Resident Evil is a series that, much like the undead themselves, refuses to die. It’s a series with a lot of baggage- for every amazing game with memorable characters, enemies and a decent story there are several titles that vary from bland with forgettable cardboard cutout casts or absolute dreck best forgotten, and yet so much of it is canon. Until last year I maintained that it needed to be rebooted or killed off for good. Capcom instead released a P.T-esque free trial that updated with new content over time, and announced Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 7 Biohazard, or “Resident EVII. biohazard” as it calls itself has been heralded by many as a return to the series’ old school survival horror roots. People said that about The Evil Within too though, so I was skeptical of this whole enterprise. For those unaware of Resi’s trajectory it started off with limited ammo, lots of puzzles and tank controls, moved on to horror action with Resi 4, then became far too actiony and completely fell apart. In short it would take something huge to get things back on track. Does it pay off? Or is it the final nail in the coffin?
You are Ethan Winters, faceless white man and a hardline opponent to the classic “Don’t go in there/touch that” school of horror thought, who after thinking his wife Mia has been dead for three years receives an email (a lot less flowery than the letter James Sunderland got) telling him to go get her from a farm in rural Louisiana. Turns out that was a bad move, and he ends up deep in True Detective country and at the mercy of the violent, cannibalistic and seemingly invincible Baker family, who are really annoyed at him not eating the plate of guts they made specially. Giving any further details on the story would spoil it, though I can say that everything in the plot that isn’t Ethan, Mia and the Bakers is weak. Not terrible, but boring, a tad cliched and generally not as good as the core dynamic between mad Hillbilly and captive; the third act sticks out like a sore thumb and has you running around a new area for about an hour learning a bit about the plot only for the game to tell you that now it’s time to go back to the Baker mansion and fight the final boss, who I actually quite like, so at least it ends well. The game makes good use of its influences and inspirations; the Texas Chainsaw Massacre connection is well established, but I was surprised how much parts of the game felt like the first two Evil Dead films (much to the game’s benefit- the opening twenty minutes or so make up the best Evil Dead game ever made), and the game has a touch of True Detective about it- in particular the opening shot of Ethan driving past a huge swamp, showing that Louisiana is a beautiful but haunting place with a whole lot of room for horrible people to do horrible things and never be found.
As I said earlier people have touted Resi 7 as a return to its roots, and I can confirm that for the most part that is accurate. Themed keys, puzzles based on eccentric architecture (The Bakers are fond of doors that are opened with shadows, of all things), enemies that are often better avoided than fought and limited inventory space return. The first person view definitely makes the game more tense, but personally I didn’t find it particularly scary at all, though not for lack of trying, and the horror here is strong. Fears that it would play like Outlast and Alien Isolation are assuaged; there are no hiding spots, and running from enemies is a strategic manoeuvre rather than your only survival option, and you’ll often be running past them rather than away from them. For the most part it really does feel like classic Resi, particularly the Baker estate’s main house and the dilapidated “Old House” which are reminiscent of REmake’s Spencer mansion and residence. You can defend yourself but sometimes it’s best to run. There are puzzles and exploration, and boss fights that for the most part are really rather good, apart from one later on that’s a pain in the arse. The improved combat makes it feel like Resi 4 through the lens of REmake. The shooting is solid and fighting off the Bakers is fun, but attention must be drawn to the games more expendable enemy: The Moulded. Simply put The Moulded are sludge monsters. They shamble like the Regeneradors from Resi 4, they look a bit like the leech man from Resi Outbreak, and apart from their initial appearance in the main house they’re boring and fighting them is no fun. Personally I would have preferred zombies or something similar, but things certainly could have been worse, and there are aspects of The Moulded I like; their ability to suddenly materialise from ooze covering the walls is both thematically relevant to where they come from and makes it seem like they’re almost a virus infecting the house itself, one that the Bakers aren’t aware of or don’t care about.
It’s quite a short game; it took me just over six and a half hours to beat on normal difficulty, and unfortunately due to the weak third act it feels like all the great stuff rushes by and just as you realise it you’re stuck with mediocrity and sludge monsters, pottering about until the admittedly good final boss and an ending revelation tied into the series as a whole that I would like if this was a reboot but apparently it’s set after Resi 6, so it’ll need some explaining. Fortunately as the game advertised just after its own ending credits there’s FREE ADDITIONAL CONTENT COMING SOON so that should clear things up.
Overall Resident Evil 7 is a treat. It’s quite a short journey and the third act feels like it belongs in a different, much less interesting Resi game but the majority of it is genuinely fantastic, and as a whole it’s the best game in the series since Resi 4, which came out twelve years ago. Somehow, miraculously Capcom managed to save the series, making a game that’s part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, part Evil Dead and a whole lot of classic, good Resi. A proper return to form for the series and a great way to start 2017.
By James Lambert