The announcement of Resident Evil VII was one of the biggest surprises of E3 2016. The trailer that preceded the confident, orange ‘VII’ flashing up on screen looked nothing like the Resident Evil we’re used to: there were no zombies, no third-person and a heavy found-footage horror movie vibe. Some people decried the striking similarities to games like Amnesia, Outlast and Hideo Kojima’s short-lived Silent Hills experiment, PT. Others applauded the bold change of direction, claiming a shakeup of this magnitude was necessary after the series’ gradual decline in quality culminating in the widely disappointing Resident Evil 6. Whatever your opinion, it was clear that Resident Evil VII was going to mark a significant turning point for the franchise. So does it manage to bring a decaying series back from the dead? Or is it just another nail in its coffin?
Two things are immediately clear upon starting Resident Evil VII, the first is Capcom’s commitment to making this a fresh start. There’s no title screen (the first time you boot it up), no grizzled voice welcoming you with a “Resident Evil… SEVEN” and no long-winded intro. The second is that the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre must’ve been right at the top of the development teams research list. You play as a man called Ethan, who has recently received a message from his wife, Mia, who has been missing for the past three years. She’s sent him an address and pleads for him to come to her aid. And so begins your foray into the home of the very disturbed Baker family.
The house is as creepy as it is disgusting. Rotting food adorns nearly every surface in the kitchen, cockroaches and mice skitter about, gutted pigs lie around like pieces of furniture. The lighting and depth of field work wonders when it comes to immersion, with some areas rivaling PT’s incredibly realistic interiors. This game is tense, in part due to the switch to first-person, but the direction and environment design is also worthy of praise. Opening a door, looking down a stairwell into pitch blackness, taking one step at a time until suddenly you hear something moving up towards you… It’s absolutely spine-tingling. There’s plenty of jump scares too, but the horror veterans will no doubt see a lot of those coming. It’s the quieter moments that bring out Resident Evil VII’s most horrific qualities. The fear of the unknown, walking into a room filled with children’s toys, seeing a ball come bouncing out of the darkness and having no idea what you’re about to find. Body horror is also in plentiful supply, and while it is certainly disturbing, it never feels cheap or out-of-place.
So how does it play? There are sections that are reminiscent of games like Outlast, but there’s also a lot of classic Resident Evil to be found in VII. The Baker family’s house is quite large, with a plethora of puzzles to solve, doors to unlock and items to find. There’s a solid section of this game that plays like a best-of mixtape of Resident Evil 1. Other series tropes like inventory management, combining items and safe rooms all make a return and all work as you would expect.
Peppered throughout are boss encounters, most of which are set in poorly-designed, cramped arenas. Trying to deal damage while also avoiding attacks felt very counter-intuitive in first-person. One fight involving a unique weapon had me die upwards of eight times before the button prompts showed up. I wasn’t using the weapon to its full potential and so wasn’t doing the intended amount of damage which just led to me getting killed over and over. Some of these encounters are worse than others, but none of them are particularly enjoyable or creative.
Playing a guy trying to save his wife from the bad guys isn’t the most original premise ever, and while there are some twists on that formula, by the end that central relationship remains as clichéd as you might expect. There is of course more going on behind the scenes but unfortunately every avenue Resident Evil VII explores is either similarly familiar or highly telegraphed. There was a glorious period of say, 4-5 hours where I was on horror cloud-nine. Exploring this throwback mansion, solving puzzles, running from hideous creatures and holding my breath as I opened each door. But then the game shifts gears and becomes a rather unsubtle mix of Condemned: Criminal Origins and FEAR, with a smidge of The Evil Within. That’s not to say the game becomes unenjoyable or tedious, it just doesn’t maintain the intrigue of the first half.
Like a lot of modern horror films, it suffers from a lackluster third act. Great setup, but fails to deliver in an entirely satisfying way. A significant part of this feeling stems from the fact that it is a Resident Evil game, with all that that entails. My brain went into overdrive during the first few hours of this game, thinking about how it’ll all end up connecting to the overarching Resident Evil lore. There are definitely some concrete connections, don’t get me wrong, they’re just nothing to write home about. I am grateful for the general unobtrusiveness of the story and character elements. Flaws like patchy voice acting and cheesy dialogue are far less egregious when there’s simply less of it.
As already mentioned the brand new RE Engine is quite impressive. The lighting and depth of field are definite highlights, but both destruction and liquid physics on display were also striking. Blood and muck spurts and bubbles, walls splinter, enemies calcify and crumble to pieces. It all looks great and I’m excited to see what else they can do with these tools moving forward. Performance is fine, with no technical hiccups to mention whatsoever.
It’s always admirable when a developer is willing to take its flagship series in a new direction, especially one as well-known as Resident Evil. There’s much to enjoy with this seventh entry, and for a lot of people I’m sure simply being better than Resident Evil 6 will be enough to warrant a purchase. Threading together elements of classic Resident Evil with more modern horror games like Outlast appears to be a mix that works, it just doesn’t produce a game that feels confident enough to be the next big step for the franchise. Instead, it feels like an experiment. A fun, chilling and tense experiment, but an experiment nonetheless.
Resident Evil VII was reviewed with a PS4 code provided by the publisher.