Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Resident Evil 7 sure was riding on a lot of intrigue in the lead up to its release. What with the revelation the next instalment in the exclusively third-person franchise would be shifting to first-person, and it being about a guy trapped in a dilapidated house with some mad hillbillies rather than the old zombies, cities and Albert Wesker fare. Not to mention the creepy demo I played mid last year that included a seemingly useless dummy finger item that stumped the internet for a while. All of these changes seemed very cool and certainly spooky, but would the end result still be Resident Evil?
The answer? In a lot of ways yes and a lot of other ways no, both for better and for worse. Yes that’s a bit vague, but hey, if I could answer that question in a single sentence there’d be no point to me writing the rest of this review.
Resident Evil 7 puts players in the shoes of a man named Ethan who has travelled to Louisiana to find his wife, Mia, who has been missing for the past three years. His searching has led him to an isolated plantation deep in the swamp, and shortly after arriving he is captured by its occupants: the Bakers, a deranged, twisted, cannibal, torture family straight out of the slasher horror movies of yesteryear. Ethan must now find a way out of the sprawling network of creepy hallways, hidden passages and dank basements that is the Baker mansion, find Mia in the process, and try to uncover exactly what went on here.
Herein lies the most major departure Resident Evil 7 takes from the previous iterations of the franchise: if the original games were inspired by the zombie movies of George A Romero, 7 is straight up Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rather than weaving through hordes of zombies, Resident Evil 7 predominantly involves sneaking throughout sections of a house while one of the Bakers is on the prowl, muttering maniacally and very keen to eviscerate the player with whatever weird weapon they’ve got on hand. If that premise sounds like it’s in the same vein as recent indie horror darlings like Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent then you’d be right; the influence of these games, and others like them, is very obvious.
But all you Resident Evil fans can take a sigh of relief, Resident Evil 7 brings the series’ survival-horror roots into the mix. Exploring the Baker mansion requires a bit of puzzle solving and key gathering, as well as micromanaging your limited resources. Yes, healing green herbs are back, as is crafting ammunition, stronger health kits and perception enhancing drugs (to find well hidden items that is, not to have a great trip). Though your inventory expands throughout the game, so too does your need to carry a wider variety of gear, forcing players to make some tough choices as to what weapons and items can be sacrificed to make room for what you think you might need in the encounters ahead. And making the wrong choice can put you in quite the pickle, as on one occasion I found myself stuck with low health, no herbs, no ammo and just a knife, making tactical thinking paramount to escaping into the next area alive. That’s survival-horror in a nutshell, and in this aspect I find Resident Evil 7 excels.
An area where Resident Evil 7 sadly doesn’t quite excel is in its combat elements. Ethan can get his hands on knives, a pistol, shotgun, flamethrower and grenade launcher, as well as remote bombs. The actual gun mechanics themselves are perfectly serviceable, but not overly inspiring. The aiming mechanics seem to be intentionally clunky, which works for the narrative since Ethan is a regular guy and not a soldier but doesn’t make for the most exciting gameplay. The Bakers, as well as these weird lumbering monsters known as The Molded, the only other enemies in the game, all approach slowly when encountered, making combating them primarily an exercise in standing still and taking pot shots at their heads, walking away when they get close, stopping and taking more shots, rinse and repeat. Again this is classic Resident Evil, known for its you-can’t-shoot-and-move gunplay. But with the exception of the rare times when there were multiple enemies to fight at once, and in maybe one or two of the boss fights, Resident Evil 7’s combat wasn’t overly engaging or terrifying.
And therein lies the rub, the fact that I could blast my way through any enemies I encountered made Resident Evil 7 less terrifying. I know this is going to be a controversial opinion, but in my experience I found the Bakers more frightening in the early instances when I had no way to fight them, when being discovered spelled certain doom, than when I had weapons on hand to defend myself. The beginning stages of being stalked by Jack Baker with his makeshift scythe lost their impact when I had a knife on hand and realised every time he found me that I could rush forward and run circles around him, slashing at his face until he dropped dead (temporarily). And this was on “normal” difficulty, the highest available on the first playthrough unless you preordered the game (not even kidding), so it’s as much challenge as the average player will get the first time around.
I almost would have preferred a more Outlast-like experience, where the player’s vulnerability to enemies and lack of defence other than flee and hide amps up the tension. But I suppose then this wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game so perhaps that’s an unfair criticism, but if terror is what they’re going for then the combat needed to reflect it.
Now I don’t want to come across as someone saying he’s the toughest guy ever and didn’t find Resident Evil 7 all that scary, because I certainly did. The Baker mansion is dripping with atmosphere, and is one of the most terrifying video game locations I’ve encountered in a good long while. For a start, it looks incredible; developer Capcom’s new RE Engine has allowed them to pack the mansion full of so much detail that makes it feel like a real, lived in place. The rotting wood, torn furniture, the garbage littering tables and fridges full of entrails are realised with stunning photo-realism. Every drop of blood and gore in the game’s many, many confronting scenes are grotesquely accurate. And the whole thing runs incredibly smoothly, even on my regular PS4 and not just on the PS4 Pro(take notes The Last Guardian). This, combined with the creepy sound design, makes just being in the mansion a haunting experience.
The atmosphere of the house made exploring it in anticipation of running into the Bakers nerve-wracking. While they weren’t that scary to engage in combat, being caught unawares by them certainly got a squeal out of me on many occasions. And some areas are just unnerving to be in, purely from the vibe, which is an amazing feat.
Now seems a good time to mention that Resident Evil 7 can also be fully played using Playstation VR, which certainly enhances the atmospheric experience but also exacerbates the clunky gameplay. There are two control schemes available in VR, the default being using head-tracking to look around and the right analogue stick rotates Ethan at sharp 30 degree intervals when you need to look further than you can turn your head. What’s more, you can set the direction you’re looking in as the central point by pushing the right stick forward, but this immediately shifts your view to be looking in a completely new direction respective of the central point you just set, so that gets disorienting very quickly. I found the alternative set up much more user friendly, where the left and right analogue sticks work like a traditional first-person game, but head-tracking is incorporated for looking around. However, head-tracking is still used for aiming, which doesn’t quite improve the shooting mechanics as it’s kind of weird to be aiming with your head and not your hands, and constantly needing to reorient yourself is a huge disadvantage.
Once you get used to the controls, Resident Evil 7 in VR is great for experiencing exploring the mansion in a whole new level of immersion, but it doesn’t improve the combat mechanics. Sure, having my neck snapped by a deranged hillbilly in VR is a confronting experience I won’t be soon forgetting, but it isn’t my preferred way to play the game.
On the whole, Resident Evil 7 is a decent survival-horror experience, although let down by the lacklustre combat mechanics. The story is engaging for the most part, although the dialogue isn’t some of the best writing in the world. The mystery unravelling before your eyes is certainly compelling, there’s a late game revelation that made me literally gasp out loud, and it ties into Resident Evil lore in satisfying ways. The final chapter itself felt a bit phoned in, but the around nine hour journey getting there was on the whole worth it. It may not be Resident Evil as we’ve previously known it, but Resident Evil 7 has plenty for the die hard fans to enjoy while also being inviting to fresh players alike.