Resident Evil 7: The Kotaku Review

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.


Comments

    Best PSVR game by a long shot. I'm really grateful that they have shown it's possible to launch a AAA game that plays completely in VR, as I hope this will have other developers following in their footsteps.

    It's terrifying in VR, I've jumped, ducked and sworn out loud on several occasions. So much fun.

    There are some who say the VR version suffers because of the drastic graphical hit. I say those people are out of their minds.

    Peeking around corners, ducking behind couches, the incredible binaural sound, the sense that the characters are standing right in front of you... that opening first hour...

    Yeah, I'll be playing the whole game in my headset, thanks. It's a genuinely new gaming experience and I'm loving it.

      Those people probably don't have VR headsets and are looking for reasons to justify their non-purchase.

      Eh... I tried it in VR for the opening section, going through the swamp to the guest house... neat, but I prefer the extra detail. I do agree, though, that anyone not playing with decent surround sound headphones (or the PSVR's binaural system) is crazy. So many LPs of that opening sequence I see people going to the wrong door to investigate the knocking sound, or trying to locate a phone by how loud the ringing is... with proper headphones, it's so easy to tell where the sound's coming from. Hell, just being able to tell where Mr Baker is by listening to his footsteps is really useful.

        That is a really poor representation of the game - the outside area is incredibly fugly and dull. You should try again inside the house.

          Might give it another go when the weather cools down a bit - don't have A/C at home, so it gets really stuffy in that headset. Anyways, I'm still trying to train my brain to accept moving in VR - still get motion sick pretty easily as soon as I touch the left stick.

            Above poster is right - the stroll through the trees to kick things off doesn't represent the experience once things close in.

            Just being able to peek around corners sells it for me, and nervously looking back and forth to keep an eye on what's happening becomes really habitual. I find myself looking for dangers for a touch longer than is necessary simply because I'm enjoying the process so much.

            The binaural kicks environmental awareness into a whole new level when you can differentiate enemy locations orecisely once you've memorized the layout of your immediate area.

              As I said above, I have surround sound headphones that do that for me already - I can keep track of where an enemy is just fine.

              And the opening area may not represent the game's general play, but it (and the VR tutorial room) do represent how movement feels, which, for me, boils down to 'nauseating.' When I can rely on directional audio to locate enemies, being able to peek around corners is less important to me than not having to take regular breaks every 5-10 minutes to settle my stomach.

                That's fair enough, I wasn't trying to argue you into submission. The game rocks however you play it, I've just got a tendancy to wax lyrical about it now that I've finally got a meaty, AAA VR title to sink my teeth into.

    This game is bloody terrifying. I can only play in small bursts before it gets too much. Loving it though.

      I'm playing the whole thing in VR and find that I can hack about an hour or so before I need a sanity break. God it's fun!

        Finished the game in VR last night, despite a very obvious dip in graphic quality, (which the game is still more then fine visually) after playing in both standard mode and VR mode, can definitely say for myself that I have preferred the VR option. It provides a real sense of not just immersion but a physical and mental change in how you play the game. I found myself taking my time and being more careful in my approach to every situation with the headset on. By far the best experience I have had in psvr to date.

        (Edit: also worth mentioning the precision aiming that you gain from using the headset is really fantastic for your ammo supply.)

        Last edited 27/01/17 1:23 pm

    Could've been a great game, but it's let down by the fact that you can't kill anything (as I've mentioned before). All that does is turn a very decent horror game into an extremely frustrating experience. So much so that I've already uninstalled it, and I haven't even escaped the second house yet.

    Also, does not feel like a Resident Evil game at all. I mean where are the goddamn zombies?

      Did you play it long enough to encounter the molded?

        Only just got that far, but

        I assumed you couldn't kill them either, so I just basically ran around them. Also, I need to get one more dog head to open a door to progress. I know where it is, but the game won't let me pick it up because Jack keeps finding me.

        I hate running and hiding and it seems that that's a very big part of this game. That's why I didn't get very far with The Evil Within.

        Last edited 27/01/17 3:10 pm

          For moulded, more like a strategic retreat/panicked backpedalling :P. But yea, hiding from the Bakers is a big part of the game, tho I found during my hunt for the second dog head, Jack would be leashed to that upstairs area, so there was always an out if I got spotted - and it's pretty easy to outrun him.

          Horror games always abide by certain rules so as not to be unfair, and it's always fun to try and figure out what those rules are in any given game... For example: Outlast's locker-checking AI - if the enemy sees you enter a locker, they'll always open your locker; if they don't see you enter a locker, they'll always open the locker next to you, just to freak you out, but you'll be fine.

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