Release Date: January 24th, 2017
Platform Reviewed: PC
Time Played: ~10 hours
Concept and Execution
Before I begin, I have a confession to make. I have never, in my entire horror fandom, played a Resident Evil game before. I have a vague recollection of a sleepover at a cousin’s house, where we played a game that I want to say was a Resident Evil game, or it might have been a Silent Hill game, but it’s so muddy that it’s impossible to say. That Silent Hill and Resident Evil share the same space in my head is serendipitous; after hearing that Silent Hills, and its hit demo, P.T., were dead as a result of the Kojima/Konami fallout, I was devastated. Turns out, however, that Resident Evil was there to pick up the pieces.
Resident Evil 7 takes place in a decrepit plantation in swampy Dulvey, Louisiana, with players taking the role of Ethan Winters. Winters’s wife, Mia, went missing three years prior, and a mysterious note draws him out to what starts as a simple search and rescue attempt that, in classic horror fashion, spirals into something far worse.
Players are immediately hit with a sense of dread, as the homestead belonging to the antagonistic Bakers–Jack, Marguerite, and Lucas–looms in the hazy midday sun. This is immediately contrasted by the intense darkness of the only entrance to the house, something that would give any reasonable person enough pause to maybe leave and come back with help. It’s possibly one of the game’s crowning achievements to establish this atmosphere so early. Rarely does dread sell when the sun is high.
What sets Resident Evil 7 apart from previous iterations is the personality given to Ethan. There’s an immediate uncertainty towards entering the estate, and Ethan has very human interactions with things most people would find disgusting, like opening the lid to a pot with some rotten god-knows-what in it and having cockroaches crawl on you. A simple outburst of swearing does more to humanize him in that scene than most horror games ever approach. This extends to just about all of the characters. The crew of “Sewer Gators,” whom you see during a playable VHS scene, behave like, well, people. Their dialogue gives suggestions of past lives and express an almost flippancy that quickly turns sour, akin to so many ghost hunter shows.
VHS scenes like that, letters and photos left around the house, and phone calls all help inform the story. Players are encouraged to scrounge around for everything already, as ammo and health are in limited supply, so it’s reasonable to expect to stumble across tidbits here and there. None of it feels necessary to understand the overall story, however. Players can learn as much or as little as they want about the world.
All of this works well right up to the point where the game breaks from low-key surrealist horror into what I can only describe as a sprint to the top of spook mountain. At that point, all pretenses of looming dread are discarded, and the game suffers for it. Thankfully that only amounts to a very small portion of the overall narrative, so the otherwise exquisite experience isn’t too far gone, and it remains something well worth playing.
Concept and Execution Score: 23/25 B
Everything in RE7 occurs in first-person, breaking away from the third-person action genre that prior entries embodied. Additionally, everything the player does feels slow and methodical. Doors take deliberate effort to open, running never feels quite like a sprint, and managing your inventory means playing tetris with guns and herbs.
The structure of Resident Evil 7 is almost akin to Metroid or Castlevania, where players exploring the house are taunted with rooms boasting goodies that are completely unattainable until a specific trigger is met. This often means finding the right key for a set of doors or defeating a boss. As such, players are encouraged to revisit past areas even after the story has moved on from them. In one instance, a room holding a broken shotgun is locked until you find a key, and the means of repairing the weapon isn’t available until several hours later. This never becomes annoying, though: Capcom sprinkles a constant coating of new items, upgrades, and ammo, enough to make forward progress mechanically rewarding without feeling overwhelming.
Progress is saved in safe rooms, which are about as straightforward as the name suggests. When in a safe room, players can store objects, save the game, and usually find a helpful item or two. Additionally, some safe rooms have items that are unlocked with antique coins, hidden collectibles scattered throughout the game.
Players handle pickups with an admittedly clunky inventory interface, the aforementioned guns and herbs tetris taking perhaps more time than it should. This works to a point. When creating items, there’s something satisfying about saving that one red chem fluid to make special pistol rounds, or a stronger first-aid fluid. And, having to manage an inventory in this manner means forcing mechanical decisions. Do I pick up this gun powder in case I need to make bullets, or do I hold off in case I find something else more important? The downside of this is that inventory management eventually boils down to making scavenging runs between safe rooms once an area is completed, stifling possible tension.
Removing tension isn’t necessarily bad, however, as the Resident Evil 7 lives and breathes on its crescendos. Each act establishes a goal, a chief antagonist, and a path through it. Strung together, we see that not only does each act swell into its climax, but the overarching connection paints a staggered rising action on its own, with each act bumping up the stakes appropriately. It’s only at the end does RE7 seem to trip over itself and crank the drama too high.
When Resident Evil 7 began development in 2014, executive producer Jun Takeuchi wanted a game “stripped down to its core” the essence of Resident Evil. Judged on those merits, Resident Evil 7 passes with flying colors. One’s interactions with the environments and their residents are always deliberate enough to convey a reality of horror, something few horror games truly excel at.
Mechanics Score: 22/25 B+
Unequivocally, Resident Evil 7’s biggest success is in its atmosphere, namely because it perfects something that I have struggled to enunciate regarding games that emulate live-in spaces. Typically, whenever a developer creates a world with the standard trappings of everyday life–roads, houses, cars–there’s a failing in scale and scope. Houses are either too big or too small, cars always seem to take up far too much of the street to make sense, or the player’s avatar is never quite the right scale to the rest of their surroundings. Silent Hill P.T. gave me hope that we would get a horror game that solved this, and Resident Evil 7 picked up that torch.
The environments themselves are, by all means, rather fantastical given the setting. Dulvey, Louisiana, does not strike me as the place where one would have a sprawling dungeon complex beneath a mansion, but this is a work of fiction and I can overlook that for the sake of a good story. Within this massive derelict plantation are places that feel spatially correct. The layout of the guest house, for example, works perfectly. The mansion, for all of its goofy puzzles and gnarled doors, feels like a house. Even portions that would be nonsensical for your standard abode, like shadow puzzles that lead to crawlspaces, still work within the fictional framework of a deranged murderous family. Not that I would know, anyways.
None of this would be possible without the stellar lighting system, though I did encounter a few hiccups that threatened to end my time with Resident Evil 7 early, namely ambient occlusion resulting in unavoidable shadow errors that made it impossible to see anything that wasn’t in my periphery.
Those issues aside, RE7 is gorgeous in all of the ways that matter most. While the story starts during the day, each act cycles the world forward, delving deeper into the night until dawn hits. It’s a spectacular display to see the world go from hazy high noon to a damn and dirty midnight, all while maintaining an almost oppressive layering of shadows that never quite give you enough to see clearly.
Perhaps not to distract from the visual tension, Resident Evil 7 has little in the way of ambient music. When exploring, the only sounds available are those of you and the world. This is preferable, as the gurgling of the mold that coats the Baker’s basement works far more when the only accompaniments are dripping pipes, a closing door, and your own footfalls. Monster audio is far more gruesome, and I would only point to the grotesque gurgling of Marguerite Baker during her encounter.
All of the Bakers are expertly performed, too. Jack Brand, Sara Coates, and Jesse Pimentel all executed wonderfully on Jack, Marguerite, and Lucas Baker, respectively. Jack Baker functions especially well in this, as both the first real antagonist, and the most tragic–Jack is set up immediately as a person to fear and hate, an unstoppable juggernaut in the body of an everyday father. How his story, and the story of his family, unfolds, and his delivery in explaining it, manages to turn a monster into a pitiful, helpless soul. I cannot think of a more moving five minutes of dialogue.
All of this makes up for how forgettable the soundtrack is, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Nothing about Resident Evil 7 demands a soundtrack that one can listen to on its own. To that point, I would say it’s actually preferable. All of the music in Resident Evil 7 falls under the background noise that swells with each scare, each encounter. The one song that sticks out as memorable, aside from that which plays over the credits, is “Saferoom” by Miwako Chinone, the song that, well, plays in the safe rooms. It’s scratchy, discordant, and tired, but also peaceful. It encapsulates a sense of exhaustion, a much needed reprieve, if only temporary.
Atmosphere: 25/25 A+
When judging a long form horror experience like Resident Evil 7, there’s a different time scale that one has to use. It’s easy to bemoan getting only ten hours of gameplay for $60, and I understand where that mentality comes from, but it’s necessary that we consider what prolonging an experience means. In the case of a horror title, that dread can only exist for so long before it becomes rote and uninteresting. Indeed, multiple playthroughs of this very game cease to be scary, as all of its tricks, all of its gotchas become clear as day.
With that in mind, it’s quite easy to commend what Resident Evil 7 accomplishes within its length. At no point does it feel plodding or overwrought. From the moment Ethan sets foot on the Baker’s property, there’s a sense of momentum, an ebb and flow that relents exactly when it needs to. Where it does slow down unnecessarily, it does so only on the player’s accord. At no point is the aforementioned backtracking absolutely required, and the push to rescue Mia and solve this mess propels the narrative forward well enough that the urge is to press on. I felt compelled to play my sessions as long as possible, breaking only after climactic moments that left me emotionally spent.
That, I believe is the marker of an outstanding horror game. Resident Evil 7, through its sharp writing and twisted warping
of an authentic household manages to capture the essence of horror in a way that establishes a new bar by which all future horror games will be measured. It’s genuinely exciting to see how the genre evolves in RE7’s wake.
Entertainment Value Score: 24/25 A