Released on January 24th, Resident Evil 7 offers a unique blend of both the old and new. While the setting returns to the house and basement crawling that made the original game so captivating, the story develops more of an intimate tone that is a far cry from the special forces aspect of previous titles. Instead of cleaning up the mess as an elite agent, you are thrust into the shoes of Ethan, a general every-man who travels to the bayou of Louisiana in search of his missing wife.
From the outset, the sheer beauty of Capcom’s creation is evident. The damp, humid and oppressive climate of the Deep South maintains a steady presence throughout the game, with flies and dense vegetation dominating the outdoor environments. Most players will feel the heavy influence of famous movie franchises including Texas Chainsaw, The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance upon entering the looming (but seemingly deserted) plantation estate. The house itself feels effectively lived in, with fridges left ajar, fans still running and shelves littered with knick-knacks and post-it notes, providing an odd sense of reality within the distorted situation you find yourself in. While most recent horror titles have sought to bring the horror from more traditional locations (insane asylums, camp sites, mountain lodges etc.) Resident Evil 7 has a realism that serves to almost overcome the disassociation of the external setting through its homely interior.
The game also makes effective use of shadow even in the more well-lit sections. No room is without a dark corner or two to keep you on your toes should a creature or demented human leap out and claw, bludgeon or stab you mercilessly. The use of shadow also allows the sense of confinement to extend to the outdoor segments, keeping the oppressive atmosphere intact in the more open environments. The only pitfall of the dark aesthetic is that playing on the recommended brightness settings often made the darkness an obstacle rather than an addition to the experience. Turning the brightness up in these cases fortunately does not distract from the game’s atmosphere, but may help with any possible frustration from stumbling around in the dark. Resident Evil 7 also makes good use of its setting, with plenty of blind corners and suspicious doorways keeping the creeping sense of dread just over your shoulder throughout.
Resident Evil 7 also delivers a master stroke when it comes to building atmosphere. While most modern titles rely heavily on jumpscares to provide most of their thrills, Resident Evil 7 instead makes use of the sinister setting, shadows and confinement to generate an organic series of scares without much scripting. While certain frights are obviously orchestrated for effect, most of the scares occurred when rounding a corner to be suddenly faced by an enemy, and having to constantly watch my back for fear of being blocked into a tiny corridor or closet room. The use of the twitching corpses of once defeated enemies also makes you suspicious of whether the thing behind you really is as dead as you think it is. Sound design plays an enormous role in this sense of suspicion and dread, with every creak and bump causing a spike in awareness, making you to stop and look over your shoulder just in case.
Story-wise, Resident Evil 7 guards its secrets closely. There will be many sudden realizations as your journey progresses, and the drip-feed of information slowly reveals and connects seemingly unrelated elements together. Despite some criticism of the stereotypical ‘cannibal redneck’ trope, this is slowly chipped away throughout the plot, revealing a set of circumstances and events that are unexpected given the opening segments of the game. This allows the plot to draw from ‘hillbilly horror’ rather than giving the game over to it entirely, upending most expectations as it progresses. Although this is not to say the influence does not inspire some excellent moments, with the dining room encounter and the Baker patriarch Jack providing some of the most memorable.
Despite being a Resident Evil franchise entry, the game reserves most of its references to the RE universe for its conclusion. While this may seem somewhat confusing for a franchise seeking a refresh, it works in the game’s favor as to not only preserve intimacy in the more core aspects of the plot, but also allow the story itself to serve as a stand-alone adventure to pull newcomers into the franchise. The heavy nods toward other established horror series may also serve as a draw to new players.
The addition of the first-person perspective also works well to add tension within the confined environment of the house, which may have fallen flat with the original third-person angle. Inventory management can be irritating at points, with later portions of the game being given over to wrangling with inventory slots, which often dilutes the tension. The regular combat is fairly consistent with most first-person shooter mechanics, although the rationing of ammo and health means your shots have to count. Boss fights are sufficiently varied to prevent monotony, with each encounter offering an alternative path to victory than the last. This marks a welcome change from constant ‘bullet sponge’ boss encounters that require little thought or ingenuity.
The accumulation of weapons can also reduce the fear factor as the game progresses. While the initial portions of the game are fraught with resource management, weak weapons and lots of running away, by the end you are wielding what is effectively a small arsenal that removes a lot of the tension that should accumulate towards the final encounter. Puzzles also make a return, but they tend to focus more on figuring out how to find larger guns rather than advancing through the story.
As someone who is relatively inexperienced with the RE franchise, this edition has piqued my interest significantly. Having enjoyed games such as Outlast and Dead Space previously, I look forward to this new/old fusion that the series will hopefully continue with in future. Despite the slight irritations concerning inventory management and the lack of challenging progression puzzles, the intriguing story and detailed setting offer plenty of distraction from these minor shortcomings, with the decision to release free DLC in March providing a welcome reason to return to the Baker family estate.