I’ve picked a good time to bring myself up to date with modern gaming; older franchises that I thought were past their expiry date are getting a second wind. And so it is with Resident Evil, a once genre-defining series that seemed content to fritter itself away into mediocrity and irrelevance by transforming itself into yet another generic shoot-em-up. But Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (or, as it is called in Japan, Biohazard 7: Resident Evil) is a surprising return to form in the literal sense that Capcom wanted to go back to the good old days of survival horror and actually had the know-how to pull it off. It’s heartening to see a new example of a beloved subgenre I had considered long dead, and even more heartening to see a major developer like Capcom crank it out. It’s a good game, although I have some reservations that prevent it from being the ultimate survival horror Renaissance that it almost is.
Resident Evil 7 centers around Ethan Winters, whose wife Mia has been missing for three years. A mysterious message from her points him in the direction of a run-down Louisiana plantation owned by the Baker family. When he decides to investigate he quickly gets captured by the Bakers. It turns out that they are a bunch of insane cannibals with mysterious powers seemingly granting them immortality. So it’s up to Ethan to escape with his wife and maybe unravel just what’s been going on these past three years in the process.
The rather simple presence indicates just how back to basics RE7 is for the series: you’re trapped in a spooky location with some extremely undesirable company and need to escape. You’ve got limited resources, limited space for resources, and too many enemies to just blast your way through. Exploration unfolds in the traditional adventure game format of scouring the area looking for clues and keys, occasionally solving an obtuse puzzle. Although the perspective has shifted to first person as opposed to the more cinematic look that the older games went for, the game never really feels like a modern shooter; instead it only serves to make more explicit the survival horror genre’s debt to older puzzle based fare like Myst.
And it’s all great. The plantation is some inspired level design, and there’s something very fulfilling about the idea of the game world as a puzzle you gradually unlock. And adding to that the tension of having to play cat-and-mouse games with the likes of Jack and Marguerite Baker makes for some memorable moments.
The game’s story also gives a good sense of how the game pulls the franchise back to straight-up horror. In that regard it may perhaps be the most impressive facsimile of American horror movie tropes in a Japanese game – in both a good and bad sense.
First, the bad. Resident Evil has always been a gruesome series, and while RE7 isn’t noticeably gorier than past entries it does at times feel tonally different in how this stuff gets presented. Some of the more violent moments felt more nakedly exploitative and mean-spirited, like it was much more intent on assaulting you with the misery on display. I get that the game is deliberately trying to ape the feel of a trashy 70s/80s slasher flick, but its a vein of horror that doesn’t appeal much to me.
Compounding this is Ethan himself. Previous Resident Evil protagonists had a kind of campy, b movie charm to them. Ethan on the other hand is crass and gritty, but doesn’t have much personality to him. I’m not one to harp much on vulgarity, but in this case Ethan’s constant stream of profanity throughout the game just felt like lazy writing. It’s just a thin layer of paint over a pretty bland character. The cornball dialogue of previous games was also lazy but it was much more endearing and fun:
What works a lot more for me is the massive amount of inspiration RE7 takes from the Evil Dead movies. The deranged Looney Toons mentality of Sam Raimi’s horror comedy eventually seeps into the game and manages to give a lot of the situations – the boss fights in particular – that feeling of manic absurdity which I love about those movies. It’s an impressive balancing act to push things to the point of becoming comedy without completely tipping over. By the final act the game has reached some pretty impressive heights, and manages to hold it all the way to the end credits. It’s over the top in all the right ways and managed to wash a lot of the bad taste some of the other moments left for me.
And those boss fights are something special too. Even Final Fantasy XV, for all I love about it, couldn’t resist the modern temptation to make most of its boss fights little more than semi-interactive cut-scenes. RE7’s bosses are some good old-fashioned, “we’ll put you into an enclosed space with this overpowered, horrible thing and see what happens.” Fun stuff.
I can’t quite say the same for the generic enemies you face throughout the game – these ugly, clay-like creatures called molded. They’re pretty generic, samey and the game almost always telegraphs their appearance. Given that previous games have featured some pretty impressive bestiaries, it’s a little disappointing to be facing the same guys over and over again all the way to the end.
But it’s not enough to erase the high points of the gameplay. Capcom, to my surprise, still knows how to do survival horror. And, if the game’s reception is an indication, there’s also a sizable audience for it too. It makes me feel hopeful for the Resident Evil 2 remake that’s apparently in the works – a well executed face lift of that game could be the greatest survival horror game ever.