occur at any time ratchets up the tension nicely, leaving gamers to second-guess their actions. Unfortunately, nothing surrounding this gameplay quite lives up to its level of quality.
As mentioned earlier, there will be people who actually find this game frightening — and if the recent tidal wave of YouTube let’s plays is anything to go by, that’s true. As for myself, my experience with horror games allowed me to peek into the bag of old tricks Capcom implemented… and it left me underwhelmed. The personalities of our villains didn’t help matters (more on that later), but they failed to impress from a gameplay perspective as well. The behavior of Jack’s AI was easy to figure out within minutes of his introduction, deflating the fear factor immediately. Aside from becoming oblivious to the player the moment they step into a save room doorway (allowing us to shoot unopposed), he also teleports around the mansion in a ridiculous manner. This works in a game like Alien: Isolation where the Xenomorphs crawl through air ducts and set up ambushes, but seeing Jack disappear through a first floor door and reemerge on an upstairs balcony seconds later comes across like a Benny Hill sketch. Marguerite is on the opposite end of the spectrum, patrolling an easily avoidable path.
While Jack and Marguerite Baker each roam separate sections of their plantation, there are other enemies to contend with – but not enough. Different variations of the Molded, RE7‘s attempt at having iconic monsters, will hassle you throughout your journey… somewhat. In truth, they prove to be only a slight hindrance and are too easily foiled by a simple closed door, and can even be de-spawned at will once you figure out their gimmick. They were intimidating for a whole 20 minutes, and that’s… pretty sad. Fist-sized hornets also inhabit one building on the Baker property, and they’re more of an annoyance than an actual enemy. They exist to swarm you and cheaply sap your health, or drain your ammo stockpile should you decide to destroy their nests. Simply put, they suck. Lastly, small spiders guard specific lockers and attack upon approach, but the knife is enough to take care of them.
For those who find the game particularly challenging, upgrades are available for purchase by finding antique coins hidden across the plantation and inserting them into modified bird cages. Steroids permanently increase Ethan’s health, Stabilizers increase his reload speed, and a particularly powerful weapon waits to be bought. Additional items can be found and used, like the Psychostimulants which highlight hidden items with icons, separating fluids which breaks items down into their base components, and concealed treasures obtainable only once you locate a photographic hint.
A small handful of unlockable weapons and infinite ammo will add a little variety for a second playthrough, but Resident Evil 7 lacks the plentiful post-story bonus modes available across other RE titles. The main selling point for those looking for additional challenge is the Madhouse difficulty, which was said to rearrange item placements and limit your saves to the number of cassette tapes you find. Alas, the continued presence of auto-saves (though more infrequent than on Normal mode) makes it feel a bit pointless aside from trophies and achievements.
Everything looks terrible! No, seriously, you wouldn’t want to step foot on this property. The guest house basement floor is coated in blood and viscera, while whole sections of the main house are lined with thick, slimy black mold snaking toward the ceiling. All of the wet and gooey bits look appropriately disgusting, though the same care wasn’t taken with other graphical aspects. Textures are surprisingly low resolution up close, so much so that (at least on Xbox One) the spines of dusty tomes on a bookshelf are mostly unreadable, aside from a couple of titles containing easter eggs. Everything looks slightly better on PlayStation 4 and PC, though each version appears to have its own quirks such as the latter’s badly rendered shadows.
Character models and key items are another story entirely, looking quite remarkable and realistic. Capcom used a technique called photogrammetry to render these assets, rather than the traditional 3D modeling. This process allowed them to scan real-world objects, monster sculptures, and actors dressed like primary characters, capturing the most minute details and carrying them over to the digital realm. That’s basically the premise of Tron without the forced imprisonment… as far as we know.
This does mean that the Uncanny Valley effect comes into play in a major way. The mouths are the main cause of this, due primary to the fact that each character’s lips flap open and closed like a muppet rather than peeling apart more naturally. Mia’s long, springy hair also looks much more like a nest of slinkys rather than true strands. Even so, these characters are pretty believable and carry the story forward nicely.
In regards to the Bakers specifically, the sheer amount of damage you can do to them is both impressive and disturbingly beautiful. Should you choose to fight Jack instead of fleeing, you will find yourself in awe of exactly what your expertly-aimed gunshots will do to the model. Skin tears away and reveals muscle beneath, which eventually gives way to splintered bone. This makes each encounter that much more sick and visceral.
For those of you hoping to play RE7 with the PlayStation VR headset, a mixed bag certainly awaits. From my brief time with live demos and impressions gathered from others, it seems the experience is notably disappointing in several ways. The headset really manages to make you feel as if you are creeping through the mansion, but it fails to truly immerse the player due to floating subtitles that clip through objects, Ethan’s disembodied hands which end below the elbow, a screen that blinks before jumpscares and swift scripted movement, and characters unable to properly track movements and look in your exact direction while talking. Perhaps worst of all is the presentation of cutscenes, which are played on a virtual screen placed in front of you, surrounded by a black void. Not only is it jarring, but it also makes small details more difficult to see than on a standard television. Subtitles can be turned off in the settings menu, but the same cannot be said of other issues nor the downgraded graphics.
On the other hand, the sound design is excellent all around. Everything from the moody, dreadfully eerie soundtrack to the ambient noise and creature sounds is of an amazingly high caliber of quality. More so than even the villains themselves, the sounds of RE7 do a great job of instilling you with sudden panic or soothing calm in the correct moments.
The pieces were all in place for this one. Capcom decided upon a basic premise for this landmark seventh outing of the main Resident Evil series, and the foundation is definitely strong. Unfortunately, it seems Richard Pearsey’s script strays a bit too far into B-horror movie territory, bypassing the classics it borrows from (Evil Dead, Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and veering directly into the land of bargain bin DVD schlock.
Let me get this out of the way now: while someone will find them scary, the Baker family are far too goofy to be threatening. This is a big problem, especially because Jack’s stereotypical hillbilly lines (“I’m gonna ‘git ya, I’m gonna ‘git ya!”) suck all of the tension out of the game from the very first encounter. By the time I got to the dinner scene emphasized in the trailers, I was shaking my head and groaning at the stupidity of what I was seeing. This was a constant truth throughout the entire game, cementing the Bakers as the worst villains within a series full of mustache-twirling foes. Jack himself almost seems like a demented Looney Tunes character, or a middle aged Deadpool with a Southern accent.
In place of interesting dialogue, Pearsey’s script also contains far more obscenities than recent entries in the series. Sure, Marguerite got a bit inventive in this regard on a couple of occasions, but it came across as unnecessary and, perhaps, a snide commentary on people from the Southern part of the United States of America. It is no more in-your-face than the increased reliance on gore, but worth mentioning nonetheless. It certainly helps that the voice acting is great across the board, delivering some shoddy lines in a believable manner.
The storyline does have some intriguing twists and turns, with a particularly strong ending that leaves you eager for a continuation. However, there are some problems throughout this relatively rocky plot. First and foremost, one major character simply disappears from the narrative late in the game. Depending upon the player’s choice made at the halfway point, a second character is also missing without explanation during one of the possible outcomes. The worst case scenario is that their story threads were held back for the downloadable content season pass, but in place of an official explanation, their sudden disappearance is jarring. There is also a late-game flashback sequence that seemingly drags on, making the game feel about an hour too long.
The player character, Ethan Winters, is problematic as well. He feels like a leftover from the action-packed direction of the previous three RE games, mumbling sarcastic remarks and the occasional one-liner in the face of danger. Perhaps this is an intentional counterpoint to the goofiness of the Bakers, or another reference to B-horror movies, but his feats — and impressive survivability — go far beyond his role as an average person. He comes across like Leon S. Kennedy circa Resident Evil 4, without the benefit of a backstory. Indeed, Ethan is a blank slate with little personality aside from his sarcastic remarks and single minded determination to find Mia. With that said, he serves his purpose as an avatar for the player, plus this is still a Resident Evil game. These kinds of things are almost expected, sadly.
THE VERDICT: 7.8 OUT OF 10
The inherent fun of the fantastic survival horror gameplay here should not be underestimated. It may be held under an umbrella pelted by laughable villains and dumb moments, but the game remains… dry… in spite of them. Okay, okay, awkward attempt at an umbrella metaphor aside — Resident Evil 7 is definitely a good game with lots of effort put into it, but it isn’t great. It also isn’t a train wreck like RE6, so that’s a win in my book. That said, there’s room for improvement with a potential sequel — and that ending certainly leaves things on a high note for fans.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale