Resident Evil VII Review
A major key to effective horror is subtlety. It may be the most important aspect the genre can practice, across any and all mediums. Video games are certainly no exception, and history has shown that the more subtle, inventive approach to wriggling within the skin of an audience illustrates a sophisticated understanding of the human psyche. This is largely why the most effective horror experiences are usually predicated around psychological or existential horror; these titles build upon common themes regarding devastation of the mind rather than the flesh, culminating in an experience more interested in suggesting violence or decay than actually imposing it.
P.T. may be the most important release of the current generation. While billed as a demo (“playable teaser”), for a title which tragically shall never come to fruition, it remains one of the most suggestive horror experiences to be had on a console platform. Meditating on the terrific influence of guilt upon one’s sanity, the game places the player within the shoes of a killer, who roams the increasingly-virulent halls of his once-innocuous home, endlessly searching for some sort of closure which never comes. It is this cycle of decay which ultimately suggests the immortality of immoral consequences — ie. a living Hell — an inescapable purgatory filled with endless enigmas, secrets, and repulsive reminders.
But it is important to recognize how we have arrived at this contemporary approach to storytelling through level design. The original Resident Evil remains a wildly-innovative product; arguably the very foundation by which all modern survival horror game conventions exist. Tackling the adventure game genre with an air of dismay, the constant uncertainty indelibly captured within the walls of the mysterious mansion bring an intensity to the familiar slow-burn style. Quick-thinking is as vital a player contribution as methodical management (both environmental and item-based). An improper system of progression may easily back the player into a corner, so to speak, especially given the limited resources available throughout — be it ammunition, health items, or even the number of saves.
So imagine a game attempting to bridge the modern ideals formulated within P.T. with the fundamental traditional systems founded by Resident Evil; a title seeking to build off the successful foundations of survival horror’s past in efforts to deliver a more fundamentally modern core experience. Enter Resident Evil VII, a flawed yet ecstatically-ambitious work, which very well may be the series’s finest entry in over a decade.
Upon arrival at the Baker house, a dilapidated yet mechanically-sophisticated Louisiana mini-mansion, I am enveloped in a wave of nostalgia. A first-person perspective may blur the connections to the series’s roots, but there is no denying the parallelism of wandering through a nearly-naked forest only to eventually reach a threatening household. If this scene conjures a familiarity to Resident Evil 4, then eventually accessing the Main Hall — nearly an exact smaller-scale replica of the Spencer Mansion’s entrance — immediately recalls the premiere title. These reminders are clearly intentional, however the developers cautiously approach this method of design without a hint of gratuitously pandering to those memories. Instead it works to further appropriate bridging the old with the new.
Capcom have greatly achieved this goal. The puzzle aspects, gameplay, and modes of progression are ripped straight from the first Resident Evil, the only difference being a change of perspective. And this change does not feel contrived; instead it offers even further a sense of tension, contributing to the claustrophobia and restrictions inherent in those earlier titles. If survival horror revolves around a player’s lack of authority over the intimidating environments and their inhabitants surrounding them, then the backbone of Resident Evil VII’s design appropriately situates the player within a world where they feel utterly human — despite a certain mortal change to the rules, which actually reinforces their affliction to damage with a sense of sci-fi believability.
Ethan is not trained in armed combat such as Jill, Chris, or Leon; instead he is a desperate man in search of his wife, trapped in an oppressive and decaying bayou nightmare, with a complicated though limited arsenal at his disposal. Whereas control in the first three titles was more lenient, targeting enemies in RE7 recalls RE4’s aiming system, yet somehow even more obtuse. Landing a shot therefore feels all the more satisfying, an achievement each and every time an enemy is staggered by a bullet to the head.
Every aspect of the control scheme is exquisitely updated: one button instantly uses health vials; opening the inventory no longer pauses the game, maintaining a constant intensity especially during confrontations; blocking becomes a necessary means of survival when arduously navigating through vicious attacks, but mastering its functionality takes precise timing and an understanding of enemy strike patterns.
Level construction captures an equally sufficient sophistication, each story sequence taking full advantage of the smaller though complex setting. Locations are revisited but feature entirely separate instigations; linearity may fuel a few sequences, yet prove consistently arousing through scripted events focused on a more cinematic approach to the storytelling; environments evolve, giving the impression that Ethan — and therefore the player’s — very presence is having a direct effect on narrative progression.
There are a bevy of secrets to uncover, mysteries to reveal behind every locked door, new monstrosities to confront always just around the next corner. A significant aspect of the Resident Evil experience has always been coordinating the most appropriate response to any given situation. Enemy encounters alike can appear as a puzzle to solve on their own, prompting the player to question whether one zombie is worth the ammunition.
Since backtracking between different settings is a fundamental design element, considering the most effective means of travelling to and from locations — save rooms, unlockable areas, etc. — becomes in itself a player-enacted riddle. What is perhaps most remarkable is how consistent this focus remains throughout the game’s entirety. But this is nothing new; instead Capcom focus their energies on refining this core gameplay concept and expanding upon the intricacies of every other aspect.
Boss fights are possibly at their strongest they’ve ever been. An early confrontation with the dreadful Jack Baker features a multitude of outcomes depending on the player’s keen experimentation, all taking place within the contexts of a cramped garage. Later on, a locked room, inaccessible at first, houses a weapon suitable to easily defeating Marguerite in her spider-like form; though only the most perceptive player will recognize it as eventually attainable after obtaining the correct key. And though certain boss fights can feel frustrating, it retains a testament to the intensity which so stimulates each encounter, forcing the player to be quick to judge and respond to whatever the game unexpectedly throws out at them.
So yes, the story and its chronology of events allow the gameplay and overall design to shine beautifully. But given how ridiculously intricate much of the lore surrounding the original games often feels, it’s a shame that this successor fails to provide anything nearly as blissfully complicated. RE7’s main storyline is rather cut-and-dry, with plenty of intrigue involving the family’s experiments gone awry, but no answers compelling enough to warrant further provocation.
Ethan is not a very interesting character, nor are his motivations uncommon to traditional survival horror storytelling — in fact, perhaps the “search for dead wife” trope is purposefully borrowed from the far more invested Silent Hill 2 as another means of highlighting past influences without overstating their involvement. He exists as an everyman, but without any complicated ruminations allowing him credibility or personality. The subtle intricacies surrounding James Sunderland’s past are what elevate him from the everyday persona to that of a significant character worth examination.
The Baker family members themselves meanwhile also lack unique characteristics which allow them to succeed as truly menacing figures. They offer little motivation for their acts of heinous violence towards the protagonist and others besides simply a necessity to appear menacing. But this only succeeds when the performance successfully captures such menacing portrayal; and while both Jack and Marguerite are convincingly portrayed, Lucas unfortunately fails to emit the believable insanity so fueling his technologically-motivated mind.
Subtle suggestions alluding to the family’s history clutter the explorable environments wonderfully, often even connecting to the puzzle solving elements of gameplay. They suggest humanity hiding beneath the layers of rotting, seemingly-immortal flesh which further elicits a genuine air of monstrosity. Unfortunately, these subtle hints prove far more invested in characterizing the villains, as opposed to directly confronting them in-game.
The writing issues extend to permitting Ethan a voice and thought process. Opening a pot of rotting food and cockroaches evinces voiced expletive and panic from the character, however stumbling upon a disturbing composition of sawblades and severed horse legs elicits not a peep. Similar instances happen throughout the game. Dialogue cutscenes can prove just as detrimental to separating player from character; an early scene where Ethan begs a police officer to help him without properly explaining his dire situation nearly had me yelling at the screen. The level of inconsistency is truly bothersome and fails to capture a digestible and cohesive foundation of incentive for the character.
Fortunately for the game, few problems arise in functionality. The only real issue can stem from a bothersome health mechanic where the screen indicates damage by gradually filling with blood. In theory the mechanic works wonders, however in execution it comes across as more of an annoyance than a perturbation. But the focus on preserving that traditional developmental system of gameplay founded by the original RE titles is where the game most effectively provides its sophistication.
Meanwhile, a lack of subtlety in many scripted moments is where the game fundamentally most dramatically falters. The acute attention to implying modes of progression are hypocritically defaced of value when particular scenes force Ethan to shove his hand down a beheaded corpse’s throat, or display a character’s face viciously massacred by a shovel.
Much of the game is obviously (and consequently embarrassingly) constructed around the promotion of VR, a detriment to the lasting value of the title as well as its value to current players experiencing the game without the innovative tech — myself included. The game can feel like watching a 3D film, pandering to its new-age mechanics by throwing as much into the face of its audience as possible. But even VR still exists in equal playing field as modern controller functionality: the player is not actually experiencing shoving their fist down a dead man’s throat, even when the game seems hopelessly eager to convince them that they are.
Regardless, Resident Evil VII’s true fear effect arises prominently through its gameplay. A cautious approach to exploration is vital to player survival, and this not only reflects a modern update to the design of this title’s earliest predecessors, but effectively instigates an intelligent mode of development. If subtlety is indeed the most important element to providing a compelling survival horror experience, then Resident Evil VII excels in its functional execution, much moreso than its cinematic. And that is something worth celebrating.
The series seems to have finally matured beyond the limits of narrative lunacy; and though this takes away from the sheer elation of its more ridiculous entries — which often provided a necessary lightness to the overarching sinister plot — the newfound approach accurately mirrors the developers’ understanding that a change was indeed necessary. Gone are the incoherent, middling action sequences of the fifth and sixth entries; now, wandering the halls of the Baker home constantly arouses player engagement and awareness. It’s the most “resident” Resident Evil game in years, thanks to its smaller-scale (though focused) setting; and the human characteristics which come to define most of the inherent corruption within the Baker family makes the game possibly the most “evil” as well — a traditional definition, expressing a gradual decay of mind, body, and in this case, home.