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Reinvention is a tricky business. Once a gaming franchise establishes a reputation, it’s hard to move outside of that mold, much less convince players of the change. Since E3 2016, Capcom has gone to great lengths proving to consumers that the Resident Evil series is an altered beast. The first real indication that Capcom wasn’t blowing hot air was the Beginning Hour demo, a tight, intriguing, and truly terrifying slice of gameplay that told me Resident Evil had kept its promises and would return a changed series; something different and more terrifying than the lackluster Resident Evil 6. Thankfully, my faith was rewarded. Resident Evil 7 is a game which returns to the franchise’s roots and then transcends them to become one of the best horror games in recent memory, and certainly the best Resident Evil title since 4.
The game begins as you, Ethan, receive a desperate transmission from your wife Mia three years after her unexplained disappearance. In true horror fashion, the tearful video comes with a single warning: stay away. Of course, the intrigue provided by Mia’s supposed return proves too overwhelming for Ethan, and you soon find yourself speeding down a Louisiana highway into the heart of darkness- the Baker estate. What follows will initially be familiar to anyone who’s seen the game’s trailers, promotional material, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Arriving at a decrepit homestead deep in the midst of fetid swampland, Ethan is abducted by the Baker family of cannibal miscreants and given the “welcome to the family” treatment. Cue the screaming.
Thankfully, the explicit cues from Western horror films stop here. Sure, Resident Evil 7 is full of death, dismemberment, and degradation, but the game owes just as much to setting and atmosphere than to explicit bloodshed. Once Ethan is free to roam, the game reveals its true star: the Baker estate itself. Those who played and replayed the Beginning Hour demo might find it a cruel twist of fate that the tiny, terrifying abode featured in the demo is only the first and least significant of three dingy domiciles which comprise the Baker’s miniature kingdom. In a move out of the “Uncanniness For Beginners” handbook, players of the demo will notice that not only is this guest house somewhat different than its Beginning Hour incarnation, but that it also has a few new secret tricks up its sleeve.
“Tricks” is a proper term in reference to the Baker estate, as it contains no end of them. About two-thirds of Resident Evil 7 takes place amongst the Baker residence, and I felt like I came to appreciate the stifling space more than someone trying to escape it probably should. In the game’s clearest throwback to the original Resident Evil, your time will be spent solving puzzles and criss-crossing between the houses to pick up items and resolve objectives. Within these walls, the game is so brilliantly constructed and paced that it seems to fly by, and it’s almost a disappointment when you finally manage to leave it.
That’s not to say your time in the Baker’s home will be enjoyable, as the game is fraught with confrontations which are more likely to leave you gasping for breath than celebrating your victory. With a tiny inventory space and limited firepower, almost every encounter with the game’s enemies becomes a dire fight for survival. Thankfully, Ethan has a few tricks of his own. Aside from the first-person perspective, many mechanics from previous Resident Evil titles are retained, such as collecting herbs and the all-important quick turn. Along with the simplistic crafting system for more powerful ammo and healing items, mastering these basic mechanics will be your ticket to survival. You’ll need all the help you can get, as most of the boss fights end up as intense bouts of white-knuckle desperation. The big battles in Resident Evil 7 usually happen abruptly and without much fanfare, and the disinterest with which the game treats them comes across as much more terrifying than any scare music or build-up possibly could.
Speaking of scares, I was truly impressed with the scope of terrors Resident Evil 7 manages to encompass. In the first hour alone, the building atmosphere of Ethan’s initial exploration of the Baker estate is complimented by the aggressive terror of a sudden, unstoppable assault, as well as the gross-out factor of chainsaw dismemberment and impromptu surgery. The game goes on to include more ghostly lo-fi VHS levels, Saw-style trap puzzles, and the worst animation ever for anyone with a fear of being covered in spiders. Some of the scares are brilliantly subtle, such as a shopping receipt for a saw, rope, and twenty dog collars. It all happens under the roof of the Baker estate, which unfolds like a blood-caked puzzle box. No matter what frightens you, Resident Evil 7 has your poison, and I loved every hair-raising second of it.
Unlike pieces of horror media which drop the ball upon explaining why their monsters are scary, Resident Evil 7 keeps up the creep factor of the Bakers even after it drops the curtain behind them. There’s a reason for the Baker’s current status as cackling cannibals, and anyone with a working knowledge of the Resident Evil franchise or the implications of the subtitle “Biohazard” can most likely guess why. I personally enjoyed how the game connected itself to the larger franchise, as it manifested less as the international corporate viral conspiracy of previous games, and more as a queasy, tinfoil hat distrust of the ambiguous and fallible powers-that-be.
Aside from the final moments of Resident Evil 7, explicit references to a certain famous corporation are kept scant. Some people might dislike the game for this overall disconnection from the larger franchise, but I think it works wonders for the reinvention angle Capcom aimed for. Sure, the narrative gives plenty of context for what’s going on, but a lot of the implications to the game’s position in the larger franchise remain exactly that. Although your mileage may vary on the game’s ultimate path, depending on whether you’re a longtime Resident Evil fan or someone who jumped on the train for this installment, I think the narrative adds a touch of welcome depth and intrigue to what might have been a flat take on Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
In addition, opinion might vary on the game’s length. At first, I believed Resident Evil 7 would be around a sixteen hour game, roughly equivalent to my first playthrough of Resident Evil 4. As reviews began to drop, many said that the experience was actually ten to twelve hours, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly completed the game in a mere seven hours and thirty-four minutes. I’ll admit, I didn’t spend much time looking for secrets, but I didn’t feel like I blazed through the game either. Even stopping to smell the roses, the whole of Resident Evil 7 will probably take about ten hours to beat on a first run. Looking back past my initial shock, I commend Capcom’s ability to present such a tight and focused narrative. Not a moment is wasted in moving the plot of Resident Evil 7, and nothing feels extraneous or slow. Even the game’s two fairly similar endings are cut and dry, as an explicit player choice telegraphs what’s in store for Ethan by the night’s conclusion.
The only shame is that once Resident Evil 7 moves away from the Baker home, the game momentarily stumbles. As the camera pulls out from the family of murderers to connect red string on the proverbial corkboard of the narrative, the focus shifts and some of the sheer terror is softened. The problem is less in the narrative turn and more in the game’s change of physical location. Before one final return to the Baker estate, you’ll be spending the game’s last third or so on a derelict ocean liner and in the bowels of a salt mine. By franchise standards, these are fitting locations for a Resident Evil game, and they certainly carry their own touch of horror. The ocean liner is an uncertain exploration into rust-stained darkness, and the mines extend the sense of claustrophobia found in smaller passages of the Baker houses. However, neither location is injected with the same venomous allure as the sprawling intricacy of the Baker estate. They aren’t bad levels by any means, but their linear nature and lack of unique flair can’t maintain the mastery of the game’s mainstage location.
Then again, not much can. For its first two-thirds, Resident Evil 7 is a masterwork of horror games and of the Resident Evil franchise. The game tunnels back in time to its franchise roots and resurrects the “puzzle house” approach, while also injecting it with a fresh dose of modern, grueling horror that transcends anything as paltry as a “back to basics” formula. Even when the terror relaxes its chokehold in the final stretch, Resident Evil 7 is a consistently tense and well-paced game that’s just similar enough to be part of the franchise, but different enough to be the reinvention that fans and newcomers alike have hoped for. Capcom has learned its lesson from Resident Evil 6, and for the first time in a long time, the future of the Resident Evil franchise is an exciting one.
Final note: for me, the most jarring moment of this game was seeing how accurately Capcom modeled a Texas driver’s license. It’s the little things that count.