Earlier in the year, when the US election was far over the horizon and hope still existed in the world, I blogged about E3 2016 and highlighted Resident Evil VII as one of the more interesting things to come out of the show. At the time, the game’s demo was only available on the PS4, but it’s now been released on the PC along with several updates that add new content, so I decided to check it out.
Before I talk about my impressions, I want to put RE7 in context for my non-gamer readers. A few years ago I delivered the definitive scholarly analysis of Silent Hill, the objectively best survival horror franchise in gaming history, which suffered a terminal decline after being badly mishandled by its publisher, and I briefly mentioned that the rival Resident Evil series went through a similar trajectory: instrumental in launching the genre, stagnated over the course of several samey sequels, made multiple attempts at re-inventing itself with wildly varying degrees of success.
It’s important to go over just how tumultuous that history was in order to appreciate the simultaneously precarious and hopeful position the series is in now. The first two games were met with near-universal applause (Resident Evil 2 in particular is seen by many as the high water mark for horror gaming as a whole), but by the time the third installment rolled around, the gameplay mechanics were already getting a little stale. It didn’t help that there were a metric ass-load of Resident Evil spin-offs for every platform imaginable, some of which used the same basic gameplay as the main installments.
For the fourth game, the plan was originally to stick to the same template once again (you can see some footage of the prototype that’s become known as Resident Evil 3.5 here), but at some point Capcom decided to ditch all of that and completely re-invent the series from the ground up. Resident Evil 4 was a “survival action” game that threw out the zombies and slow, methodical pacing in favour of fast-paced, tense battles against hordes of enemies that could use weapons, traverse the environment just as well as the player and employ strategies like flanking and cutting off escape routes. Despite some initial outcry from die-hard fans, it was spectacularly well-received, and is often described as one of the best games of its generation.
And here’s where things get sticky. Capitalising on RE4’s success seems like it would have been fairly easy–make a bigger, bolder sequel for the shiny new Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 hardware, building on the tense, exciting gameplay that they had been established previously.
And then Call of Duty became the biggest thing in entertainment (that’s not hyperbole, by the way–several of the CoD games broke records across all entertainment mediums, including Hollywood movies), and suddenly everyone decided they were going to chase some of those sweet shooter dollars by injecting a dose of bro-tastic action into their game. Thus, Resident Evil 5 is a strange Black Hawk Down-esque action thriller where anti-bioweapon agents fight off hordes of not-zombies in a generic African country.
To be clear, it’s not a bad game by any means–in fact it’s an absolute blast on co-op–but something about it just didn’t sit well with longtime fans of the franchise. Partially this was due to the game more or less completely abandoning any attempt at being scary while seemingly taking cues from the thoroughly stupid (and only tangentially connected to the games it’s supposedly based on) Resident Evil movie franchise, which resulted in a lot of really goofy stuff. RE4 gave protagonist Leon some fancy action moves like diving through windows and roundhouse-kicking staggered enemies, but still depicted him as a basically normal human being who could be killed as easily as you or I; RE5 on the other hand has its protagonists smashing boulders with their fists and killing the series’ long-time villain by firing rocket launchers into a volcano.
When it came time to make the next game, Capcom obviously realized that their fanbase was hopelessly fractured into three factions: newcomers who got on board with the fourth game and expected another action-focused sequel, old school fans longing for a return to the gameplay of yore for whom RE5 had been a step too far, and the large pool of casual Call of Duty fans who any big budget game at the time was obliged to court, despite most previous attempts failing miserably. Their solution was to split their next game into three, telling a trio of parallel stories that each played differently: one of them brought back zombies and felt more like the old games, one of them was basically Resident Evil 5 in a different setting, and one was an action-focused Gears of War knock off.
Predictably, by seeking to please everyone the game ended up appealing to no one. The bits that were meant to be like the old games weren’t old-school enough for the Resident Evil die-hards, the part that was supposed to appeal to RE4 fans was compromised by needing to fall in line with the other two stories, and the Gears of War rip off was just terrible in general. Resident Evil 6 was viciously panned by critics, and the reaction among Resident Evil fans was so negative that it actually turned a lot of people who had liked RE4 off the newer games completely, leading to furious demands that the series cut it out with the action shit and go back to its survival horror routes.
And amazingly, it seems as if Capcom actually listened.
No, they didn’t bring back static camera angles and tank controls–anyone who thought that was going to happen was deluding themselves–instead making the bold and risky decision to go back to the franchise’s humble beginnings in spirit, while bringing the gameplay in a completely new direction that’s in many ways even more of a departure than Resident Evil 4 was. But will that gamble pay off?
I can’t speak for the long-time RE die-hards, but my initial impression from playing this small slice is: oh yes.
The demo (which is a completely separate entity made just for this purpose, rather than content from the finished game) has the player waking up, sans context or explanation, in a creepy abandoned house in the backwaters of Louisiana. What happens next depends on the player’s actions, as there are several endings and multiple ways to play through the content on offer ranging from the simple (solve puzzle, get key, try to escape, get killed by creepy weirdo) to the more elaborate. Regardless of how you play through it, the demo gives a good overview of RE7’s gameplay and where its priorities lie.
Priority #1: looking fucking amazing.
The screenshots really don’t do the game justice. Much like PT, the teaser for the now-cancelled Silent Hills project, RE7 is going photo-realistic in order to draw the player into its decrepit, decaying setting. You can see the wear and tear on every single object, no matter how small or insignificant, and yet the phenomenal level and art design makes it easy to figure out which parts of the environment can be interacted with, and which are just window dressing. It’s common these days for the ever-increasing horsepower of gaming hardware to be used in rendering gigantic open worlds, but there’s just as much value in the creation of smaller, more intimate spaces, and RE7 proves it.
Priority #2: actually being scary
This really shouldn’t feel like a big deal, and yet it absolutely does.
The big-budget horror world has largely abandoned attempts at inducing genuine fear in players, taking the Dead Space approach of over-relying on jump scares and the threat of enemy attack. I will forever hold to the horror snob’s view that there’s a stark difference between something that’s scary and something that merely induces anxiety over when the next loud noise is going to happen.
Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour is properly, honest to god frightening. It features only one enemy and three minor, entirely visual jump-scares, building fear instead through an atmosphere of oppressive dread and the design of the horrific charnel house that the demo takes place in. You are in a dark, scary location; something else is in there with you, even though you can’t see it and you don’t know what it is. It sounds so simple, and yet so many games fail so badly at it.
I’m actually surprised how much I was drawn into the game’s particular brand of horror, given that it draws heavily from the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, which is pretty much at the opposite end of where I reside on the horror landscape. Maybe it’s because that brand of slasher-esque gory violence is being filtered through a much more subtle kind of fear, one that lies a lot closer to where my particular sensibilities lie.
In particular, I love how the game is employing Silent Hill-esque weird shit for the sake of freaking the player out. Look, a photo of a woman with a sack over her head! A crow stuffed into a microwave! Why are there chairs in the attic rafters? Why is there an upside down bicycle in a bathtub full of blood? Fucking I don’t know!
Obviously, we don’t know how representative this demo is of the rest of the game. But it feels like a bold, confident mission statement, and that alone has me excited to play the full package.