Survival horror has been a genre that flourished at one point and then made a turn to the action horror genre before having seemingly perished into oblivion. Games like Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill offered creepy atmospheric horror coupled with a finite supply of weapons. Dead Space ushered in what many said to be the comeback of true survival horror but then gave way to an increased action quotient, turning off some except the die-hard few. We’ve had some atmospheric gems here and there with the likes of games such as Amnesia or Slenderman and a few others, but no game is synonymous, no game bigger or more representative of the survival horror genre than Resident Evil. Covering over now seven games in the main series and some collective spin-offs here and there, Resident Evil has seen the rise and fall of the genre in its storied career as a series. The ebb and flow of good and bad can be seen across nearly all of its titles; from the amazing entries like Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4, to the ones that missed the mark like Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Resident Evil 6. So it’s with no surprise that Resident Evil 7: Biohazard comes at a time where a lot of gamers don’t know where the genre can go, let alone the franchise. The recent games have left fans of the series with a bitter taste in their mouth, content to write the series off as stale and uninspiring and leaning too much towards the action quotient and forgetting its roots. It looks like CAPCOM felt the same way too, and Resident Evil 7 marks a return to form, clawing and scratching the whole way through its 6 to 10 hour campaign (or under 4 if you’re a speed run guy like myself). The horror has returned and Resident Evil 7 marks not just a return of the franchise, but a true return of survival horror in its purest form even with some design and story setbacks.
Resident Evil has you play as Ethan who is searching for his missing wife in a Louisiana swamp. The first hour or so of the game works to set the tone for the rest of the game. A slow burn with a small cast of characters and a central location all work to provide a gentle sense of creepiness that suddenly turns into a splendorous mess of horror. It comes so perfectly that it leaves you reeling and spinning and serves to cement that you are a small human being in a situation that you possibly cannot get out of. That the game plays out in a first person perspective adds to this delivery and slowly puts the survival back into survival horror. You almost always have to MacGuyver your way out of the monster and boss encounters found within the game and each serve as a way to challenge not just your thinking process but even your skills as a gamer. If there is anything this game does extremely well, it is that it creates a rich tone and atmosphere of a bleak and truly horrific circumstance, complete with a house that is falling apart and filled with horrors from slimed up surfaces to blood and guts and extreme amounts of body horror. The gore works so well thanks to its spare use throughout the game and amplifies the creep factor to where you wonder what it is you are standing in at one point of the game.
The small scale of the setting and cast work to create something that hasn’t been felt in the genre in a long time and that is that sense of true, personal, intimate horror. The Baker family which are your primary antagonists throughout the game are the main quartet of villainy and then there are the creatures known as the Molded, human shaped things made out of teeth and bone and mold and take a crap ton of bullets to fell. Outside of dealing with the nefarious family, RE7 is content to sprinkle encounters with just one or two people throughout the game, whether it be the Bakers themselves or the few others that try to aid you in your quest. A lot of the play time is given to the family who are definitely the real stars of the show. From evil dad Jack and his redneck caveman attitude to sinister mother Marguerite with her screech of death and their son Lucas who has a great moment in one of the game’s better story driven sequences; all the members of the family shine through their respective set piece encounters. Most of these battles are in tight, enclosed spaces and small corridors and add to the tension. Couple that with the occasional jump scare sprinkled throughout and you have a horror game that always leaves you anticipating the next scream or gasp from your own set of lungs. Backtracking and looping around through the house happens frequently and no two trips through previously thought safe rooms are the same.
Amplifying the atmospheric tension is the sound design and music that comes in during the more climactic moments that also aid in generating what has often been missing in survival horror games. Hearing your footsteps against the creaky wooden floors, the rhythmic breathing of Jack as he chases you through an area, the disgusting squish as your knife plunges into whatever it is that covers the Molded or the groans that they make when you shoot them are all wonderfully done. The game is mostly silent when it comes to the music though, but amps up during some of the tense set piece Molded fights and boss battles. Its an aural treat that further amplifies how amazing the game looks, and if there was a large take away from this game is that its visual and aural offering are some of the best of the series and of gaming in general.
If I sound overwhelmingly positive that is only because Resident Evil 7 managed to surpass my expectations in the areas I have described thus far. There are a few things it doesn’t do well unfortunately and the biggest area of gripe can be found in the game’s boss fights. While some of the battles are the most brilliant and challenging fights to date in a Resident Evil game, others are just outright frustrating thanks to limited to no visual cues that you are doing it right. Some of the fights, once you figure out what it is you actually have to do, become so easy that in repeated runs you wonder why you got stuck on it in the first place and often it is because of poor visual design and the lack of any type of feedback that what you are doing to the boss is actually hurting it. There are also some awfully done sections in the game, chiefly an insta-death stealth section that outright kills the pacing of the game and then towards the climax of the game a choice needs to be made and both options are so out of character for the way the story builds up the players involved you’re left scratching your head and what just happened. It gets further impounded when after a repeated play through, either option literally picks up from where the opposite choice would have brought you to anyways, making it feel as if absolutely nothing worthwhile happened at all except for one key point. These stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise brilliant game and only compound it heavily because of how amazing everything else is so that the flaws are like a rude highlight amongst the dark and dreary offerings found within. I’ve stayed away from any kind of story spoilers as it is perhaps the most novel thing in the game despite the weird choice bit towards the end. It is a grand mystery, full of new things and some Resident Evil nostalgia for keen eyed gamers who are no doubt on forums around formulating theories on how it is all connected thanks to the memos found in game that serve to tie in the previous games. While I appreciated them, I also felt it was a little weak that outside of the ending, there was very little to cement this as a Resident Evil title outside of the name and some occasional clues.
Resident Evil 7 also offers PlayStation VR support, and if there was any game that could be considered a showcase for how VR works in an atmospheric way, it is this one. This is the game you force your friends to play through to test out VR as the music, atmosphere and creepiness are further enhanced with how the game mimics your dizziness in game as if you were realistically Ethan. It’s the first time I actually got sick playing VR, mostly because of how vivid the character movement and graphical detail are. I swear if they came out with some way to smell what is in the game, I think players would be actually sick to their stomachs going through this one.
Regardless of how you choose to play Resident Evil 7, one thing is for sure: Resident Evil, and with it survival horror, is back and ready to drag you kicking and screaming through a sickening and twisted tour de force. Mixing modern horror ideas with some old school flair, an engaging cast of characters and a fantastic sense of atmosphere; Resident Evil 7 is the first grand game of 2017, probably the best Resident Evil game since 2 and is an essential piece of any gamer’s collection and an absolute must have title. It is a fresh start to a series and while it doesn't come across as a reboot, it does enough to feel reinvigorated and new while blending the storylines of the old and new games. The genre was in desperate need of a revival, and who better to do it than one of the godfathers of the survival horror medium itself.