YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE SOMETHING WONDERFUL
How do you define what Resident Evil is? It began as a tank-control 3rd person survival horror set in a mansion in the midst of nowhere, then quickly spun out of control into a huge series. After the initial 3 or 4 installments, the franchise went everywhere from radically divergent (Gun Survivor, Outbreak) and revolutionary (Resident Evil 4) to hamfisted (Resident Evil 6) and possible low-key revivals (Revelations 1+2). The gameplay, as of late, has generally held on to the core principles and 3rd person controls introduced in RE4, veering further and further into badly-balanced action segments and convoluted stories. What had started as primarily a horror series was becoming an offshoot bioweapon shooter with wildly fluctuating dips in quality. As someone who enjoyed Resident Evil 2 and 4 (the best ones, the Leon ones), I began to just accept that all hope was lost and Resident Evil, with Revelations 2, had become a low-budget throwaway property concerned with microtransaction bullshit and shoddy gameplay.
Capcom's answer to this was twofold: dedication to the old-school crowd with development of a Resident Evil 2 remake, and a surprise reveal of Resident Evil 7 at E3 2016. RE7: Biohazard was to be a complete resurrection of the series, taking place in a completely new setting with new characters, and throwing the player into a first person experience. Resident Evil 7 puts the "resident evil" back into the series and more, because this is one scary fucking game fraught with terrifying situations and encounters. I was distraught when P.T., a game rich with promise, was cancelled and sent to the abyss--however, RE7 has pulled in some of the best elements of Outlast, P.T., classic Resident Evil games, and SOMA.
The obvious shift in RE7 is the 1st person control, which serves in making each escape and confrontation that much more stressful. Unlike the movie angles of classic RE games, you're only going to see what's in front of you. As I don't have a VR headset, I can't comment on what it adds to the game--but I imagine it makes things that much more immersive. Although this shares many tropes and controls with other 1st person horror games of this ilk, RE7 still rests on collecting weapons, sparse ammo, herbs, and first aid kits, and puzzles that rely on things like weird objects and a series of keys.
In RE7, you play as Ethan, who is convinced his long-lost wife is being held hostage in a Louisiana estate. Ethan wanders into a southern swampmeat residence, gets captured by backwoods psychos, and hilarity ensues. It certainly puts the "resident" back in Resident Evil, as you mainly explore and run around an old house full of secrets, a disgusting basement area, and a dilapidated shack near the water. The sinister Baker family--Jack, Margeurite, and Lucas--all have their own unique quirks and challenges for you, and their respective areas change up the game each time. You'll go from a wild goose chase with a Nemesis-esque Jack to dodging bugs in the shack to solving tripwire puzzles from Lucas in the main playthrough. I did love how the type of encounter changed with each family member I had to go through, and the resulting backtracking into new, horrible areas to keep making progress. Like the original Resident Evil, the house itself is a pertinent and important feature because you'll be traversing its entrails for quite some time, and the challenges will constantly morph. Besides the merry pranks from the Baker family, you will also have to deal with a slimy black symbiotic slew of monsters called Molded. These guys are more or less the dangerous shock troops that have been infected by whatever moldy shit is infecting everyone's brains, and some of your toughest decisions will come from whether you want to use your limited ammo to take them out or flee.
It feels like yesterday I was downtrodden over the death of the excellent P.T. project, which held so much promise in its presentation and unease. Resident Evil 7 has actually succeeded in spooking me just as much as P.T. did--the terror of pushing open each door and navigating through the next dimly-lit room had my heart pounding, especially when I knew something was following me. A lot of this can be attributed to the excellent graphics and hyper-real construction of the household, which was a reason why P.T.'s hallway and relatively "normal" space seemed so scary; there's something not quite right under the surface. Much like the odd viscera and threatening pictures in that game, RE7 has more than enough moments to make you question what the fuck is going on in this estate, and what happened to this family. The best moments come from absolute radio silence, because in those instances the threat is at its worst. You will be taken aback when you feel your safest, and every escape feels like a tiny victory--especially in the more decrepit areas of the Baker estate that have fallen to ruin and sludge.
It wouldn't be Resident Evil without boss battles, something that I feel didn't even become worthwhile until Resident Evil 4. I'm glad to say the battles in RE7 range from pretty good to genuinely thrilling. I don't want to spoil anything, but some of the battles are actually fun and/or funny to go through, especially since you're being egged at by the equally fun Baker clan. Provided you are careful with your inventory, you should almost always have enough in the tank to conquer these battles, though quite a few supply you with items in or around the fighting arenas. Towards the end of the journey, those battles may get a bit bigger and more obnoxious, but critical thinking and quick reflexes will always win out over these creatures.
Regarding the narrative and pacing of the game as a whole, things are at their best when it's confined to the madhouse of the Bakers and their humble abode. The game gets a bit iffy once you leave this area and dive into the final 2 zones, which will have you getting a bit more trigger happy than usual--but the payoff, and storyline revelations, are served up on a platter that is an exquisite callback to classic Resident Evil in ways that mirror the finale of the very first two games. After an initial game dominated by caution and fear, you're sent on a wild run through to the bitter end; a bombastic reminder of what series we're still entrenched within.
My hope going forward for Capcom would be that they continue on this new route of satisfying the hardcore old-school crowd with their REmakes, while also experimenting with this well-conceived first person dimension. RE7 is a largely satisfying endeavour when you understand the perspective of its release frame--a game that came out after P.T. was buried, in a world where Resident Evil's latest outing was a very cheap-budget but acceptable Revelations 2. Although RE7's makeup is an amazing beginning/ending with a low point in the ship zone, it's more than worthy of your time if you're hungry for survival horror and a tense, terrifying dive into gross muck and brainwashed podunks. It's an extremely promising start to what I hope is a new tradition. And after all, tradition is what makes a family closer, son.
Amazing and topical!