By Daniel Steele
This game was not reviewed in VR. The impressions here are based solely off of the standard mode.
In many ways, Resident Evil 7 is a return to the series’ roots. It evokes the familiar tension and trepidation as an unwelcome prisoner of an unfamiliar home, and the key tenets of its classic survival horror – ammo scrounging and key hunting – are once again present. But other aspects, such as its major switch to first-person, give the game its own identity on which it displays terror in ways Resident Evil never had – or could.
It’s clear Capcom’s designers went back to the drawing board with this title and really considered what hallmarks are worth keeping, while bringing over the modern sensibilities that other first-person horror experiences have established.
And it very much starts off like many horror games before it, leading the protagonist, Ethan Winters, through the dense forest corridor that snakes around the decrepit Baker family home in rural Louisiana. Ethan is searching for his wife, Mia Winters, who mysteriously disappeared three years ago. Ethan finds that the Bakers had kidnapped Mia, but escape becomes just as problematic as saving her from the murderous, inhuman family.
Once the player first enters the poorly-lit home, the claustrophobic atmosphere sets in. The halls and rooms are hazy and dark and give the impression of a stale, dusty stench. There’s a dead crow in the microwave and sticky black slime in the fridge. Ripped couches and recliners sit next to cluttered cabinets and tables. The floors are littered with papers and all kinds of unrecognizable debris. Wallpaper feebly clings to rotting walls in all directions. The house gives a new meaning to ‘lived-in.’
It’s hard to ignore that the atmosphere is reminiscent of P.T., Konami’s canceled Silent Hills game. Its similar creaks and bangs regularly float throughout the house and are effective at unnerving the already suspenseful silence.
When Resident Evil ditched its fixed-camera perspective, it lost a certain sense of helplessness a player gets from fighting an enemy without control of where to look, but Resident Evil 7 has recaptured that feeling in first-person. The limiting perspective works well within a cramped space, because hiding and fighting gets disturbingly up close and personal. I can only imagine how much VR intensifies that feeling.
And speaking of hiding, stealth plays an important part that the previous games never had. There are multiple parts where one of the family members are hunting Ethan throughout the house and the only way to move on is to grab an important item and hightail it from the pursuer. It felt like the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, an enemy who hunts the player throughout the game and attacks at random. But even the Nemesis could be killed, unlike most Baker encounters. Once stealth was introduced, it felt like the game really came into its own by expanding on what a Resident Evil game can be. The imposing Jack Baker’s haunting taunt in imitation of a grandmother as his heavy boots pound closer down the hallway is still memorable days after.
“Ethan, Ethan, Ethan! Where’s my little Ethan?”
As far as enemies go, the main bad guys are the Baker family, but the fodder are zombie-like creatures formed from a grey goop. Resident Evil 7 is effective at a lot of what it does, but its monsters are not one of them. Their look is boring and fairly generic, which is disappointing when contrasted with the intimidating Baker family. The developers missed a great opportunity to use the people the Baker family abducted as regular enemies, instead of the uninspiring creatures that take up the entire game.
Enemy design is the weakest aspect of Resident Evil 7, but what falls a little short as well is the use of puzzles. As someone who appreciates the cryptic problem-solving of the first title, this one backed too far away from puzzles. There was one segment that cleverly uses a VHS tape to see how to solve a death puzzle in the future, but much of the game was too lenient in this aspect. It’s clear the relatively sparse use of simple puzzles is part of a modern approach, but a greater challenge in this area would have been a good balance to the combat.
By and large, the changes and additions to the Resident Evil formula are successful, and the inherited design structure – which comprises much of the gameplay – still proves to make a great game. Progression relies on finding keys – some in the shape of a scorpion, crow or snake – and finding important items that lead Ethan to discovering the truth behind the Baker family (hint: it might involve bioweapons and viruses).
Resident Evil 7 still uses herbs and item combination, although in a streamlined way. Herbs can combine with either “chem fluid” or “strong chem fluid” to make a more powerful health drink. The “chem fluids” can also combine with gunpowder to make deadlier pistol rounds, so it’s important to weigh which item to mix based on the situation. This method of combination is a smart simplification of a system that created clumsy item menus in the past. The item box for storage is also adopted and brings back item management, although in a simpler way.
Although Resident Evil 7 is the next numbered entry in the series, it feels very much like a reboot. The story’s threads are largely connected to past events indirectly, and it forges its own path with a modern first-person take on Resident Evil 1’s design. But its core is undeniably Resident Evil, an impressive and important feat over two decades after the first foray into the Spencer mansion.