Twenty years ago, a PlayStation game coined a very particular term for interactive horror: survival horror. While not the first game to have this formula of combining item management, fight or flight against fearsome foes and puzzle solving - with 1989’s Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark (1992) as prominent examples - Resident Evil most certainly put it on the map.
Spawning a long running and highly profitable franchise as well as inspiring others like Clock Tower and Silent Hill, RE became for most the leading example of getting scared with a controller in your hand. Its sequels have had quite the run from improving and expanding the original’s possibilities with the PS1 follow-ups Resident Evil 2 and 3:Nemesis. It eventually went off in a completely different; the initially praise touted its direction with Resident Evil 4.
The original games - known for their intentionally constricting control schemes and fixed camera angles - were replaced with over the playable character’s shoulder perspective. That in turn launched a revolution in how games in general were played - defining the third person genre.
While Resident Evil 4 remains a highly beloved title - and to many, one of the all time best ever - it did set a direction that became more detrimental, pushing action over scares.
Resident Evil 5 kept the camera and general gameplay from 4 while introducing a cooperative mode that further hindered the tension by removing the isolation aspect. Resident Evil 6 was when it really went off the rails into basically a parody of itself. An overdose of characters, action, poor pacing, inconsistent tone and controls and seemingly a removal of every aspect of the series core identity made 6 an especially hated entry. The gaming community wondered if developer Capcom would ever return to the series roots in a new game.
In short, they did and they did well.
On the surface, Resident Evil 7 seems like another drastic departure from the series with a removal of hammy dialogue, a gritty tone that seemed divorced from any prior title and most controversially, a first person perspective. Safe to say, despite early reservations, RE7 is all too happy to prove to you that it is in fact a return to the past but not one bogged down in it.
The story, like most horror stories begins with a mystery that unravels as it aims to go on. Taking on the perspective of Ethan Winters, a man in search of his missing wife Mia, who apparently has sent a message telling him to find her in a mansion deep in the bayous of Louisiana. Of course, Ethan goes alone not really suspecting foul play and comes across a situation that is more than foul. The Baker family, a deeply twisted and cannibalistic commune, runs the grounds of the estate.
Staying true to series formula, they are infected with a mysterious virus that made them this way and are compelling them to commit such evil such as luring people like Ethan into their home and either killing or making them “part of the family”. Three of Bakers’ characters are the true highlight of RE7’s cast of characters. Mixing legitimate malice with a creepy southern drawl and even some moments of humor, the narrative makes Ethan’s confrontations with them surreal and unforgettable.
Ethan would have enough problems with just Jack - the patriarch his wife Marguerite who has a penchant for insects and profanity. Lucas, their son has a desire to one up Jigsaw for traps and mental games. Add to that the Molded, black and tentacle and tooth creatures, these are just some of the general enemies you’ll face. Hard to kill, they play into the use of first person as their movements and attack patterns make you really consider how you use your weapons, especially your pistol and that missing their weak spots can be a matter of life and death.
That the enemies are so challenging trickles down into the classic Resident Evil gameplay tropes of managing your equipment, storage for items, and that sometimes its better to run than to fight. Maybe those precious shotgun shells you acquired will be needed bad down the road. One of the best traditions that returns is the setting and world design that lets you explore the Baker mansion and beyond in a generally free manner, albeit with some areas locked off into later or if you can find the key or item that unlocks it.
The attention to detail to the location also speaks volumes to the game’s atmosphere. The estate almost always looks like it is on the verge of collapsing and that every corner could hide a threat for Ethan. That some encounters are randomized like when Jack appears adds extra fear. There is of course relief from the tension as the save rooms, where you store and equip yourself and save your game let you unwind, knowing that at least here you have nothing to worry about. The melancholy guitar that plays helps you reflect on how far you’ve come and how much more you’ll have to survive.
One new aspect is the videotape. Ethan can collect a couple of videos lying around that when put into a TV will let you play from another’s perspective. These, especially for new players serve not only as an example of fleshing out the narrative but also brilliantly preview the next area. You can see ahead of time a new set of challenges; learn more about what awaits and maybe even figure out a trick that’ll help you along in the long run.
In terms of shortcomings, RE7 has few that really bother me. The length of the game running at roughly ten hours may seem brief for a game of $60, but that it only lasts so long helps the game’s tension and atmosphere not wear out its welcome. The final half does admittingly drag more due to a higher emphasis on actually fighting monsters but the threat they pose and the mysteries being uncovered leading to an especially noteworthy conclusion does make up for it.
If you are a fan of the Resident Evil series, this game is for you. If you have never played a single minute of it, I would still recommend it. The game utilizes for the most part, its horror conventions well and with a confidence that is reassuring. By the end of it, you may actually want to delve into more horror titles in the future and no matter how many dark and terrible things the game can unleash on you, you may also feel as if this is the beginning of a promising year for gaming as well. I certainly did. The horror has survived.