This in an in-depth look at Resident Evil 7, which contains spoilers for the game
and also contains highlights and possible spoilers for other Resident Evil entries.
In its 21-year run, Resident Evil has dabbled in so many style revisions it could sit proudly at a table between Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Back in 1996, the first Resident Evil helped shape a new genre of video games — survival horror. The original opened with a handful of police officers investigating a company helicopter that disappeared in a midwestern forest. When they find it, they also find killer zombie dogs on the loose and they retreat to the area’s only sanctuary — an ornate mansion.
However, once our heroes Chris, Jill, Barry and Albert catch their breath, they realize the mansion isn’t the safe space they hoped it would be. Yawning zombies shamble through each room and obtuse deathtrap puzzles must be solved — calling the puzzle-box mansion the main character of the game wouldn’t be a stretch. After all, Resident Evil’s main hall is so iconic and recognizable, the series has recreated it several times during its run.
In 1999, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis mixed up the signature fixed-camera, slow-paced horror by adding some new features. Protagonist and series mainstay Jill Valentine had new evasive dodge moves, a health-and-ammo crafting ability, and she could be maneuvered independently on stairs (I can’t believe that was innovative at the time). Also new to the formula was an enemy — the Nemesis — who showed up at random points to fight Jill. Given his indestructible nature, players had to choose between temporarily knocking him down or running away.
Resident Evil also dabbled in strange team-based online campaigns with the Outbreak entries and an arcade-like first-person version called Survivor, among others.
Fast-forward to 2005 with Resident Evil 4 launching on Gamecube. Resident Evil 4 took the series in a completely new direction with an over-the-shoulder camera that laid the groundwork for generations of third-person shooters to come. Resident Evil 4 is considered the best in the series for many given its completely retooled mechanics and a story that’s only tangentially related to the messy plot that had been stringing previous games along. For whatever it’s worth, Resident Evil 4 is not my favorite, but it’s in my top three for the series.
Resident Evil 5 and 6 dipped into ridiculous Michael Bay-like action blockbuster territory that featured more bullets being fired in any given 15-minute stretch than the first game had in its entirety.
Jump forward to 2017 and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is here. It follows a current trend of slower-paced, atmospheric first-person horror in the vein of Condemned: Criminal Origins, P.T., Amnesia and Outlast. Featuring a new cast of characters, a new plot and new enemies, Resident Evil hasn’t seen a gameplay departure this brash since Resident Evil 4. The obvious questions here are — is it good and will it stand the test of time?
The short answers are “sometimes” and “I don’t know”.
Resident Evil 7 opens in first-person as protagonist Ethan stares at his computer. He watches a short video clip of his wife Mia telling him about her current babysitting job, and how she wants to come home. Given Ethan’s tense panting during the clip, one of two things becomes obvious — either he’s enduring an intense masturbation session to his wife’s video, or something sinister happened, and he’s scared and afraid.
Another clip pops up showing Mia panicked and desperate, gasping out a warning that Ethan should not try to come and save her.
Of course, the credits would roll right then and there if Ethan took her advice, so he sets off to a Louisiana farm to find his wife. She’s been missing for three years, and the video is the first contact he’s had with her in that time. Despite strict instructions not to come, she emailed him the location of the farm, which seems awfully counterintuitive.
Mixed messages in relationships, amirite!?
For the past few years, virtual reality has been the newest, hottest thing, and Resident Evil 7 is one of the first mainstream triple-A games developed entirely for VR. The good news for us who either (A) don’t want, (B) can’t afford, (C) can’t find, or (D) don’t want to play a game with a helmet on for 12 hours — Resident Evil 7 can be played without VR, too.
Fair warning, I do not have PSVR and have not played Resident Evil 7 in VR. However, fellow GameCritics writer Dan did, and he reviewed it. Please refer to that if it’s your bag.
As for me, when I began Resident Evil 7, I found it hard to digest. The game contains both absolutely brilliant moments that had cold sweat forming on my shoulders out of pure fear, and moments where I was rolling my eyes with a pained WTF look on my face. The most convenient way to illustrate my feelings is by citing the good ole Suspension of Disbelief.
Everyone has a different tolerance for how much they’ll gloss over during video games. It turns out that Resident Evil 7 wants you to suspend absolutely every iota of disbelief that exists in your mind because it constantly insists on playing by rules that it’s making up as it progresses.
Resident Evil 7 first tested me when it reunited Ethan with his long lost wife. I thought the game was heading for a Silent Hill 2 scenario where I would spend the majority of time on a journey of anguished self-discovery a la Jaaaaaaaaames Sunderland, but that theory went in the toilet after Ethan finds Mia about twenty minutes into the game.
So much for that mystery setup.
For starters, after three years apart, it’s utterly nonsensical that they don’t embrace, kiss or show emotion at all when they’re reunited. Mia tells Ethan he shouldn’t have come and then charges ahead to try to show him the way out — nevermind that the halls are incredibly dark and Ethan has the flashlight.
Minutes later Ethan discovers that Mia phases in and out of being possessed by an entity when she throws him through a door. This is when the game makes the curious decision to tutorialize its combat by having Ethan stab his wife several times with an axe and then shoot her.
Here’s your first gun, the game says. Press R2 to shoot the wife you’ve finally reunited with after all this time.
Mia stabs a kitchen knife through Ethan’s hand, then stabs a screwdriver through it, and then pulls a fully-functioning chainsaw out of nowhere to cut the hand off. Maybe she was punishing him for masturbating to her video clip earlier?
These sequences are clearly meant to be gross out, in-your-face segments to sell the VR hook, but I couldn’t get onboard. In other examples meant to show the technology, characters often get right up in Ethan’s face to talk, but the lip syncing is so bad, I’d swear this was a PS2-era game. Seriously, how do we not have lip syncing down yet?
Anyway, Mia chainsaws off her husband’s hand then runs away while players spend a few minutes trying to track her down — all while Ethan holds his blood-spewing stump in front of him and somehow miraculously… loses no health?
This is the kind of stuff I have a real problem with. I get that RE7 wants to do gross-out VR, but it also wants me to take it seriously by attempting to offer a personal story. I’m fine to go there if the game wants to take me, but it immediately undercuts the idea by having Ethan gush blood for minutes while he fights off his chainsaw-wielding wife. It doesn’t make any sense beyond spectacle.
Even more bizarre is that Mia climbs a ladder and exits the house through an attic window (while holding the chainsaw?) just so she can saw her way back in to surprise Ethan when he tries to climb out. It’s yet more VR gimmickry that actively disrupts the ‘serious’ plot. It’s like when early 3D movies had scenes that existed solely to have stuff fly into viewers’ faces. It’s just silly.
Flash-forward to the next scene after killing your wife (or did you? Because RE7’s rules on what spells death change by the minute) and an unknown person staples your hand back on to your arm and suddenly it functions again. Because… that’s how surgery works?
I gave RE7 the benefit of the doubt and hoped that it would explain this to me later — maybe Ethan has some kind of virus that helps him heal, or maybe it was a nightmare sequence — but no, RE7 wants me to just roll with such a ludicrous scenario. This horrible injury and impromptu medical procedure is never brought up again, and the hand functions normally for the rest of the game.
[EDIT – Fellow GameCritics writer Mike Suskie notified me in the comments after I published this piece that a sequence occurs where Ethan has his foot severed, and then is given a potion that reattaches it to his leg. I checked YouTube, and that scenario never happened for me during the two times I played through the opening. But, I guess that’s the answer — a magic serum that magically reattaches limbs. Even when Resident Evil tries to explain its logic through a missable scene, I’m still left rolling my eyes.]
I wouldn’t be this nitpicky of RE7 if these things happened in one of the campier entries, but here they present a difficult contradiction to swallow. I’m a little mystified by others claiming that this game has the most personal, touching story in the series. Perhaps that’s because it’s the only personal story the series has ever attempted. Therefore, by default it’s already the best… And the worst.
The story as a whole is just garbage, though. It takes an interesting premise new to Resident Evil and then veers further and further away from it as players progress. It’s also so heavily influenced by well-known horror movies and games that its overarching horror themes are stale. Some of these horror tropes so tired and well-worn that I could almost hear the pen at Capcom HQ checking each one off as the developers wrote the script.
Weird backward (inbred?) southern family? CHECK.
Creepy infant dolls hanging on the walls? CHECK.
Gross fetus imagery? CHECK.
A young, pale girl with a black dress and long black hair? CHECK.
Grainy found-footage scenes? CHECK.
A Saw-like puzzle deathtrap? CHECK.
Frankly, RE7 wastes so much time emulating other spooky properties that it nearly loses its own identity under the weight, and anyone who’s a fan of horror games or horror in general will find these things less-than-inspiring. In fact, the only thing it’s missing is a tasteless sex scene followed by a naked woman getting murdered. I would also say it’s missing a virgin hero, but given the distinct lack of passion when the married couple reunite, I’m willing to bet Ethan never consummated the union. Maybe that one’s still on the checklist?
Story aside, Resident Evil 7 lives and dies by its moment-to-moment gameplay. The good news is that for the most part, gameplay is solid. It takes a while to get where it’s going and it wears out its welcome by the end, but most of the mid-section is intense.
At its core, it plays like a ‘lite’ version of classic Resident Evil. After the ridiculous intro sequence, the game opens up for players to explore the farmhouse, a greenhouse, a barn and more. The areas are sequential, but never feel as grand, complex or puzzling as RE1’s mansion or RE2’s police station.
Several callbacks to old-school Resident Evils pop up — item boxes and limited character inventories, tape players (instead of typewriters) are used to manually save, unique keys for certain doors need to be juggled, and a shotgun trap room exists. Boss fights also return, which were generally a plague.
Early on, the farmhouse family’s father shows up randomly to fight players. His name is Jack Baker, and despite appearing to be human, he’s not unlike Resident Evil 3’s indestructible Nemesis. Pressure sets in when he shows up because ammo and health items are hard to come by at this point. Further, using bullets against him is essentially useless because he can be knocked down, but not killed. This sets up an irritating scenario where I’d just let him kill me whenever he appeared because evading him or hurting him weren’t worth the effort and wasted resources. In these segments Resident Evil 7 mimics Alien: Isolation, but without the nuance.
Later, players are forced into a confusing boss battle with Jack, which seems fruitless as it’s been taught that he can’t be killed. But then, you kind of kill him? And then he shows up again later to be ‘killed’ again. And then again. Maybe Capcom is paying homage to Resident Evil 6’s repeat boss battles? I don’t know, but if you keep threatening me with an ‘indestructible’ enemy who gets back up after being ‘killed’ in scripted boss battles, I’m going to get irritated.
It’s worth mentioning that the game inevitably sets up the whole farmhouse family as bosses to work through while progressing through the story. Jack is first (for a total of three times), then his wife Marguerite, and then their son Lucas, who you actually don’t end up killing? He just sort of disappears and is never brought up again.
However the real antagonist of the game ends up being a young girl who isn’t revealed until the third act, and this late-game twist upends everything the story has been working toward for the first three quarters. The original premise of Ethan’s wife being kidnapped by gross southern hillbillies morphs into an indigestible tale of bioweapons and scientific human experiments with supernatural psychic possession bullshit sprinkled on top. I was disappointed to see that Capcom appeared to reboot this long-running series in realism, only to see it quickly fade and deteriorate as the game carries on.
In fact, RE7’s initial premise reminds me of a segment in Condemned: Criminal Origins (which came out 11 years prior to RE7) where you play as a protagonist also named Ethan. He’s a slightly chubby FBI agent investigating a serial killer on the loose in an orchard farmhouse. The two characters hide, stalk, and chase each other around the house with only melee weapons and no weird bioweapon magic. The scene is thrilling because it leverages its roots in reality. Resident Evil could’ve had this sort of tension, but Capcom couldn’t resist letting the story fly into bioweapon la-la-land.
The story also features a late-game segment that takes place on an abandoned ship. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they didn’t lead with that section. This bit would’ve given players a clear endgame antagonist early, and set Mia up as a capable, likable character rather than a helpless damsel to be saved. It also would’ve weaved Ethan and Mia’s tales together in a more compelling way. As it stands, Capcom placing Mia’s segment toward the end makes it feel tacked on to add more length, and provides a twist that had me scratching my head instead of delivering the satisfying payoff I’d hoped for. RE7 fails to avoid mistakes that would be covered in a Scriptwriting 101 class, but given that the entire series has consistently failed to deliver a strong story, I’m not sure why I expected any different now.
Despite my laundry list of complaints, Resident Evil 7 isn’t a trainwreck. Some segments are absolutely brilliant. Most areas where you’re left alone to progress and explore for long stretches are intense, and play out exactly how I wanted them to. One example is when Ethan must explore a child’s area in the farmhouse — it’s a section with perfect pacing, masterful use of lighting, and an unwillingness to rely on enemy encounters to keep the tension up.
Another top-notch section is Lucas’ barn trials. Ethan is thrust into a situation where he’s actively hunting Lucas, but Lucas has the upper hand — it’s his home turf, and he’s set traps for Ethan. Silence of the Lambs came to mind as I crept through this dark, dingy barn area, checking every corner as I progressed, afraid of what might be lurking in the darkness.
For whatever it’s worth, I think Resident Evil 7 is a good game — very good, maybe. But taken as a whole, it’s not amazing, miraculous, or even close to the best in the series. In my opinion, the game would have been stronger if it had fully delivered on the more subtle, grounded story they teased with pre-release marketing, and left the top secret agency bioweapon virus crap out of it.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t get tripped up on suspension of disbelief dissonance, but… I do. I can let some stuff slide, but Resident Evil 7 strikes out in that regard far too many times, and pushes it too far. However, if you’re the kind of player who won’t think twice about watching a hand get cut off and then stapled back on with no ill effects, open your arms and welcome Resident Evil 7 in for a big hug… Just don’t let it bite your neck when you’re not looking.