Spoiler Warning: I have tried to avoid spoiling major plot points, but I do mention and hint at some in game events… You have been warned.
Horror isn’t something that I would normally list amongst my interests; if someone suggested a horror movie to me then I’d likely scrunch up my nose slightly and suggest we watch Jurassic Park … again… but taking a more objective view, many of the games and movies I enjoy have horror aspects to them. Anyone who happens to have taken a passing stroll past my blog in the past will know that I’m a huge fan of the original Resident Evil trilogy for PS1 and upon hearing that the seventh instalment was a return to form for the series, I finally plucked up the courage to take a look.
… and I do mean plucked up the courage! I’ve been wanting to play this game since it was released, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed less of a stomach for outright horror, or maybe it’s just that horror has become more visceral in its presentation with improving technology. Either way, Resident Evil 7 did involve me playing for short bursts with breaks inbetween…
Not only does Resident Evil (or Biohazard) boast a list of seven core games, there has been a multitude of spin offs, re-imaginings, and even sub-series that make it a vast volume of work. I lost interest in the core games around the heavily praised Resident Evil 4, which is where many people picked up the series. I’ve spoken before about how that particular title failed to win me over with a more action heavy “videogamey” experience that in my eyes didn’t reflect the games that I’d come to love. As the reviews for RE7 rolled in, I was drawn by the reports that it was a fresh start for the series going back to its roots. Having now played it I can say that it is an excellent, often sweat inducing, experience that delivers that special kind of uncomfortable enjoyment and I have decided to take some time picking over it and discussing how it compares to the original titles in the Resident Evil series.
From a gameplay point of view, there are many elements that RE7 takes from the original games. Long time fans will recognise the gradual exploration of a confined location including extensive backtracking and retreading of old paths. That thought of “Oh, I remember there was a thing in that room that I could use this on” is quintessentially Resident Evil and this seventh instalment carried on that tradition, including door unlocks through a series of themed keys and typically obscure and convoluted methods to unlock areas.
I enjoyed the self-aware nod when the player happens upon an invoice for one such puzzle, acknowledging that the Baker family must’ve had someone come and install a brand-new awkward shadow puzzle in their home.
This sense of confinement is heightened in RE7; the main hall of the Baker residence echoes that of the Spencer Estate from the original game, but it’s not the same sprawling mansion with winding corridors and multiple studies. The main house here feels close and oppressive, rooms are small and cluttered with bizarre, unsettling, reminders of its occupants’ activities. The new first person perspective (replacing the fixed camera 3rd person of the originals) only heightens this by restricting the player’s view and escalating the tension with every cautious peek around a corner or tentative door opening. How anyone would manage to play this in VR without at some point ripping the headset off is beyond me; I struggled to keep calm playing on PC with headphones thanks to the combination of the new viewpoint, a house that creaks & rattles in a way that you know that there is something lumbering around in the next room, and our unfortunate protagonist’s panicked breathing.
It’s not just the layout and exploration that feels familiar, the entire game arc fits that of the original titles: Explore a core area; move to a second smaller area, return to the core area (with newly spawned enemies); finally proceed through a more linear section to the game’s conclusion (via. sketchy lab). It’s unsurprising that there was some speculation that this might be a series reboot (it’s not – there is reference to the previous events in Raccoon City), so many elements are analogous to that original outing including the classic shotgun holder puzzle and liberal crank usage. The “Old House” location specifically reminded me of the outbuildings in the original Resident Evil with both featuring the first appearance of spiders (admittedly on different scales), irritating hives of insects, and both filling the role of secondary location before the player had to return to finish unlocking rooms in the core game area.
These gameplay aspects might remind the player of the original, but where this grizzly title shines is in its renewed commitment to the genre “Survival Horror”. RE7 has shunned the more action heavy leaning of the recent outings and focused the player on simply surviving the ordeal; each enemy encounter is a battle and resource limitations make the decision to fight or run a tough call (although it does get a little more liberal as the game progresses). Where the original games had little more than creepy music and jump-scares, RE7 guides the player through a multitude of interpretations of the term “Horror” with the Baker Family ably filling the leading roles. There is the persistent tension of being able to hear movement in the house backed up by an occasionally unexpected encounter with some form of monster. Jack Baker in particular personifies the concept of an unstoppable malevolent force and is truly nightmarish at times. There are outlandishly gory and grizzly moments as well as the old trope of juxtaposing childhood imagery with dark settings. The well-timed jump-scares made me visibly flinch and a sense of impending, but inescapable, danger built by Travis’ “games” which added a new angle at just the right moment. Overall Re7 is superbly paced with sections of escalating tension building to moments of intense action followed by a period of calm, just long enough for the next build to carry the same weight…
…And should it all get too much, the warm glow and gentle, reassuring, melody of a “safe room” provides much needed respite and period of reflection.
The plot is also a step up from that first expedition into the Spencer Mansion. Back in 1996 the idea of a game being presented with a “movie-style” plot was much less common that it is now, but looking back it’s not an aspect of the game that has aged well*. RE7 presents a solid plot with enough twists and turns to keep the player interested although it’s delivery is arguably more interesting than the content. One striking thing is that there are few cut-scenes and the story is exclusively delivered in the first person through the eyes of a protagonist, this helps cement the sense of immersion, especially considering that it is a game that enjoyed a VR release. The second unique method of plot delivery are the (largely) optional videotapes that put the player into the shoes of a different character to live out some past events. They’re neat interludes that not only expand upon the world, but give the player hints as to upcoming puzzles and break up the linear nature of the game. Aside from these direct methods of content delivery, RE7 fills much of the surrounding flavour with in-game documents, objects, and dilapidated state of the world presented. I’ve remarked before how I enjoy this type of storytelling where some of the detail is left for the player to discover at their leisure without necessary being presented with it.
Even as a self-confessed irrational fan of the originals I was impressed with RE7 as an addition to the series, but despite this there were a few weak areas largely towards the end of the game. The final cutscene (although I’ve only seen ending one so far) is jarringly cheesy and unnecessary; for a game that starts with such little fanfare, the epilogue voiceover could have happily been omitted. One of the game’s closing sections involves a stroll through some underground tunnels which is needed to round out the plot, but came across as bland and lacking the anticipated ramp up of excitement for the game’s finale. Likewise, I was disappointed at Travis’ story not being “resolved” although this may have been left hanging intentionally. In hindsight these are minor complaints and the overall experience, particularly in the first half of the game, of RE7 is excellent.
Hopefully I’ll get around to checking out the free DLC chapter that was provided with the game, and I may even invest in some of the other DLC additions to round out the experience. It’s a game that deserves the praise its received and compliments the original concept… despite there not being any red herbs… red herbs were my favourite…
*The original voice acting hasn’t aged well either but it barely passed in ’96…