Resident Evil has been dealing with an identity crisis for the better part of a decade. I found Resident Evil 4 to be the last noteworthy Resident Evil, anything post that being an awkward hybrid mishmash of action fantasy barely resembling the franchise I had come to cherish. RE4 brought about a dramatic evolution to the franchise’s foundation by changing the player perspective from third-person to an over the shoulder angle. And despite many being skeptical, it worked. It felt like a natural evolution of the game mechanics, and despite this drastic perspective change the one element that was always at the core of Resident Evil still prevailed: survival horror.
Horror is the one element that has been sorely missing from Resident Evil for a long time, as Capcom was seemingly determined to ignore fan criticism of the direction the series had been heading in. When it was announced that Capcom would once against be changing the perspective, this time to first-person, I was intrigued but skeptical as to whether or not another perspective change would address the real underlying problems currently plaguing the franchise.
Fortunately, I can answer that with a resounding yes.
You play Ethan, a husband who’s searching the Louisiana bayou after being contacted by his missing wife of three years. His search leads him to a mansion – not unlike the one in the original Resident Evil – whose inhabitants are of the….undead variety. The estate is filled with doors requiring unique keys, doors locked from the other side, puzzles requiring hidden crests, and a plethora of green herbs. RE7 has all the staples of a true to form classic Resident Evil game while presenting it in an entirely new perspective that capitalizes on Resident Evil’s rediscovered horror elements.
Part of what separates RE7 from its predecessors is it’s pacing. Pacing is everything in horror, and RE7 is nearly flawless in this regard. The first half of the game provides the tensest and genuinely terrifying moments of any horror game I have ever played, due in part to the atmospheric nature of the environments, but also in its concise and succinct pacing. RE7 starts slow. Gone are the grandiose explosive set pieces and superhero characters that have been the stars of the last few Resident Evil games. RE7’s opening act feels very methodical in its design, every moment feeling deliberate to the players understanding of how the game works.
The beginning portion of the game focuses much more on stealth and evasion rather than combat. RE7 has not entirely ditched combat, as this becomes a more viable option the further players progress. But these early stealth sections teach the player that using what little you have to evade rather than to defeat is crucial to their survival. Design choices such as not giving the player a gun until after the first hour of play make it incredibly empowering once they do find one. But this empowerment quickly passes once the player has met the owners of the mansion, the Baker Family.
The primary design element that aids the game’s pacing is the cat and mouse dichotomy between Ethan and the Bakers. Except for boss fights, the Bakers are invulnerable to death, as attacks merely cause them to stagger momentarily, which provides Ethan a moment to escape their pursuit. This retains the horror elements of the first half of the game, as these segments mostly involve sneaking around environments and attempting to avoid patrolling family members.
As with any work of horror, eventually, the scares lose their fizzle. The player can only jump so many times at a creature grabbing them, and once the player becomes accustomed to that which lurks in the dark, the shroud of darkness itself becomes less intimidating. But this is where the pacing of the game should be applauded yet again. While the first half of the game focuses more on stealthy maneuvering around environments that facilitate its strong horror aspects, the second half shifts its focus to be more combat-centric, just as the player has become used to the horror elements.
While the beginning of the game feels very much like a first-person reimagining of the original Resident Evil, the latter half shifts to more of the action-oriented gameplay of more recent Resident Evils. Whereas ammo conservation and stealth are very much a part of the first half of the game, the second half gives the player a plethora of ammo and explosives that make encounters a cinch, removing all of the carefully crafted tension and suspense of the first half. This didn’t hamper my overall impression of the game, as it made me appreciate the earlier portion of the game more and provided a welcome reprieve from the cat and mouse dichotomy.
This is the most immersive Resident Evil has ever felt, from hearing enemies talking to themselves through walls, to more subtle design choices such as Ethan placing his hand on a wall if he walks too close to it. So it’s strange that the adaptions to gameplay work so well despite the series reputation for challenging and unique puzzles are almost nonexistent in RE7. A majority of puzzles are simple fetch missions to find puzzle pieces scattered throughout the mansion. Except for one puzzle, that feels like a puzzle out of the movie Saw, these never felt like more than a slightly elevated speed bump. The player is given a brief glimpse at how puzzles can be adapted to the first person, and hopefully, this will be expanded upon in future iterations.
Another area where RE7 stumbles, and historically every other Resident Evil has as well, are its characters dialogue. While the premise and setting of RE7 are engrossing and exciting, the characters who inhabit it are not. Their dialogue is cringe-worthy, more often than not pulling me out of the experience as I have to pause to allow my eyes to roll out of my skull and back to their normal resting position. Resident Evils story and characters have never been it’s defining asset, but I was expecting more considering RE7 is a fresh start for the franchise.
RE7 isn’t perfect, and yet it is an excellent first step in the right direction for the franchise. Despite RE7 feeling very much like a reimagining of the original, which does leave something to be desired regarding a lack of new gameplay mechanics and puzzles. It could be argued that RE7 plays it safe, replicating much of what made the original so timeless, but with a new perspective and coat of paint. But this would discredit a game that has allowed a famed franchise to rediscover its roots, and returned it to its form statuses as the king of survival horror. Capcom’s self-reflection has proved fruitful in providing a genuinely terrifying experience and the best Resident Evil game of the last decade.