Creeping around this house rarely feels safe.
At first, I don’t even know what’s unsettling me. It’s dark, sure, and I bloody knew that door was going to latch and lock behind me (and not just because I’ve played/screamed my way through the Beginning Hour demo, either). But as I cross the threshold and step into this rambling, unkempt farmhouse, my gaze sweeps across the faded wallpaper peppered with a peculiar array of family portraits, and I realise – suddenly and unexpectedly – that I’m holding my breath.
It will not be the last time.
Whilst the playable demo, Beginning Hour, hinted at a paranormal aspect that had no place in the Resi universe as we know it, Resident Evil 7 competently straddles innovative and existing ideas, delicately balancing an aching, cautious dread with outrageously successful shit-yourself jump scares.
It’s not just because the Baker homestead is gross (which it is, by the way; this is not a good place to Netflix and chill, my friends). It’s not even because the roaches roam unchecked, or because opening the fridge door is like gazing into hell itself. It’s because, despite each of those things being unsettling in their own right, Resident Evil 7 builds block upon block of fear until the game it creates is bigger – and scarier – than its component parts. In short: Resident Evil 7 is fucking terrifying… and it knows it.
Resident Evil 7 builds block upon block of fear until the game it creates is bigger – and scarier – than its component parts.
You’ll play most of the game as Ethan Winters, although occasionally, the game deigns to permit you to see the world through other eyes, too. Three years after his wife, Mia’s, disappearance, he receives a brief email asking him to come to Dulvey, Louisiana, to find her. Which he does. Naturally.
It’s here the first of many comparisons can be made (Silent Hill 2, anyone?) but rather than retread that worn, if very successful, trope, Resident Evil 7’s tale is surprisingly distinct in a sea of similar stories. What’s peculiar is the way Resident Evil 7 feels so new whilst at once retaining the codes and conventions – the hitherto hidden codes and conventions – that make it feel instantly familiar to any horror or Resident Evil fan. And I’m not just talking about the herbs.
This backtracking never feels old, chiefly because the level design? It’s excellent.
Unlike Resi games of yore, there won’t be huge, cavernous, underground bioweapon plants and the like. You’ll end your time pretty much in the same spot you started, and the journey chiefly only takes in the ramshackled home and its accompanying guest house, with a few other spoilery places in-between. And while my instinct is to complain about this, I can’t; whilst there’s a fair bit of retracing your steps to find the next key, item, or savepoint, for the most part this backtracking never feels old, chiefly because the level design? It’s excellent.
It’s easy to hark back to the game that started it all: the very first Resident Evil. That, too, was chiefly set in a single location and built a tension that made you fear each doorway. But in many respects, 7 does what the first couldn’t do, and as special as that original game is, I think this seventh installment may be the one that finally surpasses it. And maybe even 4. Yeah. Really.
Comparisons to Konami’s ill-fated Playable Teaser (P.T.) are numerous and fair, at least initially, but as the story unfolds with each cautious footstep, Resident Evil 7 feels less like a P.T. wannabe and more like the Resident Evil game you didn’t know you wanted. It’s the grotesque inversion of the everyday – your burgeoning fear of a balding, bespectacled middle-aged man, their once grand country home, and, of course, the, er, unusual home cooking – that will soak under your fingernails and ramp up pressure at increments so invisible, you don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late. It’s psychological horror at its best. It’s the fear of the unknown – the fear of expectation – that draws you to a halt, forcing you to reluctantly peek around corners before stepping into rooms.
As you descend the basement stairs (hands up if, like me, you’d rather have put hot pins in your eyes than open that bloody door?), you’ll encounter a new foe that will again feel familiar to those of you who’ve stepped in the Resident Evil universe before, a departure from the opening act of the game that had us hiding-and-seeking from human(ish) enemies. You’ll soon learn that defense is often the best offense, particularly if you’re a spray-and-pray kinda player who finds it hard to keep nailing those headshots (you’re not alone, my friend).
While Resident Evil’s puzzles are a long-standing staple of the series, RE7’s dizzying array of shadow puzzles, complex switches and bizarrely exotic door locks feel strangely familiar if a tad perplexing (why would the Bakers have commissioned these complex shadow keys even before the spoilery events of 2014?). Regrettably, once you’ve solved one you’ve solved them all, and besides scavenging new areas for crow- or scorpion-shaped keys, they’re rarely challenging.
Until you hit the escape puzzles, that is.
RE7 is at it’s terrifying best when you find yourself ensnared in an escape-room-esque encounter. Their design is exquisite, designed to draw upon a player’s logic and tried and tested approach to in-game problem solving. To discuss one in detail is to deny someone the joy of playing it, so forgive me if I’m intentionally vague here, but when the game full-circles you and presents the present-player with the past-player (that’ll make sense when you get there, I promise)… oh man, it’s so satisfying.
That said, not everything makes sense, either story- or gameplay-wise. There are some plot points that, even on a third playthrough, fail to be reconciled, and the game’s bogus “argh, don’t make me choose!” moment is despairingly pedestrian, offering nothing meaningful to the story’s development regardless of what decision you make. The boss fights – particularly the one in the garage, and to some extent the final one – occasionally cross the line from challenging to frustrating, but each one – typically increasing in scope, size, and challenge – will always feel like a Resident Evil boss fight. It’s bizarrely, and comfortingly, familiar, albeit without access to Redfield’s heavy weapon arsenal (I didn’t once feel overpowered in RE7… a far cry from the fifth and sixth installments).
I remain irritated by Mia’s slinky, medusa-like locks that are outrageously out of place against her grubby bare feet and dirty clothing, and whilst I appreciate the various reasons why protagonists’ faces are hidden (to enable the player to identify with them and so on), the game’s stubborn insistence on not showing me Ethan’s face jarred each time the opportunity to do so was intentionally obscured. Oh, and can we talk about Jack? Having to continuously put down an un-put-downable foe rarely felt anything other than a chore.
I know; these are stupid things to dislike, and I list them here only to exemplify how little I could find to criticise. It’s been some time since I’ve played a horror game that terrified me so, and even longer since a Resident Evil game was able to elicit such fear. For those of us who have, for years, yearned to return to old-school survival horror, Resident Evil 7 is essentially a pitch-perfect example of a title that’s unafraid to learn from the past, whilst also open to freely experiment with contemporary horror techniques. This makes RE7 not just one of the best horror games of recent times; it might be one of the best you’ll ever play. Period.
This review is based upon a PlayStation 4 retail version of this game purchased for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PC / PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
Release date: Out Now
- Terrifyingly tense
- Stunning visuals and sound design
- Perfect escape room puzzling
- Storyline lacks cohesion
- Boss battles occasionally frustrate
- Why is Mia’s hair so goddamn shiny?
Resident Evil 7 might it might be one of the best horror games you’ll ever play. Period.