REVIEW: Resident Evil 7

Bottom Line: Although Capcom begins with a graceful leap from the high diving board, they end up missing the deep end, only to land on a metal floor covered with black slime.


Genre: Challenge Completion
Gameplay Style: First Person Horror
Version: PC, Steam, not VR

Precedent

I’ve never played a game with the sheer power of Resident Evil 7 before. A power that will suck you in, strap you down, and make you feel what you’re supposed to feel, no matter how skeptical or reluctant you are going into it. You will feel scared in this game, and you will become a paranoid wreck at some point, and you won’t be able to rationalize or “I’m a grown-up playing a game” your way out of it. From what I’d already heard and seen, my skepticism was fairly strong. I was ready to hate this game at a moment’s notice, if it showed itself to be hollow and gimmicky. Things like the VR selling point, the lack of marketing (ie. hiding what the majority of the game’s content actually consists of), and the cheap premise of playing as a veritable nobody with no weapons in a spooky dark house all raised the same red flag in my mind: this might be a flashlight simulator — the worst, laziest type of game created today. Only Kojima’s insane P.T. has pulled off the flashlight simulator effectively before, but even that didn’t really count, since it wasn’t a full game. Full games require a host of gameplay features, characters, challenges, and themes that need to culminate into something greater than the sum of its parts over the course of many hours. Most flashlight-driven games (as evidenced by ten-thousand of them waiting for your approval on Steam Greenlight) rely on the natural tension created by poor visibility to turn all of their empty rooms and boring corridors into “eerie” and “spooky” places where you constantly worry about being jumped by some amorphous monster or magically being “Game Over’d” by a scary little girl in a red dress who shows up randomly to giggle at your misfortune.

To my dismay, it took only an hour for my reservations to be assuaged and for my love to start kicking in. I became fully immersed in its horror, which was a distinct feeling I haven’t experienced since the first installment back in 1996, when I was just a kid playing something my parents would never have allowed me to if they knew “horror games” were a thing that had been invented. Recreating the balance between uneasiness, trepidation, and constant curiosity is something I never expected a game to do again, and I’m glad Resident Evil is the series that managed to pull it off again. Bravo to the team. When every fiber of your being wants to run away or hide in a corner, and yet another part of you is shouting to face your fears, move forward, and find out what the hell is happening, you’ve struck gold. Despite having higher standards, plenty of familiarity with horror tropes, and a general weariness of the Resident Evil mythos by this point, the game dragged me through all of these obstacles and kept me engaged.

As I navigated with dread through the house (which thankfully did not rely on my flashlight to maintain mood) the question eventually became whether it could keep up the magic. Would the spell wear off? This question is conveniently dodged by P.T. (a demo) and Silent Hills (canceled), and yet its one the original Resident Evil nailed perfectly the first time around. In a time when bad acting, bad writing, and nonsensical puzzle designs were automatically forgiven, that game still managed to go beyond the call of duty and create a blueprint for masterful progression in a horror game — one which has yet to be surpassed even by its own sequels. In that game, you start as highly-trained member of an elite paramilitary team, sent to investigate an ominous mansion hiding a world of secrets. As you solve the riddles of the house and deal with the variety of gruesome creatures inside it, you realize that the whole place is just a front for unthinkable science gone awry. Exiting the warmth and strangely juxtaposed luxury of the mansion, you explore its chilly utilitarian auxiliary buildings, only to unlock the true horror beneath all of it: a series of cold, sterile laboratories where all manner of abominable experimentations have taken place. Metaphorically, you and your character both make the same progression. You start with safe, comforting assumptions about what might have happened, and don’t suspect it would ever reach such nefarious depths by the end. As you discover chilling truths about the events that took place, reading logs and gathering clues, you end up confronted by the cold hard reality of the situation: a sociopathic corporation bent on profiting from an apocalypse of their own engineering. The fact that you start off as a team of elite soldiers is an additional comfort, as you will presumably work together and pool your resources to get through the challenges. Not so. You get split up quickly, find out that some members aren’t as loyal they seem, and meet fellow members dying or dead as you get further. You become alone, paranoid, desperate to just make it through the hell you’re stuck in.

Could Resident Evil 7 use its power to carry me through such a compelling arc? Would it even try to? I wanted to find out, even if it killed me. Err… me in the game.

 

Entering the building.

 

Prescience

It’s true that sitting down for a new installment of some old series, you already know half of what to expect. The past predicts the future when it comes to long-running series with established formulas. You always get variations, iterations, and new twists on the old ideas, but the fundamental structure of what needs to happen to recreate the magic won’t change. If the series got popular because of A, B, and C, you’ll see some combination of those things in the next one, and the only question is how it will surprise you by working within those confines. With Resident Evil 7 I had mixed feelings about this prospect. On the one hand, it would have to somehow tap into the spirit (if not the body) of the originals if it wanted to reignite my long snuffed-out nostalgia, but on the other I wanted to see if the series could truly innovate and reinvent itself. I thought they found a superb balance of both before long.

The story takes some turns initially that didn’t do much for me. To be honest I just wanted the story to quit trying, so I could keep exploring the atmospheric surroundings by my lonesome and make up my own story for why things were happening. Once you meet the Bakers (not spoilers, they are part of the marketing) I watched with indifference, thinking only about how they had tailored the sequences to freak out VR users in various ways. That changed once I regained control and had to fight for my life. The way the antagonists are used early on in the house is brilliant, captivating, and had my adrenaline going. Paradoxically, once you are “safe” again, the true agony begins. I’ll discuss the logic of the game design choices and the story spoilers later in this review, but I must emphasize for now that the psychology of the house early on is the kind of potent chemistry most games never even come close to achieving. Even if this was the extent of the game, I would be impressed and intrigued about what the series is capable of from now on. The “power” I keep talking about is in full force here.

 

As the game inevitably moves into different sections of the house, in accordance with the Resident Evil formula, I felt chunks of my enjoyment just crumble away, like limbs from a statue. I could see what they were trying, and I could see why they felt the need to follow the traditions of the series (which now included elements of the smash-hit RE4, which itself broke from tradition in drastic ways) but I wasn’t sold on the execution at all. I was disappointed with the compromises between old and new, and found them to be nothing more than a lazy middle ground. Worse, the game started foreshadowing things that only pointed at a further decline in quality. When you know as much about the series as I do, foreshadowing may as well be callbacks. I tried to keep my hopes up, since the game had successfully won me over with its early excellence; I wasn’t ready to hate it at a moment’s notice anymore. I now wanted to see it stay strong, and live up to the expectations it had established. This carried me through the next chapter of the story, if we can think of the locations as chapters. By the third chapter, I was checked out.

 

We’re not in Kansas or anywhere interesting anymore

Knowing that the game “needed” to keep moving to new locations with more troubling secrets to uncover, I kept questioning when we’d reach the official turning point of the game, from “backwoods swamp estate” to something more insidious. If the third major location — characterized by the third major antagonist — was Capcom’s attempt at upping the ante, I have no idea what they were thinking. Perhaps this was their attempt at originality, or perhaps it was some interpretation of past formulas that I couldn’t parse. The plot is so watered down and uninteresting by this point that it almost feels like a joke. Parts of it are presented as if they are a joke; joking about how lousy the plot is. Gone was the last remaining enjoyment I had for the game, crumbling away with the foundation it was built on. I pushed forward with stubbornness for the sake of this review, and it’s doubtful I would have bothered if I had been playing it only for my own gratification.

If you care about spoilers for the game (I suggest you don’t) we’re about to cross that line.

The premise we start with, of rescuing your estranged wife from a horrific existence as a slave to crazy people, was enough to get us to this point. Now our only friendly contact — Zoe — is thrown in as an extra hostage just so the developers can avoid fitting her into the game properly as a character who can help. The moment you return to the trailer and she’s not there, my hopes for the game dropped to the floor. The conversation with Lucas over the phone then put a bullet through them. The pulsating lightshow and techno music then defecated on the bleeding expectations as they still lay in shock, not quite dead, and the cringe-inducing videotape where you watch him sneer at you like a Saturday morning cartoon villain shoved them all into an open grave. From that point on, every challenge I came across was another shovel of fresh soil thrown on top of my dying expectations. One by one, I said goodbye to my hopes. Goodbye interesting characters. Goodbye new gameplay features. Goodbye meaningful commentary on relationships. Goodbye dignified resolution and somber moments. Our suspension of disbelief is abused by this chapter, and I won’t forgive Capcom for thinking this was acceptable after all the hard work they put into establishing the main manor with so much tact. Having a raving lunatic capture two girls you don’t really feel any connection to is already weak bait, but to do it in such a farcical way is just an insult to everything good they built up so far. There was still hope that Mia could become a person you wanted to like. There was hope that Zoe would show a side of herself you cared about. There was room for more characters, more enemy types, more of everything. The Lucas madhouse is the point where the game officially became a rushed product that ran out of ideas.

The attention to detail is amazing — when they decide to include it.

Real, lived-in houses with functional rooms have an inherent sense of personality to them. The older the house, the more personality it has. The house therefore becomes a character, telling you things about itself as you explore it. Each area has a story of its own, ideally. The Resident Evil series has always thrived on telling stories through settings and clues. Even the outdoor areas tell you about how neglected the property is, or the various eras of usage its had. This is why the Old House on the swamp is a perfectly good Resident Evil location, even though it’s pretty barren and lazy in terms of gameplay design. Contrast that to the custom-build madhouse designed with a totally arbitrary layout where there’s no personality at all. Why is there a locker with an explosive box inside it? Because Lucas is crazy! Why is there a super long hallway with nothing interesting in it? Because Lucas is crazy! Why is this area sectioned off and why does it need four car batteries to activate the elevator? Because Capcom is lazy! Oops, I mean Lucas is crazy!

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