Good new, everyone: horror games are back!
Yes, I need to add the standard disclaimer that “horror games” as a whole never went away and in fact have thrived in the last decade in the indie realm, but let’s get real for a second. What most of us horror gamers actually want is a return to the days when the biggest developers and publishers in the industry put out AAA-budgeted horror titles with all the production quality that entails.
Usually, this seemingly-vain hope focused on the resurrection of either Resident Evil or Silent Hill, the two quintessential horror franchises that both lost their way somewhere around the PS3 era, and while my own dearly beloved Silent Hill is probably gone for good, Capcom has improbably realized that their previous approach with Resident Evil of aping meat-headed action movies wasn’t working and decided to go back to basics. What’s even more startling than the fact that a big publisher actually pulled the gun on such a seemingly common-sense move (more so that it was Capcom specifically, as they’ve earned a reputation for mishandling their big franchises almost as badly as Konami) is that it actually worked: Resident Evil 7 is both a glorious return to form and a bold new step for big-budget horror games.
The story (which takes place in the same world as the absurdly-convoluted mythos built up over two decades of previous RE titles, although it requires absolutely zero knowledge of any of it to follow) follows Ethan Winters, a milquetoast dude on a quest to locate his wife, Mia. She’s been assumed dead for the last three years after vanishing mysteriously, but one day Ethan gets a strange email asking him to come to
Silent Hill the Baker Farm in Dulvey, Louisiana to pick her up. Anyone with working knowledge of horror tropes will realize this is a bad idea, and sure enough, within twenty minutes of setting foot in the decrepit estate Ethan finds himself in a desperate struggle to survive against the mutated, seemingly indestructible Baker clan.
But there’s more going on than just a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque cannibal family. What are the freakish “Molded” creatures who infest various nooks and crannies of the Bakers’ domain? What caused the Bakers’ monstrous transformation? And just what is Mia’s role in all of this?
Resident Evil VII unpeels itself like a particularly macabre onion, easing in players who may not be familiar with older horror games. The game kicks off with a linear, tightly-scripted prologue set in the Beginning Hour demo’s house, then throws the player into a small section of the larger Baker mansion with Jack, the family patriarch, to give them a taste of the game’s mechanics and pacing, and then finally widens out into the semi-open, backtrack-heavy experience that defined the original game’s iconic Spencer mansion. It’s a smart way to introduce the game, and hides its tutorials so well that most people won’t even notice them.
The game’s larger loop consists of funneling the player through discrete areas, each of which play host to one of the three Baker family members, who’ll patrol certain parts of the level and must be either avoided or temporarily taken out of commission. Much was made in the run-up to release of the game’s similarity to titles like Amnesia and Outlast, which pit players against invincible, patrolling enemies, and while there is a clear line of inspiration there, the Molded are actually far and away the more common foe. The game uses the Bakers sparingly, relying more on the threat of their appearance to generate fear than their actual presence, which I felt was a smart move to keep them from becoming overly familiar.
Individual areas link together through shortcuts and other feats of level design that are in some ways just as ingenious as the vaunted interconnected worlds of the Dark Souls franchise, which is good because you’re going to be backtracking a whole lot, sometimes at the behest of the plot, sometimes to solve a puzzle, but often just to scour the area for ammo and health upgrades, resource management being a critical component of the gameplay. The slow trickle of items feels absolutely perfectly-paced in order to make every bullet count and every missed shot sting, while never letting the flow of resources get so low that you need to obsessively hoard. It’s a constant knife-edge where any combat encounter has the potential to leave you limping along at low health with half a handgun clip and a single shotgun shell, but at the same time you know that if you just push on you’ll probably find some refills around the next corner. The game also features the frankly ingenious addition of psycho-stimulants, relatively rare pills that you can pop to temporarily see the locations of items through walls.
In short, Resident Evil VII is a game that throws punishing obstacles at the player–enemies are both plentiful and hit hard–but also gives them all the tools they need to make it through. All that’s required is the intelligence, skill and foresight to use those tools effectively.
But if you’re anything like me, your greatest obstacle won’t be the enemies, but your own terror.
Fear is obviously highly subjective, and if you read the comments on any review of a horror game you’ll find tons of internet badasses bragging about how totally not-scary they found it. But for me, personally? Resident Evil VII was exactly the kind of boot-up-the-game-and-spend-ten-minutes-fiddling-with-my-inventory-because-I’m-too-scared-to-leave-the-save-room experience I haven’t had since the older Silent Hill games. The move to first-person was controversial when it was initially announced, but in practice it’s a clever way to invoke the limited perspective of the older games’ fixed camera angles, especially when combined with a somewhat clunkier turning speed than most first-person games employ.
Now add to this some truly stellar sound design that fills every area with creaks, squeaks and sinister organic bubbling, and you’ve got a recipe for constant tension. Playing with a good pair of headphones with the volume jacked up, it truly is an immersive experience. I can’t even imagine what the game is like in VR.
The narrative around RE VII is that Capcom entirely renounced the action-heavy focus that started with Resident Evil 4, but that’s not entirely true. The game’s combat will be familiar to anyone who played that game–shots to the knee are still a good way to stagger an enemy so you can get in close with a melee strike, for example–and the game’s sense of pacing and variety of gameplay clearly share a lot of DNA with the bombastic action games that Capcom has been making for the last decade. The story shuttles you to new environments (or sends you back to previous ones, only to discover that they’re not quite the way you remember them) at a brisk clip, and the style of the gameplay changes frequently, cycling between Baker-focused stealth/chase sections, traditional Resident Evil puzzle-shooty bits with the Molded, boss fights, and a handful of very surprising twists that I’m not going to spoil.
I only have one real complaint about RE7, and that’s that it drops the ball slightly toward the end.
Specifically, the last few hours take place in a location that’s far less interesting than what preceded it, both in terms of visual design and layout. This is combined with the game taking away all of the weapons and supplies you’ve accrued so far, forcing you to scrounge for bullets and healing items while dodging tons of difficult enemies. It’s the one place where the game’s pacing falls down, and the fact that it comes just as you’re getting toward the story’s climax is a bummer.
But that aside, Resident Evil VII is both a triumphant rebirth for the franchise and one of the best re-imaginings of a game series since Mario 64 took the famous platformer into the 3D realm. If it ends up becoming the new standard template for horror games, like the original Resident Evil did back in 1999, I’d be pretty pleased.