Game review: Resident Evil 7 will scare you out of your chair
With its shift to a first-person perspective and its carefully engineered and unpredictable shocks, RE7 is a masterclass in the horror survival genre and a terrific addition to the more illustrious entries in the series
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Who lives in a house like this? It’s a question the Japanese horror series Resident Evil has been asking of its players since 1996, when it first locked us inside an aristocratic mansion on the outskirts of Racoon City, somewhere in the American Midwest.
There, behind creaking doors and sliding oak panels, the answer was a grotesque menagerie of ragged zombies, bloody Dobermans and terrifying Homeric snakes. Since then, both the locale and the locals have changed, from Resident Evil 4’s sojourn to a dejected Spanish forest to the fifth game’s contentious trip to sweltering African townships.
Swampy, buzzing Louisiana is the setting for this, the seventh game, which takes its cues not from Hammer Horror but from Truman Capote’s harrowing non-fiction novel In Cold Blood and 1974 slasher film Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Protagonist Ethan Winters arrives at the gates of a derelict house on the edge of a fetid bayou on the trail of his presumed-dead wife, Mia.
Inside the home he finds the Bakers, a hick family who live in squalor. There’s a dead crow in the microwave. There’s a cascade of offal in the fridge. There’s a mangled deer in the cellar. What else would you expect from a family that built a morgue in the basement?
With its shift to a first-person perspective, Resident Evil 7 looks like a vivid reinvention. In fact, it rigorously follows the template established by the formative games in the series. There’s the complicated house, its various wings and tiers segmented by implausibly contrived locking mechanisms, fed by increasingly ornate keys.
There are the virus-maddened monsters that grow in power and appendages over the course of the story. There’s the inventory management, which requires you to meticulously choose what items to carry with you in those mad dashes between safe rooms, places where you record your progress via cassette answerphones. There’s a familiar shift in pace and location near the end.
There are additions and tweaks, too, which contemporise the formula. Chief among these is a new and unprecedented focus on the “horror” component of the “survival horror” genre, a label of Resident Evil’s invention.
In the earliest games, in which you controlled your character from third-person vantage points, horror stemmed from the awkwardness of the controls. Your character had to be turned on the spot, before, more often than not, you steered him clumsily into a wall. Now there is a greater emphasis on jump scares and frighteners, the effectiveness of which is grimly compounded by the perspective shift. You must watch as Ethan wincingly pulls a dart from his hand, or look down into the hateful face of your attacker as he lifts you into the air.
The cumulative effect of all that adrenaline is eventually one of terror fatigue and nausea. You learn to glance down at your phone when creaking open a new door in order to lessen the effects of the screech and screen shudder if something grabs your face on the other side. The designers are wise to such evasive manoeuvres, and position their scares at unexpected intervals. Merely playing the game on a television screen is, at times, enough to reduce a player to a trembling mess. Anyone reckless enough to visit this hell vision of Louisiana in virtual reality (an option with the PlayStation Pro version of the game), risks sustaining a major injury as they jump out of their seat on countless occasions.
The battle is not only with your own fear (those discordant violins, the mad pianos, the creeping horror of your own footsteps: effective clichés all) or those slobbering monsters. It’s also with the game’s economy. All threats must be eliminated with the minimal possible expenditure of ammunition. The more efficient you are in combat, the more ammunition you’ll be able to stockpile for the next encounter.
Resident Evil 4 from 2005 was an astonishing redefinition, not only of its series but also, thanks to the introduction of the “over-the-shoulder” perspective, of third-person action games in general. Resident Evil 7’s impact is more localised, but no less effective.
Reinventing older game series to fit ever expanding technological boundaries while maintaining their essence is one of the great challenges in game design. Indeed, it’s one that Resident Evil’s creators have failed to meet on numerous occasions. Resident Evil 7, by contrast, is a masterclass: breezily new, yet quintessentially in character with its illustrious forbearers.