Plot: Ethan’s search for his missing wife, Mia, takes him to outer Louisiana where he finds the Baker family, deranged and hiding a dark secret. How are they connected to Mia and what are they so desperate to protect?
Resident Evil used to be the gaming grandfather of horror. There was a time when any other survival horror game struggled to escape the shadows of Capcom’s prize franchise. Silent Hill’s fixed camera style was ripped straight from the original nightmare of Resident Evil. Dino Crisis couldn’t escape the fighting formula of their superiors. Any other horror game was simply something to help you wait for the next installment of Resident Evil. But as with any major franchise, glory days do not fuel a series indefinitely and as the franchise got deeper into its entries, its quality diminished, slowly devolving into an action horror rather than the old-fashioned psychological one and losing that original spark that made it so successful in the days of old.
This is what Resident Evil 7 aims to correct. If the marketing campaign hadn’t clued you into what you are walking into, the first five minutes of gameplay will. Biohazard is a total reboot of the series, stripping away mentions of Umbrella, T-Zirus and even, to perhaps some gamers’ dismay, zombies. You are instead thrust into the first person view of Ethan, an average joe who isn’t the head of a crack military team storming an abandoned mansion, but just an everyday man who really misses his wife. Drawn out into the swampy outskirts of Louisiana by a mysterious video call from a wife, who went missing on a work’s trip years before, your character’s back-story has no hidden agendas, no secrets to uncover, just the simple drive to survive. And it makes Ethan, while at times a frustratingly bland protagonist (jump scares might elicit gasps of fear from the gamer, but Ethan has the habit of stoically shouldering the horror), a hero we are not used to before. The opening prologue of this game is a half hour of Capcom re-establishing themselves as the heads of horror. Ethan, realistically, doesn’t even have a weapon on him, not expecting anything else but a warm welcome from a long lost wife. What he is greeted with is a creaky house, covered in darkness, videotapes showing passer-bys being forced to grizzly ends and a lone woman walking around the corridors armed with a chainsaw. It is thrilling, horrifying stuff, as you, without a weapon for a large part of the sequence, are forced to drag yourself through the game’s map, your brain screaming at you as each darkened corridor greets you at the end of a path. Resident Evil 7 proceeds to promptly rewrite every rule you’ve written in your head about how this game is going to go down. After a few shock encounters, you genuinely have no idea how the story is going to play out, so the fear of continuing onwards is a deeply genuine one. As with most horror games, you always expect the chills to peter out. Even the earlier Resident Evils gave up toying with the gamer to throw them in a madcap shoot-out to the finale. However, with the exception of the final sequence, Resident Evil keeps you petrified for a longer time than you would expect. It helps that the story gives us several ‘creatures’ to fear, so just when we are getting used to the Molded, the closest thing the game has to the zombies of old, up pops Jack Baker with a hilariously over-sized weapon. The writers change up the scares often enough that the atmosphere never gets tiresome. It falls back on cheap jump scares occasionally, but it has more than enough genuinely eerie boss fights (Marguerite’s final form) to a sequence through a child’s bedroom that is so chillingly written that you are both terrified and applauding the writers for coming up with such a beautifully frightening experience. Now expert gamers will probably notice that the scare style of Biohazard does borrow heavily from other successful independent games of the decade. It can be strongly argued that if Outlast hadn’t been created a few years earlier, we would have an entirely different reboot. So no, Resident Evil 7’s influence of other survival horrors does place it in the shadow of other games, not quite reaching the grandfather status it held in the past. But what the end result does give us is a very good game. And perhaps that is enough.
But while Resident Evil 7 changes the rule book drastically from its own past, perhaps the game is quietly at its best, when it does briefly return to its roots. For one, you will notice that while there is little similarities to the games of old, the mechanics do return to that puzzle-based style that the original cherished so much. In fact, it isn’t really until halfway through the game where you can really call Resident Evil 7 an action game. Up until that point, it is a game that throws you into a map, with locked doors and key-shaped holes that you need to find an item to access. The first handful of enemies are largely unkillable, so the game plan is to run, hide and hope you find a key before the crazed madman stalking you in the corridors finds you. There is that old pesky inventory management too, the greatest source of frustration in gaming history of old, but one that does, as much as you hate to admit it, add a lot of flavor to Resident Evil’s gameplay. Every time you stop for a breather, you have to check your inventory and make a conscious decision to leave your prized weapon behind in order to take a green herb or a key that might be useful in the next section. And stopping for a breather also brings me to delightful return of the Safe Room, something that the more action-styled Resident Evils abandoned in the face of modern gaming (save points became a thing of the past to keep games more frantically paced). Here it is a wonderful throwback to the glory days as well as something that actively promotes the horror. When you have a sneaking suspicion the next room has a scary boss fight waiting for you, dragging yourself away from the comfort of the safe room soundtrack is one of the hardest challenges the game offers. In a rather cheeky homage, you might notice a certain playful nostalgia creeping into the level layout as well. After the chilling prologue, you find yourself in a mansion in need of keys with symbols to get into certain doors. There is also a shotgun attached to a plinth that needs a broken replica to be accessed. It is simple fun, but in a game that so brazenly changes its appearance, tone and formula, it is these little beats that keep Resident Evil’s seventh outing from being too much.
Final Verdict: Resident Evil 7 is nothing like we have played before in this series, a truly scary experience that grips you until the bitter end.