“Dead Space ruined my ability to be startled” was the lie I’ve been telling myself for years. And I said it so often, that it became a catch-all for lambasting horror games. And, well…I was wrong.
I was so horribly wrong.
See, I’m one of those old, jaded gamers who believes that they’ve seen it all; not unlike those movie, music or comic elitists who constantly moan that “(Game B) is ok, but it’s no (Game A),” especially when it comes to horror titles.
Next to 1992’s “Alone in the Dark” on PC (yes, it was creepy to 12 year old me), the original Resident Evil was the first game to genuinely scare the everloving shit out of me. I knew nothing about the franchise, save for that it was “pretty damn scary,” and when I bought my first PC graphics card (a now-ancient 3DFX Voodoo 3) it came bundled with the Resident Evil Director’s Cut. At the time, I was working nights and going to school during the day, so I barely had time to install the card, and begin installing the game disc. When I got home at midnight from work, I decided I would fire up Resident Evil and play for an hour or so before crashing out.
The next day at school, I was a jittery, jumpy mess. Not only did I NOPE the fuck out at the first zombie appearance (“wait…they can FOLLOW YOU INTO OTHER ROOMS!?”) but the “long hallway zombie doberman” sequence was definitely a watershed, HOLY SHIT WTFBBQ moment for jump scares in my life…and for video games overall.
In fact, Resident Evil has been the pioneer of innovative scares, with the Licker arrivals in Resident Evil 2, “random” glass bursts and Nemesis arrivals in Resident Evil 3 and Resident Evil 4’s chainsaw introduction. Resident Evil 5 and 6, while atmospheric, seemed less about the horror element, and more about the SHOOT ALL THE THINGS style of third-person gaming…and as a die hard Resident Evil franchise fanboy, the luster started to tarnish.
Dead Space arrived around 2008, and I jumped franchise trains and never looked back…especially when Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles came out. Of course, nothing good can last (as Dead Space 3 finally succumbed to the “action over terror” curse) and I was left with no horror franchise to champion.
Cut to PT’s haunting, atmospheric demo where we got to experience a first-person game from Kojima studios, that was injected with extra weirdness from Guillermo Del Toro. The title was ultimately scrapped by Sony, but not before making an indelible impression on the gaming community, not only for it’s creepy atmosphere, but for it’s various endings and bizarre easter eggs.
Capcom rode PT’s hype train last June when it released the “Kitchen” demo for Biohazard: Resident Evil, a radical departure from other RE titles, due to its first-person perspective and shifting endings; the demo was later patched and additional locations were added, to boost replay value.
Before I get too much into what I loved about the retail version, I should point out (and reinforce) that even though you can do certain things out of order, the retail game is almost completely linear–with the exception of a “choice” at the end. If you were hoping to get the PT-ish demo for 7-8 hours, you’ll be somewhat let down. Sure, upon completion, you’ll be able to play it at the Madhouse difficulty (an arrange-style mode that features faster, stronger enemies, and less prevalent items), but that’s about it. There’s plenty of exploration and items you’ll almost certainly miss the first time around, so replay value is decent…especially if you’re a completionist.
Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way…holy shit is Resident Evil 7 terrifying. Back when we reviewed Far Cry 3, I mentioned that it made me confront my fears, from deep water, to being hunted by apex predators, to literal heights that left my palms sweaty. Resident Evil 7 exploits all of your fears, and then some. Skeeved out by bugs? They got cha. Squeamish about gore? Check. Creeped out by dark, creepy houses with creaky floors? Done. Oh, what about being relentlessly pursued by nearly invulnerable enemies? They have you covered.
Simply put, Resident Evil 7 is an 8-to-12 hour exercise in anxiety…but boy is it a fun ride. Is it always enjoyable? Hell. No. But it’s definitely exhilarating. There were times where I’d catch myself playing with my foot fully extended, as if I was stomping an invisible brake pedal, and moments where I’d almost throw the controller after being caught off guard. Mostly, I’d end up sitting with my legs crossed, leaning forward, precariously balanced on the couch, with my shoulders locked into a defensive slouch. It was weird…but Resident Evil 7 definitely elicited a physical response from me while playing.
The suspense (and outright terror) is mostly due to the first person perspective and the constrained movement speed, which only gets slower as you take damage. Sure, you have the ability to do a quick about-face in sticky situations, but I would honestly forget to do it, and the times that I did remember, I’d end up facing an odd corner or wall. Instead of using the “one click 180”, I just ratcheted up the turning sensitivity, which helped slightly.
I don’t think enough has been said about the hindrance of movement–it forces you into the shoes of the victim in every horror movie, relentlessly pursued by the overpowered villain. This anxiety is compounded by a greater emphasis on inventory management, and the need to constantly prepare for what could literally be right around the corner.
In terms of level design, Capcom really outdid themselves this time around. The moldering Louisiana home is teeming with trash, bugs, wet surfaces and a cavalcade of creepy “old house” sounds. If you’re playing with a good surround system, or a pair of 6/7.1 headphones, just the act of moving around the mansion is enough to give you the willies. Each creak will have you looking behind you, and each slosh and squish of mold will have you gripping your controller tighter. It’s a truly gorgeous, visceral experience that will stick with you. Plus, if you happen to be triggered by people hoarding, you’ll have a heebie-jeebie field day!
There’s a lot of the story that I want to discuss, but I’m also wary of the possibility for spoilers. So here’s my most spoiler-free account. You play (mostly…but I’ll get to that later) as a guy named Ethan, whose wife vanished three years prior. Recently, he got a video-log from his long lost wife telling him implicitly NOT to come find her…as well as an address. Being the consummate hero (and oddly, not alerting the police) he drives to a mansion deep in the heart of the Louisiana swamps to rescue her. Not surprisingly, this is when shit takes a drastic turn. Upon arrival, the house appears to be abandoned, with maggot riddled dishes in the sink, rotten food in the fridge and moldy…well…everything.
(mild spoilers ahead)
Throughout RE7, you’ll be interacting with (and often hiding from) the Bakers; a family straight out of Deliverance, who also happen to be regenerating pain junkies…and are also compulsive hoarders, apparently. Each family member has a “thing” that they’re known for, and you’ll come up against them several times throughout the narrative. The key term I need to reinforce is that they’re regenerating pain junkies, so save your bullets for when they’re necessary, as you’ll only be able to incapacitate the Bakers for a short amount of time. Learn to hide, and listen for proximal sound clues. If all else fails: RUN and dose yourself with health. Learn where the good hiding places are, as well as which doors lead where….it could literally save your life.
The narrative of the game takes a turn when you discover a videotape and a VHS player, connected to a TV that’s blaring static.
The “found footage” segments are integral to the story, and serve two distinct purposes: they provide a reprieve from current stressful situations, and they often have expositional story and/or level information that will help you in future “real time” (as opposed to the prior events of the tapes).
Sure, technically you can always just hit “pause” if you need a breather, but that always feels like cheating to me. One of the first times that I was playing hide-and-seek with Jack, I stumbled upon a tape and used it to take a breather from trying to stay alive. To me, the tapes provided a guilt-free experience, because none of the character deaths affected me directly; I never felt bad when one of the narrators died, since they weren’t technically “me.”
The actual use of the tapes is to shine light on a new area, ability or item that you wouldn’t have previously discovered on your own…like a secret switch or puzzle combination, etc.
Like all items in the game, tapes take up valuable inventory space, so you’ll have to either use them right away, or ferret them away in a storage crate for later use. Resident Evil 7’s storage mechanic mirrors its previous titles, and it makes me crazy…only because I’ve been spoiled by other FPS mechanics that simply let you drop unnecessary items. Once you play the tapes, unlock all the themed doors, use the miscellaneous widgets and doodads that you need to complete puzzles, the item will usually end up back in your inventory, which can be annoying when you run into items that you really need but can’t pick up because your boxes are all full. On the upside, full exploration of the houses will get you backpacks, which will expand your storage slots.
That being said, there were only a couple moments in out 12 hour playthrough where I was legitimately out of options. Hell, when all else fails, RUN…or reload your save and try it a different way. It was during one of these moments where I noticed something odd: after my seventh attempt at a certain boss battle, I was doing my pre-fight collection of local items, and I realized that the box I had repeatedly broken to find a health tonic, suddenly started yielding bullets instead. I reloaded my save. Same thing. I did this four more times, until just saying screw it and fighting the boss again. I lost. Again. And upon reloading, the crate had health spray again. I finally won after an unconventional run where I just threw everything I had at them.
That’s kind of the unofficial secret of RE7–all the bosses are basically bullet-sponges, and battles pretty much consist of going balls-out and dumping every last bullet that you’ve stockpiled. Sure, there are some areas where locational damage is preferred, but by and large, it’s just a ridiculous shitshow of gunfire, grenades and flamethrowers.
And what would Resident Evil be without monsters? In addition to the gross Bakers, you’ll also be dealing with creepy insects and a whole new species of B.O.W. (Bio Organic Weapons), codenamed “Molded” which are one part Xenomorph, one part zombie and a splash of Majini (from RE5). They’re humanoid bullet sponges that are only truly vulnerable to headshots, but given that they crawl, wobble and lunge, getting a shot in isn’t always easy.
Finishing the game unlocks a sort of “arrange” mode, called “Madhouse” which features a harder difficulty, less items (which have also been moved around) and no auto-saving. You’ll also encounter enemies and items in new locations. If you finish the game in under four hours, break all the bobbleheads, use three or less healing tonics, etc. you’ll also be given new items on the next playthrough, which can give you more ammo, better blocking ability, the ability to tag items in an area, etc. It’s a nifty little bonus to keep you playing, but I got frustrated with Madhouse in my second hour…it lives up to its name.
All in all, though Resident Evil 7 is a bizarre step in the right direction. Capcom has reclaimed its hold on the creep factor of survival horror, while adding in a whole new chapter into the Biohazard mythos. As fasr as where it fits in the whole Resident Evil timeline is anybody’s guess, since familiar people and logos are changed rather drastically. Is it a soft reboot of the franchise? Is first-person the new direction that the series is heading in? Any way you slice it, I’m IN!