How the game declines
Let’s actually take the time to enumerate the number of ways Resident Evil 7 stops being interesting by the end.
1. Conceptually. The game starts strong by ripping off both classic and modern horror masterpieces, while bridging everything with a solid foundation of Resident Evil 1’s mansion design. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is clearly the inspiration for the deranged redneck family who tries to adopt you against your will while subjecting you to terror if you try to escape (and the chainsaw fight confirms it), while True Detective (Season 1) is a clear influence for the occult swamp house in Louisiana. The black symbiotic ooze and the “moldling” enemies with big sharp teeth seem stolen from Marvel’s Venom character, while the spider-like Marguerette seems to dip into The Thing territory, especially with the spider transformations and flamethrower provided. After these ideas are used up, they have no idea what to do. The Lucas madhouse, piers, and tanker level are all creatively bankrupt and devolve into black goop overload and little psychic girl; two of the most hackneyed and braindead tropes in fiction, now combined to no effect. By the very end, the giant ooze monster is one of the lamest attempts at a scary boss fight ever seen in videogames.
2. Audio-visually. The forest and the guest house are conceptually dull and stereotypical settings that become elevated by the game’s engine, which uses lighting and sound effectively. The audio consistently fills the player with paranoia, using random noises and sound effects. Played muted, the game loses almost all atmosphere. The human brain automatically strains its hearing to compensate if it can’t see much, and so the combination of bad visibility and lots of noise is extremely effective. When you’re anticipating danger, this effect is multiplied. Whether you should commend Capcom for using your own character’s breathing and footsteps to keep you on edge constantly is debatable. Unlike our real-life selves, we have no control over the noises Ethan makes. As players, we always have to remind ourselves that our character is the one shuffling and breathing. The random sounds are pretty intense. They suggest that a lot more things are happening nearby than there actually is. As the game progresses, you’ll become accustomed to blocking out the random sound effects, and they therefore lose their potency. At some points there are very loud and very specific noises that happen in nearby areas, but they almost always turn out to be nothing. This reveals a lazy and cheap pattern, which retroactively makes you feel foolish for caring about the early noises as well. Playing the game a second time, you can cruise through almost every area without worry, knowing that the noises are just distractions. I think the best proof of the audio-visual sliding into garbage is the abundance of the black goop by the end, which happens to be extremely noisy and active sounding, even though it’s doing nothing.
3. Gameplay. You start with no abilities except movement and guarding. Even toggling the flashlight is not a mechanic, since Ethan turns it on and off automatically. Weapon selection is minimal and doesn’t get much better over time, but that’s okay because you shouldn’t have a wide selection in a horror game at first. The problem is that the amount of things you care about does not evolve over time. It stagnates incredibly by the end of the game, leaving you with a sense of repetition and boredom that is unforgivable in a horror game. I almost don’t want to mention how idiotic and lazy the final weapon of remote bombs is, but I have to. The bombs in Resident Evil 7 are profoundly stupid. There is nothing about them that makes sense, is fun to use, or creates interesting options. They are littered everywhere in the ship with so little rhyme or reason that it makes the whole manor feel like an alphabetically ordered cabinet by comparison. And the one usage of pushing a minecart down a rail, randomly? Come on, guys, what are you doing?
4. Story. Resident Evil 7 takes great pleasure in hiding its real story until the very end. It then expects you to replay the game and figure out what was really happening with a new context. But let’s just judge it as a story you experience once. It starts with a completely innocuous, unassuming premise that works good enough for a horror story, and this is good. Once you meet the Bakers and get sucked into their deranged world, the story revolves around explaining the madness while still trying to save the girl. However, we already know the explanation for the madness because duh, it’s Resident Evil (or “Biohazard”, as they bothered to include in the game’s subtitle area this time). So the only real questions involve Mia. How she got involved in the first place, and why she lied to you. We may also wonder how many ways this game ties into the greater universe of the series.
Although all the “good stuff” is saved for the end, this is also just confirmation that the story itself isn’t nearly as interesting as it could have been. The more you find out about the Baker family, Mia, and Lucas, the further you taint the story you initially became invested in, which was pure and noble. I know people with significant others who find the premise very personal. However, the new story that emerges lacks any emotional core. Eveline is a completely meaningless and arbitrary “character” from any thematic point of view, and Mia really does turn out to be just a dumb lying bitch who feels a bit guilty and responsible after you save her life and get endangered in the process. Zoe is never fleshed out, and neither are any of the Bakers, despite the predictable scene where you meet Jack in some silly hivemind subconscious vision that makes no sense. The big twist at the end where you realize (extra spoilers for those who haven’t dug into the implications of the game’s hints) that “Redfield” and your saviors actually work for Umbrella, implying that your “Ethan Winters” character is most likely the “Ethan W” mentioned in Resident Evil 5 as one of the main chiefs of Umbrella itself, puts a new spin on the whole story. However, this is subtle and obscure enough that it doesn’t contribute to the enjoyment of the main story, which falls flat by the end.
Hindsight is 4/20
I understand that twists and revelations are a hallmark of the Resident Evil franchise. However, this game truly was an opportunity to simply show how insane the bioweapons developed in the Resident Evil universe can become when they’re let loose and free to take root in obscure places. The idea that Mia was working for a corporation involved with that kind of research is a perfectly good twist that could be explored by the midpoint of the game already, shifting the narrative to the complexities of living a double life and being involved in such a horrendous business. If Ethan really was a nobody, we would applaud his bravery and love for Mia, and in turn we could respect Mia if she became honest and vowed to do everything she can to help them escape and save Ethan in return. As it stands, the apparent logic of the real secret story is that Mia works for a rival company to Umbrella, and may have stolen some kind of research from Ethan when she ran off, because he is a big shot in Umbrella himself. Thus, Ethan travels to the house knowing that it will be infected or at least involved with bioweaponry, calls in the Umbrella troopers ahead of time, and thus complains about what took them so long when they finally show up and rescue him. This explains his generally unimpressed attitude towards the horrors he witnesses, and his willingness to dabble in serums and herbs. It explains why he hardly seems fazed by his hand being chopped off and reattached, etc. The watch you receive is Mia’s, since she works for the company who originally transported “Eveline” to the house and wore it on the ship herself in the flashback.
This means Ethan went to the house totally unprepared, like a moron, and refused to simply wait for backup from professional soldiers who have weapons designed to counter the bioweapons. It raises so many questions, but none of them are answered well, and none of them justify such a contrived plot that is guaranteed to fall apart by the end. It explains why Ethan and Mia have such a tepid, odd style of talking to each other, since neither loves the other and both are now using each other or wishing the other might die. Ethan “rescues” Mia, but if you see it from the Umbrella perspective, he is recovering a living host of the parasite for them to run tests on, and capturing a rival corporate spy who they can interrogate. This is why when Ethan says “I’m glad you made it,” she simply replies, “I did?” Everywhere you look in hindsight, you can see how the obtuse and scattershot personalities of Ethan and Mia are “cleverly explained” by this twist. But look at the price you pay in exchange. Instead of a powerful story of love and reconciliation amidst a living hell filled with secrets, we have a coldhearted asshole collecting a coldhearted bitch from a place that means nothing, who both did everything with the dumbest possible approach. Then you have Lucas, who is the most fleshed out character in the entire game by the end once you connect all the dots (with some speculation to glue it together, granted), who is thoroughly ruined anyway because of how they present and handle him the whole time. It’s impossible to enjoy his shallow, uncool villain character no matter what you find out about him eventually. The psychopathic engineer problem child who secretly works for the corporate bio-research company operating out of the salt mines below the property, who cures himself in private and then pretends to be mind-controlled for three years while rigging up his house so that random captives can’t escape. If you smoke a bunch of weed and play this game with VR goggles on, I’m sure you won’t notice any problems and you’ll be constantly freaking out at everything, and you won’t need to worry about how the themes and characters all degenerate into stuff that only sounds interesting on paper. Just kick back and enjoy your noisy black goop monsters, and your noisy black goop surroundings.
The “Season Pass” promises more content throughout the year, but the first free batch of content is going to be coming out in Spring. Presumably you’ll play as the “Redfield” character, either during or after the incident with Ethan. If the speculation is true, this “Redfield” character may actually be “Hunk”, the mysterious elite antihero who works for Umbrella Corporation as the Alpha Team Leader of their security force. He’s known for always wearing a mask, always being the lone survivor of his missions, and always being professionally calloused. Hence, “Not A Hero” being the name of the DLC, where we play as another evil Umbrella employee cleaning up the mess of bioweapons. He was revealed to be blonde in one of the endings of Resident Evil 3. All of this seems to add up, so the only question is why he’s calling himself “Redfield” in the game. It’s yet another twist that has no feeling of payoff in the game itself. Considering the game is $80 (in Canada at least) the addition of a free substantial mission is only fair if you ask me.
Being proficient with a mouse and keyboard thanks to decades of playing shooters on PC, I used this layout most of the time. But I was aggravated by the silly reticle system, which uses the lousy console innovation of holding in a special button just to gain some accuracy at the cost of walking speed. I understand that consoles need to compensate for lousy aiming with twin joysticks, and that they generously included assisted aiming when using a gamepad for this reason, but the function hampers PC users. By default you can’t see your crosshairs unless you zoom in for precision aiming either, which really frustrated me until I found the option to turn them on permanently. Once I did so, I could run and shoot intuitively. Then the problem was just trying to fight the enemies without getting irritated. I don’t mind difficult enemies if they have some kind of clever design, but everything about the moldlings — who are your only enemies, essentially — just shouts “design by fail”. Capcom created a generic creatures of tangled sinew and muck with no logic to them, specifically so they could avoid having to conform to logic. They can appear out of nowhere, be fast or slow, strong or weak, smart or stupid. Instead of introducing a variety of believable enemies that work in tandem to challenge you in unique ways, as in the original Resident Evil, these guys just soak up bullets while wobbling their heads from side to side so getting a headshot is difficult. If you do shoot one in the head, they’ll quickly speed up and run at you, or they’ll guard their face with their arm and walk slowly at you. Watching them shuffle towards you with their hand in front of their face is comical. The speedy hunter variation is super deadly and hard to hit, but that doesn’t make him interesting either. The final variation — the big bloated barfing enemy — is so unoriginal and lazily designed that I am genuinely surprised they made the cut for the final game. There are no infected dogs, birds, spiders, snakes, alligators, plants, or tyrant-like enemies to be found.
Whether I played with a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad, the ability to accidentally use your First Aid with one wrong button press was infuriating. We can all appreciate the convenience of a dedicated heal button considering how heavy of a design element it can be to open a special menu and find it in older games, but the implementation here is wrong. A better idea would be simple: hold in the button for a second. Plus you shouldn’t be able to waste a whole bottle if you already have full health; why would they allow this? It wouldn’t be difficult to program the First Aid bottles to have a sort of “ammunition” value themselves, showing how much is left in them. If they did this, they could allow us to hold the button in and pour as much or little as we want, controlling the dosage. This would solve several problems and encourage strategic usage. Exploring this option fully, they could introduce the ability to mixing different amounts of various substances together, which would flesh out the rather basic crafting system a bit more. In any case, as it stands I had to rebind my keys so I didn’t accidentally waste First Aid at inappropriate times.
It’s clear that Capcom stole as much from the P.T. playbook as they could get away with, probably beginning development as soon as Silent Hills was officially canceled and VR was announced for the PS4. They developed a robust and beautiful engine that seems to rival Kojima’s FOX Engine this time around, which is great. The level of polish put into early parts of the game really demonstrates how spectacular this series can still be in the right hands, but the mid-to-late game portions demonstrate just as powerfully how bad it can become when it’s slapped together and rushed. Clearly, at some point during development the team was told to stop adding new features, pad the length of the game, and scrap things like Zoe’s character development. There are so many missed opportunities that the game feels only half-finished. Sadly, the DLC and “Season Pass” content won’t rectify this, no matter how polished they are.
It’s very easy to overlook the problems of RE7 if you’ve been waiting for a game like this to come along. Not only does it revitalize the franchise, but it attempts to fill the void left by P.T. and Silent Hills, which it deserves credit for. They took the opportunity to do a lot of cool things at once, so it boggles the mind why they weren’t content with simply making a smaller, more intimate story at a cheaper price. Charging this much money for a game that ends up squandering our goodwill and insulting our intelligence smacks of classic corporate greed; and this is exactly what you want to avoid when you’ve put so much love into a product meant to win players back. You’re allowed to get greedy after you’ve redeemed yourself, Capcom. You could have charged $30 for this game and spared us the whole last half. You could have kept players inside the mansion and dealt with the relationship between Ethan, Mia, and her professional life as a compromised employee of some evil corporation. You could have allowed the Baker family and Eveline to remain truly despicable and memorable villains instead of treading the same tired ground as every other Japanese story by turning them into sympathetic victims of circumstance. Eveline could have been a real human being, a member of the Baker family driven by actual motivations that cause us to reflect on the nature of power and corruption, as well as innocence and despair. Each Baker could have represented something bigger, commenting on the human condition as we find actually clever ways to stop them and circumvent their powers. If the whole thing turned out to be a deliberate case study for the bioengineering corporation Mia works for, we could gain insight into the greater world of Resident Evil through her and her knowledge of the corporation. In the end, there could still have been a final sequence taking us into secret passages and laboratories, and we could have still fought Mia and/or Zoe and discovered they were infected. So many good possibilities existed.
Capcom laid such a strong foundation for themselves with the early areas, only to overextend themselves and ultimately build a bunch of generic bullshit on sinking swampland. Because of this, it doesn’t take much to push the whole thing over, and watch it collapse.
Resident Evil 7 would easily deserve to be in the BOSS LEAGUE if only it maintained the same level of quality the whole way through. A lower price with a smaller scope would have been merciful and saved everybody some embarrassment. As it stands, those who say it deserves more than a +1.3 rating are simply turning a blind eye to the inconsistencies. The good parts are dragged down by the shoddy, but still not far enough to totally sour the experience.