Horror games are a difficult thing to get right. They can feel like carnival attractions, full of overblown scares, or have so little horror that they elicit nothing but eye rolls. Resident Evil 7 gets it right. It's a scary and violent blast of survival horror that sneaks up behind you before plunging a chainsaw in your gut.
Resident Evil 7 places players in the shoes of every-man Ethan Winters as he searches for his missing wife Mia. After receiving a clue to her whereabouts, he journeys down to Dulvey, Louisiana where he encounters the freakish Baker family. Seemingly immortal and serving a dark agenda, the Bakers terrorize and torture Ethan as he explores their large plantation in the hopes of finding Mia.
Escalation has always been the name of the game as far as Resident Evil games go. The series may have started as a dimly lit game about zombies and creepy bioweapons but eventually grew to world-threatening affairs full of heavy weapons and exceedingly bombastic action sequences. The horror was weeded out. It was less Night of the Living Dead and more along the lines of a Michael Bay film. Resident Evil 7 makes a course correction to offer a truly terrifying experience. The small-scale focus on a central location and an emphasis on survival over flashy combat creates a dark, oppressive, and frightening atmosphere that's long been absent from the series.
Chief among these changes is a shift to a first person perspective from the more popular over-the-shoulder view of later titles. This change, combined with exceedingly strong art direction and design, make exploring the Baker home legitimately scary. At any time, the player can only see what is directly in front of them. Every corner or closed door generates anxiety. What if something is waiting for you out of sight? What exactly made that noise behind you?
The first half of the game is a high water mark for video game horror. From time to time, Jack Baker or his equally dangerous wife Marguerite will stalk around the house, slowly searching for the player. They cannot be killed — not since Resident Evil 3's Nemesis has the series offered such dangerous and implacable enemies.
These encounters channel the best aspects of games like Alien: Isolation and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. There's a true sense of helplessness and fragility. You'll slink from one spot to another, desperately try to finish puzzles, and flee in horror when you are discovered. It's wonderful.
The first person perspective makes death particularly gruesome. Less impressive are the various boss battles littered throughout the game. Cluttered arenas and tanky enemies turn these encounters into tedious affairs. You'll unload pistol clips, exhaust flamethrower reserves, and chew through shotgun ammo in futile attempts to chip down the enemy's health. In other cases, you'll be forced to rely on environmental advantages and special tools. These equalizers are poorly communicated to the player, as are the occasional special conditions for defeating the boss. The game would have been better off without them.
This isn't to say Resident Evil 7's combat is unsatisfying. There's a real tension that comes from rounding a corner and running into one of the game's twisted creatures. Guns have a noticeable weight and recoil that makes them satisfying to use, while the enemies themselves are just tough enough to pose a threat. Stopping a charging ooze monster's lurch with a head-splattering shotgun blast is a thing of beauty.
The game's weapons have a very welcome 'punch.' There's a good ebb and flow to the combat. Aiming significantly lowers your movement speed and only pinpoint shooting will stagger and delay monsters as they approach. It's easy to get backed into a corner and all too tempting to use up your valuable ammo reserves. Strategic retreats are common. You'll make a mental map of monster locations, charging into their nests after some scavenging. This can occasionally arrest the game's pace but also creates a nice sense of catharsis when you finally take down all the monsters in an area. Victory feels well earned.
Quieter moments allow the game to shine in a different way. At its best, the Baker house recalls Resident Evil's Spencer Mansion. It is a spacious setting, rich in detail and delightful to explore. Every room is full of history; each closed door marks new possibilities. Despite the occasional slow-loading texture, creaking floorboards, rusty walkways, and dripping pipes contribute to an ever-present sense of anxiety. Nevertheless, there is a drive to press onwards, to see everything in spite of the horrors that lurk in the shadows. Secret item caches and optional puzzles give further incentive to explore every nook and cranny.
The puzzles you'll encounter as you explore, however, are a weak link. They lack variety, with one particularly puzzle design occurring no less than three times. While Resident Evil puzzles have never been too daunting, the tasks here seem downright remedial. Earlier games in the series opted to stress lateral thinking, memorization, and experimentation. Resident Evil 7's puzzles are a much more straightforward affair, and the game is worse off for it.
Call backs to previous games are nice but the puzzles rarely provide a challenge. The game does manage to buck the trend later with a sequence that would feel right at home in the Saw movies. Players will first run through his dastardly room from the perspective of one character (cleverly conveyed via a video tape). Later, they will use the knowledge gained from that experience to bypass and avoid deadly traps and lethal missteps as Ethan. It's a bright sunburst of smart design from a game that otherwise eschews serious brain teasers.
Beyond this sequence, film influences are felt throughout the game. The general dirt, grime, and blood recalls films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Devil's Rejects. Video tapes allow players to temporarily take the shoes of different characters. These moments pull liberally from The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust. Shifting away from Romero-esque camp and Michael Bay influences that permeated the more recent Resident Evil titles offers a significant tonal shift to brutal and bloody, full of severed limbs and split skulls.
This is no more apparent than when the game is played in VR. Getting stabbed in the chest or having your stomach cut open with a chainsaw is particularly gruesome. Exploration gains a new weight. The environmental details really shine up close, and the threat of intimate violence makes navigation fraught with anxiety. It's not perfect. Movement feels decidedly slower and clunkier than playing with a controller. Combat can quickly become overwhelming. It's an exciting time but it feels less cohesive than simply playing the game traditionally.
You probably shouldn't get to attached to your limbs while playing. In many ways, Resident Evil 7 can be seen as a reclamation for the series. Resident Evil helped establish an entire genre but lost its way as time marched on. Suspenseful exploration gave way to explosive combat that, while satisfying, felt far removed from the initial series' design.
Resident Evil 7 can occasionally frustrate with excessive boss fights and patronizing puzzles, but it's still a scary and violent blast of survival horror that paints a bright future for the franchise. Bloody, tense, and exciting throughout, Resident Evil 7 is exactly what the series needed. Full of dread and brimming with anxiety, the series that started it all has finally found itself after decades of wandering.
Welcome home, Resident Evil. We missed you.