After decades of churning out zombie-themed fodder until it’s an unrecognizable mush far different from George Romero’s classic version, have we finally had enough? Is the bubble about to burst like a bulbous pustule leaving infected pus in its wake?
In the past decade, countless video games have included “Zombie Mode” as an uninspired afterthought and a vain attempt at adding content. Going up against waves upon waves of undead hordes have desensitized us players to the true horror of encountering a reanimated corpse. We go about the motions with the sort of mindlessness often attributed to our fleshbag foes.
Resident Evil, one of the pioneers of the survival horror genre, faced a similar problem when the series went for the action-oriented route and ditched the survival horror aspect. (Not to mention set unrealistic workout goals by featuring an impossibly jacked-up version of Chris Redfield.) Don’t get us wrong; we admire the guts it took to make a complete a genre-shift that introduced us to new and entertaining gameplay. But even that has gone a bit stale now. The infected were no longer an intimidating presence but a nuisance used as target practice.
Resident Evil 7’s first-person POV, photorealistic imagery, VR capability, original plot, and back-to-basics move could finally breathe new life into the long-running series.
Southern fried nightmare
Resident Evil 7’s events take place in an abandoned plantation nestled in the murky waters of the Louisiana bayou. The game starts with your character heading toward the house, which takes several minutes. It becomes a good opportunity to soak in the spooky scenery and get into that horror headspace.
The game obviously wants to play on the crazy hillbilly/swamp-rat stereotype. It also helps that this trope’s been heavily ingrained in pop culture thanks to MOVIES like Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
They crank it up with the introduction of the Bakers. (Cue banjo music) They’re like the cannibals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with everyone possessing Leatherface’s superhuman strength and determination to relentlessly pursue their victim.
It’s an unnerving experience hearing the Baker family’s manic dialogue (a polite Southern drawl interspersed with colorful profanities) pierce through the thick silence of the run-down plantation. They cackle with glee upon witnessing your suffering and mock any attempts to flee. We haven’t seen this much personality in antagonists since the Albert Wesker.
RE7 strips ITSELF down to the basics, amplifying your basest fears in the real world. When the Bakers aren’t around to serve up some cold-blooded torture, you’re basically left to your own devices as you explore the vast plantation and the many secrets it holds.
The game also takes the less is more approach with the fear of the unknown. Because nothing can compete with what you can conjure using your imagination.
With only a flashlight to help navigate the dark hallways, you could hardly see anything else except what’s directly ahead of you. There are long stretches of time where you are wandering aimlessly. The feeling of isolation and helplessness grows. You can audibly hear the creaking of the floorboards, the squelching of guts, the buzzing of flies around rotten food, and your own heavy breathing. You’ll eventually want to quicken the pace and frantically search the place in hopes of a way out, knowing that there’s someone else watching you, ready to pounce. This makes the player all the more vulnerable to…unpleasant surprises.
On the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from gratuitous blood and gore, spurting it everywhere including on the game screen. And thanks to photorealism, the graphic violence can leave those with weak stomachs very queasy. Be warned, you might get a mild headache from the occasional shaky camerawork inspired by modern horror films.
As you progress further, the game will continue to mess with your head and play on your paranoia. Suddenly, the quick-turn command becomes the most useful move in the game as you habitually look over your shoulder.
Ethan Winters is a protagonist whose snarky one-liners could bring a chuckle or two amidst the scares. He’s a very self-aware guy who acknowledges that absurdity of his situation and could even rival Leon Kennedy in the sarcasm department. When Ethan goes through the usual RE-style elaborate puzzles and traps, he wonders aloud, “Who builds this shit?”
Unlike previous RE heroes who either have combat training (like Leon, Jill, and Chris) or have become battle-hardened through the years (Claire and Sherry), Ethan has no idea what he’s doing. He’s the everyman who doesn’t have martial arts moves in his back pocket—this non-combatant characfter will awkwardly amble his way in order to survive. In the past games, you felt at ease knowing that your character can hold their own in a fight.
This time, you get a heightened sense of fear and awareness because you have no idea how the hell this noob will escape with his body in one piece. There are no rocket launchers or sniper rifles—the hero has to cobble together random household items in a DIY attempt to fend for himself. (Think: A flamethrower made out of a lighter and a spray can.)
Ethan also acts surprisingly calm about the whole ordeal (when a regular person would freak out) and has the audacity to snark even in the face of danger. Although he could just be hyper focused about finding his missing wife.
Reliving the horror
A nifty storytelling device involves found footage in the form of VHS tapes. Instead of being treated to a cut scene where you’ll sit idly by while twiddling your thumbs, you get to actually play the character in the video. This becomes a more interactive way of investigating and piecing together clues.
Considering that RE7 supposedly takes place in the present day, it’s jarring to see tape recorders, rotary phones, and VHS tapes scattered around the house mixed in with modern-day tech.
Stealth Is Wealth
The survival horror game takes a cue from RE1 as well as other games of the genre like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Silent Hill.
There will be moments where you must play a twisted version of hide-and-seek with your opponents in order to survive. Even worse, you won’t even be equipped with a knife at times, which puts a lot more pressure into staying hidden.
Like in the last three RE installments, you’ll have to play Tetris with your inventory space. This part is so vital that it may as well count as as a mini-game as you struggle to stash your guns, key items, herbs, and other things.
Ethan’s speed can also be a cause for frustration when you’re trying to escape more than one creature that’s out for blood. The guy could barely make a decent sprint—this game got too real.
And without spoiling anything, you’ll encounter a “moral dilemma” of sorts, where you’re forced to make a decision. However, the choice seems fairly obvious and so it seems more like a phoned-in attempt for drama, which falls flat. It’s the only time you’ll have to select how to progress in the game and it seems pointless and unnecessary.
Resident Evil 7 has an overarching theme about family and this is the main motivation for the characters. But what does it drive them to do? The premise is intriguing enough that you’ll want to delve further into the game to find out.
RE7 is able to welcome new players to the franchise but doesn’t alienate its core audience. Novice players won’t feel lost as the game’s narrative is a standalone of sorts and doesn’t require prior knowledge of the Umbrella Corp. storyline. RE veterans will appreciate the elements taken from the first game and have something entirely new to look forward to.
The developers thankfully fixed past grievances by removing quick-time events and button mashing sequences (you’ll find some required button commands here and there but that’s it) that tend to take you out of the experience entirely. That improvement is a good sign of the franchise heading in the right direction.
Despite its flaws, playing through the story is a hauntingly beautiful and memorable experience. It’s not as clean-cut as you would think with most characters slowly becoming more sympathetic as the game goes on. It’s a much needed breather from the fast-paced action of the main RE storyline.
Having the game’s events take place inside a family house feels symbolic—like RE as a whole is returning home to its beginnings and what made it a beloved franchise in the first place. A journey inwards to the self it lost along the way.
If you want to learn more about the RE7 lore post-game, there are several downloadable content (DLC) that have been released: Banned Footage Vol. 1 (Nightmare and Bedroom), Banned Footage Vol. 2 (21 and Daughters), Ethan Must Die, and Jack’s 55th Birthday.
There’s another DLC coming out on April called Not A Hero and we suggest that you finish the game before trying that one out to avoid spoilers.