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Resident Evil 7 is a survival horror game available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock revvs up his chainsaw for this ComiConverse review.
Game Review: Resident Evil 7 Biohazard
Over 20 years ago, Resident Evil was the game which first coined the phrase “survival horror”. In it, the player ran around a zombie-infested mansion trying to survive, occasionally sharing hilariously bad voice acting with other melodramatic characters. Since then, the game series has had a history as varied as Albert Wesker’s backstory (if you don’t get that, you never played a Resi game). Although Resident Evil used to be a by-word for quality, in recent years creators Capcom have lost their way. After one of the greatest games of all time – Resident Evil 4 – the series has been stuck in a bit of a rut, with a host of turgid spinoff games and the main series going downhill too, with 6 being especially shoddy.
With critical acclaim and sales decaying, Capcom went back to the drawing board for 7 – hoping to reanimate the zombie series for the second time and find the fun factor again. Like the Resident Evil: Revelations spin-offs (the only decent examples from the last few years), they wanted to get back to their survival horror roots – instead of the epic and ridiculous globe-trotting action-fest that the series had become.
The game immediately gives a nod to Silent Hill 2, with bland protagonist Ethan Winters getting a message from his long missing wife, Mia. She tells him to come to an address out in the middle of the bayou in Louisiana. This mouldering, creepy farmhouse turns out to the be the source of much wrong-doing at the hands of the inhabitants – the infected and insane Baker family – who imprison Ethan when he arrives. You must escape the Bakers and try to get yourself and Mia out of their rotting abode, deep in the swamp. The whole game takes place in and around this house, a welcome return for Resident Evil to a single, involving, setting.
Resident Evil 7 borrows elements from all the best Resi games, trumping action with adventure and atmosphere. And with the chance to mix the formula up a bit, the creators have cribbed from many other sources as well. The influence of other games, movies and TV from the horror genre is obvious throughout the game, with cliches and familiarities popping up everywhere. In fact the marketing and demo might even suggest a new type of game. But at its core, despite what you may think from first impressions, this is still very much Resident Evil, just in shiny new clothing.
The most obvious difference is the switch from third to first person perspective. Now you see through the hero’s eyes it adds a whole new level of immersion and scare factor. Yes, this is a creepy game – although I know some people didn’t find it that scary, I know plenty more who rate it as “the scariest Resident Evil game yet”. It’s rarely terrifying – but I found it unsettling throughout, and at times I was really not looking forward to entering a foreboding room, or running in panic from some horror or other. As usual, I would be cursing for putting myself through a game like this, but that’s a good thing.
The atmosphere is thick and rich in this grotty house in the humid bayou. Graphics are excellent, with dramatic dynamic lighting put to great use throughout the game. Excellent textures, and loads of details throughout the environments really make the Baker compound feel alive and lived in (albeit, filthy and full of horrors!). The sound is brilliant as well. The constant creaks, thuds and rattles of this failing abode constantly keeps you on edge. Outside, the bushes rustle, trees whisper in the wind and the swamp laps and bubbles around the jetties. There aren’t many jump scares but their inclusion means you’re never sure whether a noise is something coming to get you, or just the environment playing tricks.
The Bakers make for interesting foes. An stereotypical redneck family with insane, cannibalistic tendencies and supernatural powers, their apparent invincibility makes them fearsome opponents. Obviously inspired by Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and other horror games like Amnesia, you might have to use stealth to sneak past their patrols, fight to incapacitate when cornered, or just run like hell and hope to lose a pursuer. Although the Bakers aren’t super scary, they’re good characters and make for a lot of tense moments. They’re also responsible for some memorable and imaginative boss fights, a few of which are up there with Resident Evil 4. The family’s insane, hunting presence in the house is a nice fresh take on the Resi formula, and it’s a shame the concept of invincible stalkers wasn’t kept throughout the whole game.
But the Bakers aren’t the only inhabitants of the swamp – there are also enemies to deal with in the form of the “molded” – generic black slime monsters similar to those of Resident Evil Zero. Although creepy to begin with, there aren’t many variations of them and so the scares wear off after extended exposure. They’re tough to take down though, they move fast and inflict a lot of damage if you let them get close, so encounters are stressful and can quickly turn to panic. The emphasis is on threatening enemies which are few in number, making each fight feel weighty and nicely pacing out the encounters – giving time for tension to build between them.
Combat is meaty and satisfying. Following the trend of recent Resident Evil games you must stop moving to fire, but can aim freely. Getting headshots or aiming for specific body parts is vital; as if you don’t hit the right places, enemies may topple but then get up and come for you again seconds later. Ammo and health items are limited, making encounters tense – miss too many shots in panic and you may run dry, forced to sprint away for your life or ineffectually slash at your foe. The usual Resi arsenal is available – as ever the shotgun is super effective, but with shells low in supply. In fact thanks to low ammo for all weapons, the handgun and knife still see plenty of use. I always felt like I barely had enough ammunition to deal with any threats and that made the game so much more fun. It’s only towards the end of the game that combat becomes more of a focus and you have more weapons, ammo and items at your disposal. But this safety blanket removes a lot of tension.
“A game is a series of interesting choices” – said Sid Meier (of Civilisation fame). Resident Evil 7 largely succeeds thanks to this logic. As you explore the Baker’s residence, you uncover secrets, locked doors and places you can return to later. There’s a nice element of freedom in how to approach and explore the compound. The first person perspective and semi-interactive environment means that you actually have to hunt for items. Rifling through drawers and cupboards or crouching to peek under tables is actually engaging, especially as items are so vital to survive.
The return of the small slot-based inventory of past Resident Evil games makes for some classic item juggling. You can only hold so many weapons and items at once, making for difficult decisions on what to bring and frequent expeditions to safe rooms to clear out your inventory. Do you take the green herb now, or leave the space for some powerful magnum rounds you found in the last room? You can also combine items to create ammo or health tonics, often giving you a dilemma – you’re low on health and ammo – but should you craft handgun bullets or a first aid tonic? The game is constantly demanding tough choices of you and the inventory system adds a layer of strategy as well.
The story’s more interesting than usual for a Resident Evil game; uncovering the Baker’s secrets and exploring their maze-like house to discover what lies behind it all. A great touch is the use of flashback episodes in the form of VHS tapes. You watch through these fuzzy nightmares by using them at TVs around the property. Doing so lets you play in side missions where you take the perspective of other characters who have encountered the Bakers, fleshing out backstory and foreshadowing events to come. As you’d expect from a Resi game, discarded notes and files litter the environment and help to piece together what’s going on.
Unfortunately, there are niggles in the game, some of which are staple parts of the Resident Evil playbook. Things like the improbably complex puzzle devices (such as “shadow locks”) that seal away parts of the house, yet serve no logical reason for being there. Immersion is somewhat broken through other Resi throwbacks like the magical healing tonics and the item chest with teleportation properties. The plot is enjoyable for the ride but on closer examination is full of holes and unanswered questions. This is typical for the series but there are plenty of questions obviously left open for upcoming DLC to answer, instead of resolving it in the game. Even though this is Resident Evil, some of the horror cliches are really cliched and lazy, especially towards the end of the game.
The biggest problem is that unfortunately, in the game’s final third, the story and gameplay both deteriorate into a “normal” Resident Evil game. That doesn’t make it bad, it’s still atmospheric and fun, but it becomes a lot more linear and lacks the imagination of the first part of the game. The game becomes more of a shooting gallery and a re-hash of we’ve come to expect from the series. The end is particularly disappointing.
Unlike other Resident Evil games there’s also little replayability after completion. A few choices in the game which seem important turn out to be laughably insignificant (no interesting story branching here). For a Resi game it’s also not that long (taking most people around 10 hours or less). It seems that DLC will be carrying on the Resi tradition of experiencing the same environment from an alternate perspective/timeline, rather than including this in the main game. At least the unlockable Madhouse difficulty mode is interesting, in that it reshuffles items around the house, and you can only use limited cassette tape save files – just like the first Resident Evil. But the essential nature of the game with its scripted scares, events and discoveries doesn’t really lend itself to replays anyway.
But forget all that for now. Because at least for the first half of the game, these niggles will be ignored, as you’ll be enraptured in the creepy atmosphere of the grimy, creaking house in the swamp and its monstrous inhabitants. It’s very immersive and for a long time is hard to put down, except in exhaustion from the foreboding vibe of the place. This is a welcome new direction for Resident Evil, with a fresh perspective, new ideas for the series (although hardly original in the horror genre), and it’s very effective when it all comes together. In virtual reality it must be incredible and I’ve heard great things from friends who’ve played it with PlayStation VR. It may lack originality but it’s a highly polished return to a wanderer exploring a strong single location populated with unsettling and threatening enemies. Resident Evil 7 is survival horror, and it’s good to be back.
Alan Stock is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow us on Twitter: @ComiConverse
Additional Note (added after review published)
Capcom now has two paid DLC packs available for Resident Evil 7. They are a mix of mini-games, story and puzzles, re-using the same environments from the main game. So far they don’t shed much light on the plot-holes, presumably the first free DLC “Not a Hero” coming soon will do that. Reception of the DLC packs has been mixed – the story sections are good but short, and the mini-games engaging enough. Whether they are worth the rather hefty price-point is another matter.