Resident Evil 7 is a triumphant return for a troubled franchise, with only a few nagging missteps keeping it from greatness.
The quietly bland protagonist of Resident Evil VII fades from existence within the first minutes of the game due to the franchise adopting a first-person perspective. The moment you step up to the gates of the Dulvey estate, you’re the one watching for predators. There is an unnerving rattle of the chain locking you out; it’s a hollow sound, too loud for the grave-like silence that permeates your heavily wooded surroundings. The house stares down at you with quiet malice.
From that moment, it’s clear that Resident Evil 7 is going to be different. This isn’t the high concept horror of an action hero braving hordes of shambling corpses, but the seedy dread of hidden atrocities. Every step of your exploration will be laced with that same feeling of constant wrongness, of mortal danger from which you are never more than temporarily hidden. Resident Evil 7 stalks you.
The shift to first-person surpasses the level of dread that the fixed perspective camera of previous Resident Evil entries used to. Rather than the meta-game feeling of paranoia due to clumsy controls and an artificially restricted view of your surroundings, the first-person camera ensures you can only ever see threats encroaching from one direction. A floorboard creaks to your right. Something scrapes in the darkness ahead. The door behind you slams shut. There is no “safe” direction to look, no manner in which to easily retreat from the creeping horror. Resident Evil 7 feels dangerous in a way that very few games achieve.
All of this is captured with haunting visual and auditory splendor, in one of the most technically accomplished releases I’ve ever seen. With all of the game’s various visual settings maximized, the game regularly verges on the photorealistic. The audio rivals the best work ever done in video games — even the most nondescript room is plagued by the distant splatter of rain, creaks and scratches and moans that come from everywhere and nowhere. Playing in surround sound, or with a good headset, is a terrifying experience in all of the best ways.
It’s a shame that so much of that audio/visual splendor disappears once enemies are on the screen. Clumsy ribbon-like hair physics and terrible mouth animation are a jarring departure from the detailed design of each antagonist, momentarily reminding you that these threats aren’t real. The expressions on the faces of the characters just don’t match the ventriloquist-dummy flapping of their jaws. And while the voice work is competently performed, it still suffers from the awkward translation from Japanese to English that has become a recurring theme throughout Resident Evil‘s history.
Once the action really began, I was startled by just how tight the game’s shooting felt. Weaponry has heft and impact, and its flashing roars walk the line between making you afraid to attract attention and feeling temporarily god-like in your righteous fury. But in many cases, no weapon will suffice. The Baker family is virtually unkillable — something that the game takes great pains to show you throughout the first hours. In many cases, your only choice will be frantic retreat.
Here, too, Resident Evil 7 sometimes loses its way. While the “boss” encounters are frightening, they’re also frustrating. Each one is a bullet sponge, and it’s almost always difficult to tell whether you’re having any effect at all or if you’re missing some mechanic necessary to advance the fight. At times I was forced to retry a fight over and over again, because I simply could not discern how to “win” the encounter.
To make things murkier still, many of these encounters don’t even have a victory condition, per se. Sometimes the game just wants you to do something that clearly doesn’t work, for long enough to progress the event. It’s counter-intuitive, and can definitely prove frustrating. You’ve repeatedly demonstrated that bullets have no effect on “Daddy” Baker. Why then do I need to spend several clips on him before I am mechanically allowed to do him real harm?
Aside from these off-pace encounters, combat is about halfway to sheer brilliance. While the guns themselves are exceptionally well designed, the enemies you are allowed to kill are all very similar in both appearance and behavior. Because of that, parts of the game begin to lose their sense of dread before their time. Once you see the mess of oily black crawling over the walls, you know what to expect. The initial fear of the unknown dissipates, and you’re left counting how many bullets to your enemies’ heads you’ve fired to make sure you have enough for whatever’s next.
Finally, the frustrations of Resident Evil‘s inventory system returns. It’s been simplified and severely limited, as has crafting. And while both are staples of the franchise, too often it becomes a hassle of juggling half a dozen key items, while still trying to scavenge what you need to make medicine or ammunition. It’s another unwelcome intrusion on the game’s carefully crafted atmosphere, but it will feel comfortably familiar to series veterans.
The game is a healthy 10 or so hours long, slowly transforming from creeping dread to desperate action. It ends with just enough left unsaid to continue the tale, and I truly hope that’s the case. This is a phenomenal first effort at something new for a franchise that had gotten decidedly stale in its last few iterations and a fresh take on Resident Evil’s trademark brand of survival horror.
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