It feels impossible to have a discussion about Resident Evil in a modern context without also commenting on the series’ two decade long identity crisis. What began as “survival horror”, a distinct and overly sincere tribute to B-movie sensibilities, eventually veered further and further into the big budget action genre. It felt like a logical evolution considering how much Resident Evil leaned on narratives about bio-chemical warfare and how often that lent itself to giving you disgusting abominations to shoot at. Though I often feel alone in my rather negative assessment of Resident Evil 4, even fans of that game agree that was the tipping point, when survival horror took a backseat to boulder-dodging QTEs. By part 6, all pretense was gone and the series more closely resembled its cinematic action counterpart than anything George Romero ever created.
This left Resident Evil 7 in an awkward position – somehow tasked with continuing the legacy of a flagship series that spent the last decade firmly entrenched in the action genre whilst also correcting course back towards its horror roots. In this strict regard, it’s difficult to classify it as anything but a success, masterfully culling different elements from games past into its DNA, somehow resulting in a (mostly) cohesive package. While it’s difficult to look back now at the original game as something invoking genuine fright, there was a tension added to every encounter as you continually entered dangerous situations with limited resources. This lives on in RE7, as I found myself increasingly more anxious every time I missed a shot, wondering how long I would have to venture before finding more ammo. Though the game is actually quite generous in populating items, they’re often so well hidden that another item exists specifically for the purpose of helping you find them. As such, I often found myself in fights where I was left with nothing but a useless knife, and in a very late boss encounter, with literally no way of attacking, which would have been fine had I not been forced to rewatch an unskippable cutscene every time I failed.
Still, the encounters are mostly exciting and often quite inventive. The affectionately named “Daddy” has a very Nemesis quality about him, establishing early on that you can not expect to find safety simply running into other rooms. Not only would he open doors and smash through walls to get to me, but fighting him felt like an exercise in futility, something that I hadn’t felt while playing a Resident Evil game in ages.
Though I could see the inspiration at work from previous titles, it still feels off to classify RE7 as a return to the series roots, as so many have claimed. If anything, it’s more accurate to call it yet another evolution, offering a brand of horror that’s often much more subtle than anything the series had previously been known for. By reducing the scope of the world; by putting you in a more intimate situation with the deranged Baker family, it feels infinitely more Texas Chainsaw than Night of the Living Dead. In an odd way, I cared about the Bakers, wanting to learn more about them, even moreso than anything revolving around blank-slate protagonist Ethan and his search for his missing wife. As is often the problem with any horror story, however, it is at its most interesting near the very beginning, the mystery of the situation providing most of the fear and intrigue. Once the game started providing answers, I felt cheated by an odd combination of abandoned plot threads and stop-start pacing. The third act of the game acts as almost a parody of itself and previous entries in the series, going out of its way to provide way more exposition than was ever needed for a rather lame reveal and to ruin any potentially tense moments with far too many enemy encounters. The quickest way to eliminate the threat of anything is to constantly expose yourself to it, and by the end of Resident Evil 7, I’d seen the same three enemies so many times that I saw them more as an ammo tax than anything capable of inducing terror.
I suppose it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Despite constant comparisons to P.T. (and a very liberal theft/borrowing of elements from Silent Hill as a whole), it is, at the end of the day, a Resident Evil game, and it can’t help that fact, for better or worse. Someone less inclined to desire more of a psychological experience may not mind as much, and even still, with all of my little gripes, I have an overwhelming desire to play through it all over again. The look, the feel, the sense of space that I felt in the Baker house, even down to the Yamaoka-esque save room theme; it was a world that I not only wanted to continue discovering but absolutely needed more Resident Evil games to exist in. If my end-game stats are to be believed, I actually missed quite a bit in terms of collectibles, memos, and upgrade materials, and that was after a pretty thorough 10 hour playthrough. Would the horror be as effective the second time through? It rarely ever is, since the root of all fear is in the unknown. Coming out the other side, with Resident Evil 7 as a known entity, I can still say that it mostly delivers on its promises, attempting the impossible plate-spinning routine of pleasing various sectors of the RE fandom, all looking for and expecting different things. It’s deeply flawed yet still an exciting proposition of what the future holds, and for that, I could not be happier that it exists.