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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Resident Evil 7: "Survival-Horror's Back, Baby!"

I used to consider myself a fan of the Resident Evil series, from the slow-paced adventure-style gameplay of the originals to the stronger action focus of the fourth main installment. But ever since Resident Evil 5, which I found to be an underwhelming letdown, I've found myself cynically jaded by the barrage of sequels and spin-offs to have been churned out by the grand corporate machine. Revelations seemed promising, but ended up subtly disappointing me on every front. I never even bothered with Resident Evil 6, and I was super skeptical of Resident Evil 7 at first. Claiming that it was taking heavy inspiration from the series' roots while adding a modernized twist on the classic formula (in the form of the first-person perspective, a series first), I was a little worried that it was going to be just another haunted house jump-scare simulator with little in the way of actual gameplay.

It certainly seemed that way for the first 30 minutes, but once I got past that introduction sequence and starting exploring the main part of the game, it really started to shine, and I realized: this is the most Resident Evil-feeling game I've played in a long, long time. It really does capture that old-school vibe of exploring a spooky house, searching for convoluted keys to ridiculously locked doors and solving puzzles to progress, while managing a limited supply of ammunition and healing items, and occasionally fighting or running away from enemies. A handful of boss battles cause the intensity to spike periodically, but Resident Evil 7 is much more of a true survival-horror game than an action shooter, despite the "innovative" first-person shooter perspective, which I might add actually does a lot for the game's atmosphere and immersion.

Resident Evil 7 begins with its protagonist, Ethan Thomas Winters, driving deep into the Louisiana bayou after receiving an email from his wife, Mia, who's been missing and presumed dead for three years. The message reads simply: "Dulvey, Lousiana. Baker farm. Come get me." Upon arriving at the Baker estate, Ethan finds the main gate locked, and has to make a trek around the swamp to enter the guest house through the backdoor, where he finds Mia locked in a cell in the basement. After rescuing her, Mia turns on him, seemingly possessed by some malevolent entity, and attacks him, first with a knife and then with a chainsaw. Ethan is forced to kill Mia -- twice, apparently -- but gets his hand sawed off in the process. He's then knocked out by the head of the household, Jack Baker, who welcomes him to the family as Ethan passes out. During fleeting moments of consciousness, he sees his hand reattached to his arm, and then wakes up tied to a chair having a grotesque, cannibalistic dinner with the Baker family. The rest of the game is about Ethan trying to escape from the Baker estate while finding a way to cure Mia.

Being attacked by Psycho-Mia in the Guest House.

The story is one of the main things that sets Resident Evil 7 apart from other recent entries in the series. This isn't a typical Resident Evil plot about saving the world from a viral outbreak, or stopping a villainous shadow corporation's nefarious plans. It's a very simple, down-to-earth scenario about a guy trying to meet up with his presumed-dead wife and getting trapped in a creepy house by a murderous family. Even though you should intuitively know right off the bat that there's more going on in the Baker household than what's readily apparent, the main setup is a much more personal story that's grounded in reality, which makes it easier to become immersed in the story and setting, and also easier to care about the main character and what he's trying to accomplish, even if his portrayal sometimes misses the mark.

Ethan has elements of being a silent protagonist -- you spend most of the game exploring the house by yourself, and so Ethan rarely talks or reacts to anything happening around him, thus allowing you to inject your own emotion into the majority of scenarios without clashing with the player character -- but he also talks whenever another character interacts with him. Capcom strikes a good balance between talking and silence, but I never grew to appreciate Ethan as a character. He has no personality and we never learn anything about his background or his relationship with Mia, so he's essentially just Protagonist-Man the entire game. Which is totally fine -- again, that makes it easier to put yourself in his shoes and become the main character yourself -- but it took me a little while to gel with him, because Ethan's behavior during the heavily-scripted 30-minute introduction sequence kept feeling totally at odds with what he should be doing or what I would be doing.

When you're forced to kill Mia that first time, it's meant to be emotionally shocking; you plunge a hatchet into her neck, her face turns back to normal, and then she gives you a sad look before collapsing on the floor. And Ethan makes no reaction whatsoever to the fact that he just (apparently) killed his own wife. I felt enough emotion as the player in that scenario that he didn't need to say anything to convey the emotional impact of the scene, but if you're going to give the protagonist a voice and let his desire to reunite with his wife be the motivating factor in getting into this game, then he really needs to say something in that moment. Soon after, a sheriff's deputy shows up outside the house, and while asking for help Ethan does everything in his power to sound as suspicious as possible. Not once does he say "these people kidnapped my wife and are now holding me hostage here too, and oh by the way they might be murderous psychopathic cannibals."

Dinner with the Baker family; Granny's off-camera to the left.

The Baker family, meanwhile, serve as really strong antagonists who also add a lot to the story as it progresses. Instead of sitting somewhere off-screen the whole game as theoretical threats that have to be stopped, they're constantly showing up to try to kill your or block your progress. You have recurring encounters with them and interact with them directly through actual gameplay, which makes their presence in the game feel genuinely threatening any time they show up, and lets you develop that personal, antagonistic relationship with them. I also like the fact that they're just regular, ordinary people (who happen to have been infected by something that gives them regenerative powers while perhaps also driving them slightly mad), as opposed to the cartoon-ish super villains the series has been known for. They feel more like real people you can actually relate to when they tell you they like being immortal and don't want to go back to the way things were.

The game seems to take a lot of influences from other horror media -- the premise of receiving a message from your long-dead wife about meeting somewhere is straight out of Silent Hill 2, the dinner scene is straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (complete with a vegetative, elderly relative seated at the table), the slow movement speed and first-person melee combat reminded me a bit of Condemned: Criminal Origins, the setting (an old mansion, owned by a mysterious family in the Louisiana bayou, with story elements relating to possession) kept giving me flashbacks to The Skeleton Key, and driving up to a building and being led down a linear path through scripted jump-scares felt too much like Outlast for my taste) -- all of which is much more prominent up front than the classic Resident Evil influence, which doesn't manifest itself until an hour or more into the game when you finally start getting some freedom to explore the mansion.

Resident Evil 7 really does feel a lot like the original Resident Evil, but of course with the brand new first-person perspective and some modern streamlining. A lot of it has to do with the level design, with the Baker estate branching out in all directions as you find keys and solve puzzles to unlock new areas. The main house lies at the center of the map, and through the yard you can connect to the rotting old house, the green house, the barn, and the boat house. With the exception of the guest house, which you only access during the intro sequence, you have permanent access to all areas of the Baker estate as you unlock them, meaning it's always possible (and sometimes necessary) to backtrack to previous areas, at virtually any time. You might, for instance, need an item from the green house to unlock the second floor of the old house, or an item from the basement of the main house to reach the attic. As you gain keys, you might also remember that you can backtrack to unlock optional areas for extra rewards before pressing forward in the game.

Fighting a molded in the main hall of the Baker house.

You're constantly running into usable things in the environment that you just can't use yet, which creates a pretty engaging desire to figure out how to use those things, and it becomes really satisfying when you finally get a key to a door that's been locked and inaccessible for the last several hours, or when you find a weird figurine and realize that it's the missing piece to the shadow puzzle in the main hall. One of my favorite moments was when I found a repair kit in a hidden area of the house, and remembered that I had used a broken shotgun to weigh down the pressure plate to get the regular shotgun out of the locked chamber, and that if I was willing to go back and swap the regular shotgun for the broken one, I could repair it and presumably get a stronger shotgun. These sort of things aren't really puzzles -- for the most part, you're just bringing an item from one location to another to gain another item or to unlock a door -- but you still have to make the connection between what items go where and also remember where everything is, which requires at least some logic and thus feels sufficiently rewarding most of the time.

Despite the close resemblance to the original Resident Evil, there aren't a lot of actual puzzles in Resident Evil 7, and the few that exist can barely be called puzzles. If my memory is correct, I count seven puzzles that aren't just "bring item here," that require you to actually do something to solve the puzzle. Four of these are shadow puzzles, where you have to rotate an object in a beam of light to form the right shadow on the wall. A neat idea, but there's an outline on the wall that shows exactly what you're aiming for; I would've preferred some sort of riddle and for the player to figure out what the shape is supposed to be on their own. Another puzzle involves setting the hands on a clock to the right time, but the solution is written on a piece of paper literally right next to it, so there's absolutely no deduction or logic involved. Again, it would've been nice to solve a riddle or find some pattern in the environment. Then there's a puzzle where you have to rotate paintings on one wall so that they match the orientation of matching paintings on another wall, which again is really shallow and takes zero effort or thought to solve.

Not sure I can make a swooping hawk shape with this herb.

So in the entire game, there's only one actual puzzle, which takes the form of an Escape Room in an almost Saw-esque torture chamber. The premise is that you're locked in an area with a couple of small rooms and have to figure out how to light the candles on a birthday cake. The solution involves an entire series of actions that have to be done (mostly) in a certain order, and for once the game doesn't offer you any hints -- it's entirely on you to solve the puzzle. Like other "puzzles" in the game, this one suffers a bit from typical adventure game logic (there's only one way to sever the rope sealing the one door shut, when in reality there should be several valid options just based on what's lying around the room), but I thought it was a really good moment that challenged me to think outside the box, and it stood out as one of the most memorable sequences of the game.

That's a real accomplishment, because every single area in this game is full of memorable setpieces. Each area has its own unique theming and tends to introduce some kind of new gameplay mechanism, whether it be a new type of enemy, a new weapon, special encounters with different family members, or a complete shift in tone. The old house features a bunch of giant bugs and insect swarms, and requires you to assemble the flamethrower to destroy their nests so that you can navigate the lower floor more easily. The second floor of the old house is a straight up haunted house with weird, creepy stuff going on and the occasional jump scare. The testing area and barn are like an obstacle course filled with traps that make you nervous with every step you take. And each room within these areas has something unique and interesting going on; when I replayed the game, I found myself vividly remembering each and every room as I stepped into it: "an enemy is going to spawn right there; the item I need is in over there; I need to do this to unlock the thing."

If I have one complaint about the level design, it's that the areas in the second half of the game aren't as interesting as those in the first half. Lucas's section in the testing area and barn felt particularly underwhelming; you see the area from outside for several hours before gaining access to it, and you see all these red and blue strobe lights, day-glo paint splattered everywhere, and hear loud, pounding dance music. It seems like you're going to be entering a rave where the loud music and flashing lights will make it hard to hear and see enemies coming for you, but then you get in there and it's just a bunch of drab, boring storage rooms. Then you get to the barn and it doesn't really feel like a barn. The abandoned ship (which comes after the game's Point of No Return, when you leave the Baker estate) has a lot of really cool gameplay elements going on, but it's kind of hard to get excited about walking around metal hallways and bulkheads, and the subsequent salt mine is just a bunch of gray tunnels with occasional mining equipment lying around.

The catwalks behind the old house up against the swamp.

If I have two complaints about the level design, it's that there's really only one route through the entire game. The game allows for plenty of possibilities for backtracking to do things in optional rooms for extra rewards, but the main things you have to do to advance in the game all have to be done in a very specific order, every time you play the game. You have to get the keys and crawl under the house, then you have to do the garage fight, then you have to go upstairs and get the shadow puzzle piece, then you have to go through the secret tunnel to reach the basement, and so on. It would've been cool, I feel, if there had been a few moments when the main route forked in two or three directions, and you could choose what order to complete the different forks. It's not a knock against the game, but it does feel like Capcom missed an opportunity to make exploration even better than it already is.

The atmosphere, though, is so strong in this game. The lighting, shadows, focus, everything does such a good job of bringing that first-person perspective to life. The range of the flashlight, the way it casts the screen in a sort of vignette, and the way enemies and pieces of the environment move into the light and into focus as you move around is really eerie; I can only imagine how immersive that opening sequence with Mia coming straight at you with the knife would be in virtual reality. In terms of textures and art style, the Baker house feels genuinely grimy and rotten just by the way everything looks. There's a lot of top-notch ambient sound as well; leaves rustling, crickets chirping, grass compressing under your footsteps, brushing up against vegetation, the wind picking up for a moment and howling through the trees, the occasional shutter slamming against the house in the wind, thunder in the distance, trash rustling, wind chimes, then the occasional shriek or something weird off in the distance. This is all stuff you hear just walking around the back yard. You're always buried under a constant layer of ambient noises, which creates this sensation that there's always something going on around you.

Any other requests while we're at it?

I wouldn't say the game is overtly scary, but then again nothing ever really scares me in video games anymore. That being said, it definitely sets up good moods where spooky stuff is going on, which instilled a feeling of dread in me that something bad was going to happen. You're about to play a piano and the cover slides down on its own; later on there's another piano and you hear someone plinking random notes on it, but when you go to check it out there's no one there. Grandma keeps randomly showing up places, silently staring at you as you walk around. A ball comes randomly bouncing into the kid's room from off camera, or toy dolls fall out of the ceiling. This stuff is all weird and creepy in its own right, but coupled with the survival mechanics of conserving health and supplies with the constant threat of enemies around possibly every corner, or even having them ambush you suddenly, really makes you fear for your well-being in the game.

Instead of a zombie virus or a parasitic plague, the enemies in Resident Evil 7 are the result of a fungus-like bacteria that spreads through the body eating cells. The enemies you fight, called molded, are people whose bodies have been completely taken over by the mold, or are separate manifestations created by the mold itself. They behave like zombies, however; they're all mindless drones that slowly lumber toward you and try to slash at you. Some of them are basic versions, others have a big spiky arm with special, extra-devastating attacks, others run on all fours and leap long distances, others are taller fatsos that spew bile at you. These enemies, in proper survival-horror fashion, are used sparingly; in the span of an hour, you might only fight 6-10 molded, which is enough for you to feel threatened by every enemy you encounter without shifting the focus away from exploration and puzzle-solving.

I see a little silhouetto of some mold.

The combat is functional, but surprisingly difficult for how slow and methodical it is. You basically need to aim for headshots at all times, and although the enemies don't move very fast, they move just unpredictably enough by wobbling awkwardly, attacking unexpectedly, lurching forward when you think they're not going to, and so on, that you can feel like you've got a perfect headshot lined up and quickly miss two or three shots and fall into a panic as an enemy's suddenly in your face clawing at you. When that happens, you can press a button to block enemy attacks (if you time the block correctly, you'll negate a ton damage) and/or whip out your trusty knife and slash at the molded's face. Over the course of the game you get access to a couple of 9mm pistols, a couple of shotguns, a flamethrower, a grenade launcher, a sub machine gun, remote bombs, and a 44 magnum.

That may seem like a lot of firepower, but Resident Evil 7 brings back an emphasis on inventory management, meaning you can only carry so many weapons and so much ammunition (in addition to other things like healing items, keys, and puzzle items) at a time. Inventory space becomes even tighter if you decide to replay the game, because each upgrade that you unlock (walking shoes for faster movement, the secrets of survival guide that decreases damage received when you block, x-ray glasses that pinpoint where all the items are, and so on) all take up inventory space, so if you want to be super-powered Ethan you end up filling most of your inventory slots with those upgrades, which makes it harder to carry things like ammunition and healing items because you still need to fill inventory slots with keys and puzzle items. While the inventory system is not as much of a fun, elaborate puzzle as Resident Evil 4's, it gets the job done by forcing you to weigh pros and cons of what items and equipment you choose to take with you, and what you leave behind.

Curses. Foiled again by carrying too many keys and puzzle items.

Scattered throughout the game are hidden antique coins, which function like a currency for buying upgrades from bird cages at the central save point in the yard. By spending three coins you can buy a permanent upgrade to your maximum health; with five coins you can buy a permanent increase to your reload speed; and for nine coins you can buy the 44 magnum. These coins are sometimes found lying around in obvious places, but a lot of times they're hidden much more discreetly, like behind a picture frame leaning against a wall, or inside of a tall, narrow vase, so it behooves you to be thorough in your exploration. It's kind of disappointing, though, that there are are only three upgrades to buy with the coins; I feel like it would've been nice to have some more options. In addition to coins, you can find "Mr Everywhere" bobblehead dolls scattered throughout the game; these, by themselves, are worthless, but if you can find and destroy all 20 then you'll unlock bonus equipment for future playthroughs.

Although the game adheres pretty closely to the traditional "old school" survival-horror formula, I feel like supplies are a little too easy to come by. You're almost always free to avoid combat by running past an enemy (except for bosses, you must fight and kill bosses), which is a classic strategy for conserving ammunition and not risking damage by getting into a fight, but that can make it harder to explore and loot the area, and you have to remember that there's an enemy there if you ever return to that spot. But there's enough ammo plentifully available in Resident Evil 7 that you can kill every enemy in sight and still have plenty of ammo to spare. There's exactly one section of the game where you basically have to avoid enemies because you lose your entire inventory, and it's easily the scariest, most tense section of the game because you have to scrounge for weapons and ammo and can't afford to fight most enemies you come by. Basically, I miss that feeling of the original games, of having only four bullets to kill five zombies, of having to prioritize your targets and pick your battles while making every single shot count.

Then again, the bosses are such bullet-sponge tanks that you really do need all that ammo just to fight them. Each boss feels incredibly unique, tense, and exciting, but it can get repetitive spending 5-10 minutes pumping lead into their weak spots and feeling like you're making no progress whatsoever, because they just keep regenerating and coming back to fight you. This gave me false feedback in some of the earlier fights; I thought I was doing something wrong, which led me to waste a bunch of time and effort trying different things when I was apparently on the right track from the beginning, but had no way of knowing that I just needed to keep doing what I was doing another several dozens times to win. The bosses need to have a ton of health and soak up a ton of damage in order to feel like the powerful, massive threats that they are and to make the fights feel drawn-out and exasperating for both you and your character (they definitely succeed at all of that), but they sometimes got to feel more tedious or annoying than fun.

One of the bosses in the game, a hideous blob of fungal mass.

The campaign lasts roughly 9-12 hours, but it feels much longer than that because the game is so methodically-paced with that slow-mounting survival-horror tension. It took me closer to 20 hours to complete my first playthrough because I was being so thorough exploring every inch of every room for hidden loot, being super cautious when advancing to new areas, and having to replay some of the bosses and harder sequences multiple times. There's a ton of replay value, too; when you beat the game for the first time you unlock the Madhouse difficulty, which brings back the limited save system from the originals where you need to spend cassette tapes (instead of ink ribbons) every time you save your game, while also rearranging the item and enemy placement for a slightly different gameplay experience. Plus, you can unlock special upgrades and fun new weapons for beating the game on Madhouse, completing a speedrun in under four hours, and for finding and destroying all 20 of the hidden "Mr Everywhere" bobblehead dolls.

I had so much fun with Resident Evil 7 that I ended up playing through it five times in a row (once on Normal, once on Madhouse, once on an Easy mode speedrun, and once each on Easy and Madhouse to find all the antique coins in each mode) en route to completing 100% of the achievements. Any criticism I can offer would be somewhat nitpicky, but I do feel like Capcom could've done a lot more with the puzzles, and made the game a little bit harder by cutting down on the amount of ammo in the game and by not being quite so generous with the constant autosaves and unlimited manual saving. Besides that, the second half of the game isn't quite as good as the first -- it's not bad by any means, but the first half is so good that the second half just doesn't live up to expectation -- and so I wish they could've done something more interesting with Lucas's section and the salt mine.

Otherwise, everything else in this game is so on point, so masterfully executed that Resident Evil 7 is easily the best first-person survival-horror game that I've played since Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and it's one of the best horror games in general that I've played in the last ten years. I haven't had this much fun playing a Resident Evil game since Resident Evil 4, and I think Resident Evil 7 may, with time, surpass REmake as my favorite Resident Evil game. I had given up hope that Capcom would ever go back to the slower, more classic style of the original games, but they did, and they pulled it off pretty well with Resident Evil 7. I hope we get more games like this from them in the future, and I'm looking forward to playing the DLC when it comes out.

4 comments:

  1. (Before Reading the review) An Angry Joe and Nocturnal Rambler Resident Evil 7 review at the same time!!!!!!!!!!!! YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

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  2. Damn, you completed it 5 times! That was a lot of praise. Resident Evil is also one of my favorite gaming series (RE4 being the first game I played in my life) and I did buy RE7 on day one. I agree with most of the review. But still it would have been great if they had brought back some of the original characters. The inventory system could have been better. I was impressed with the introduction sequence (especially the moment when Mia literally stands upright after dying) mostly because I never completed Amnesia (the invisible water monster gave me heart attack) and never bothered with Outlast. Great review! Looking forward to the future of the series.

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    1. I for one was perfectly fine with RE7 *not* involving any of the old characters. The Resident Evil lore has gotten somewhat convoluted and difficult to keep up with by now, and so I appreciated getting a fresh start with new characters and a new premise that's still very much in the vein of Resident Evil.

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  3. I did get RE6 and enjoyed it a lot. For all of its fault I still found it to be a solid, coop shooter with a massive 31 hour long campaign and tons of extras. However, it failed so badly in every other area except mindless action that I never bothered with a second playthrough. Still, the game had excellent cinematic and production values, most of the RE cast and tons of fan service. It is pretty cheap now days so if any time you want to have a coop experience, I would definitely recommend it. Great party game, lol.

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