Resident Evil VII review – a superb reimagining of survival horror Breaking the Mold
Resident Evil VII successfully rejuvenates an ailing franchise by emphasizing its horror roots and providing a new, contemporary terror to grapple with.
Resident Evil VII successfully rejuvenates an ailing franchise by emphasizing its horror roots and providing a new, contemporary terror to grapple with.
This review of Resident Evil VII is based on the Xbox One version. It is also available on PC, PS4 and Switch.
The problem with Resident Evil isn’t that everybody dies, it’s that nobody ever stays dead. The series has never treated mortality with any kind of permanence. In the first few games, which were fairly traditional zombie stories, that was fine. It was mostly the point. But throughout many, often ill-advised sequels, Capcom started to apply the same logic to their major characters and plot beats. Albert Wesker has been the recurring series villain for 20 years, and he was killed in the first game.
The reason for Wesker’s implausible resilience is the T-Virus – a zombie-brewing superweapon that is also responsible for all of Resident Evil’s other unanswerable narrative quandaries. Sometimes they call it the G-Virus, or the C-Virus, and sometimes it’s a parasite called Las Plagas, but functionally it’s always the same thing: Bottled contrivance. Whatever you need, story-wise, the T/G/C-Virus Parasite can provide it. Monster outbreaks in Midwestern America, rural Spain, Africa? Done. Games set on luxury cruise liners and multicar locomotives? No problem. Villains and supporting characters dying grisly but ultimately unimportant deaths? Easy. Everything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained by this, insofar as anything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained at all.
This cavalier understanding of consequence and continuity is a big part of the reason why no Resident Evil game has ever had even a half-decent story. But it isn’t all bad. Capcom sees the series itself in much the same way; loose, malleable, and ultimately immortal. No amount of terrible games can kill Resident Evil. And God, they’ve tried. Capcom has a habit of splurging any goodwill they manage to garner on a string of increasingly-belabored sequels and spin-offs; Wii-exclusive rail-shooters, online multiplayer games, episodic content, remasters and rereleases. They strangle all their titles in dense thickets of contrived garbage and crowbar characters nobody likes into all the nooks and crannies nobody wants them in. The Resident Evil series is a mess. Always has been. But Capcom is willing to do something to Resident Evil that very few other developers would ever consider doing to a flagship franchise – euthanize it. Whenever the series gets too necrotic to continue in its current form, they press down firmly on the pillow.
Resident Evil, perhaps fittingly, always reanimates.
Twice this has happened. The first time was in 2004. Capcom wisely realized that the survival-horror trappings they had popularised had become outdated; that the overarching storyline was nonsensical; that nobody in the company could write a usable line of serious dialogue. So, the new version of Resident Evil jettisoned almost everything. Most of the characters, backstory, and recognizable mechanics were gone. It was set on another continent. It was suddenly action-oriented, fast-paced, and frenetic. Scary, too. And scary despite being camper than a row of pink tents. Capcom even doubled-down on their terrible writing. Instead of making the narrative minimalist or non-existent, they instead made it big, bombastic, and utterly, utterly ludicrous. This game, of course, was Resident Evil 4, and it remains, to this day, one of the finest ever made.
In 2017, they did it again. They made Resident Evil VII.
Resident Evil VII is not one of the finest games ever made. It is, however, a welcome return-to-form, and another ground-up retooling of a franchise that had been comfortably wallowing in its own offal for quite some time. The game’s marketing suggested it would be a return to the series’ roots; a more literal interpretation of the “survival-horror” genre that Resident Evil didn’t invent but certainly popularised. This is at least half true. The “survival” elements are much the same as they always have been – an assortment of guns and other weapons with which the player can defend themselves, a rudimentary crafting system (ostensibly new, but Resident Evil 3: Nemesis had something similar) and, at least in the game’s first half, a fairly tight stranglehold on important resources. But Resident Evil VII really plays up the “horror” aspect. It’s legitimately tense and frightening – at least, again, in the game’s first half, but if nothing else Resident Evil VII is able to cultivate a strong atmosphere and sense of place that it maintains for the entire game. So far, so good.
It certainly helps that the place is significantly tighter in scope and that Resident Evil has once again returned the evil to an actual residence – several, actually, all hacked into the murky swamplands of the Louisiana bayou. And what better way to peer at the grimy, dilapidated décor than through the eyes of our very own protagonist, Ethan Winters, who shuffles his way through the knotty property treeline on the remarkably vague pretense of finding his missing, presumed-dead wife. So far, so Silent Hill 2.
Admittedly, that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, Ethan stumbles upon his wife, Mia, in about five minutes, and in a rather tremendous little sequence, they both re-enact how a lot of my relationships tend to end. Resident Evil has never been a proponent of symbolism-steeped psychological horror, and despite all the changes Capcom has made to this particular installment, it still prefers to get in your face rather than your head. The new first-person perspective makes that a lot easier. Resident Evil has been scary before, but only twice: In Resident Evil Remake, a polished, much-improved version of the masterful original game; and in Resident Evil 4, which simply threw more enemies at you than you could ever hope to kill. It hasn’t ever been scary in quite this way, though. Resident Evil VII channels the spirit of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which ushered in the trend of oppressive, first-person hide-and-seek horror. That game (as well as its sequel, A Machine For Pigs, and its criminally-underrated add-on, Justine) made the player defenseless. It was a design decision that made sense in a game developed on the cheap. Resident Evil VII hasn’t swallowed that idea wholesale, but it has nibbled around the edge of it. Ethan arms himself early in the story, but he can’t properly fight off the threats he faces until much later.
For much of the game, those threats take the shape of a rampaging redneck Republican family, the Bakers, as Ethan schleps around their swamp side plantation looking for the usual Resident Evil assortment of dog-head emblems and weirdly-shaped keys. On occasion, the game leans a little heavily against the clichéd idea of psychotic Southern hospitality, especially during sequences that nakedly ape other media, such as an extended family feast that is so reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that it borders on plagiarism. That’s to say nothing of the actual chainsaw that is brandished multiple times (and by multiple characters) throughout the story – at one point being used to chew through Ethan’s left hand, which he promptly places in his inventory for later reattachment.
Resident Evil VII has a weird fascination with Ethan’s left hand. It gets skewered and lopped off and stapled back on so frequently that you’d be forgiven for thinking the game is making a joke, but outside of that little wink towards the archaic inventory system I’m fairly sure it isn’t. Ethan is an admirably-bland everyman protagonist, but like a lot of them, he has an uncanny ability to recover from severe bodily harm in a matter of seconds. When he gets chainsawed, shot, stabbed, crushed, bludgeoned, or stung by zombie wasps, his vision swims with pulsing red techno-blood, he grunts and groans, and then he pours a magical healing tonic over his left hand. Hey, presto. All better. That hand is the video game equivalent of Samson’s hair. It’s where all of Ethan’s power is stored.
In one of the game’s bolder nods towards Resident Evil traditionalism, the rest of his stuff is stored in chests that all occupy a shared pocket dimension, allowing a handgun stored in the laundry room of the main house to be retrieved from the motor-home outside. This is a gameplay contrivance that has remained abandoned since Resident Evil – Code: Veronica on the Sega Dreamcast, so it was a strange and welcome surprise to see it return here. A lot of Resident Evil VII juxtaposes past and present; on a meta-level, in terms of what Resident Evil once was and what it is now, and on a literal one, such as in the occasional extended flashback sequences within which the player, piloting another character, explores a portion of the house that Ethan has yet to discover. These moments all tend towards excellence, but the best is a lengthy Saw-style puzzle room assembled by one of the Bakers, and solvable first by a recurring character called Clancy, and then, in a slightly different way informed by Clancy’s attempt, by Ethan himself. These deviations are all triggered by finding and playing VHS tapes. Nobody ever mentions how weird it is that you can find a password-protected laptop in a hidden attic accessed by a motorized ladder controlled by a secret switch in a moveable ornament, and yet the entire family still uses VHS players.
There was a time when Capcom legitimately didn’t realize how silly this kind of thing was. Now they realize it, but they just don’t care, which is a position I can respect. At one point, after rotating a wooden statue in the glare of a projector so that its shadow mimics a painting, thus unlocking a secret door, Ethan asks, “Who builds this stuff?” The line is presented as something a desperate and bewildered man might say, but it’s clearly a joke at Capcom’s own expense. We know exactly who builds this stuff. And why. There’s something charmingly old-fashioned about Resident Evil VII, even though most of what it accomplishes is only possible through the advancements in technology and developments in genre that have occurred since the last time the series was any good.
Maybe it’s because, for literally the first time ever, a Resident Evil title seems to have a decent understanding of what a good story is and how a good story should be told. When I say “good story” I mostly mean “a much better story than usual”, which I suppose isn’t quite the same thing, but it must be said that I enjoyed Resident Evil VII’s mystery, most of its reveals, and how the game was patient in showing its hand. It’s tried-and-true storytelling that allows the audience to feel the edges of the narrative before they put it together. Where it ends up going is entirely unsurprising for a Resident Evil game, but how it gets there is fresh and interesting enough that the journey feels worth it. The irony, of course, is that the reason such a thing feels fresh in the context of Resident Evil is that it mostly relies on good, traditional fundamentals of suspense-building, pacing and a clear three-act story structure, which until this point are fundamentals that the series has never properly understood.
Still, if it results in a good experience, who am I to complain? Thing is, though, it only results in two-thirds of a good experience. In terms of both storytelling and carefully-cultivated suspense, Resident Evil VII’s final act is a noticeable step downwards in quality. And one of the reasons why is that the story leaves a few too many reveals for one particular late-game sequence – another VHS flashback that is overlong, tonally askew, and that lacks the necessary components to deliver those reveals in a way that feels organic and satisfying. A lot of them are bundled into slabs of explanatory text. Like the magical storage crates, errant worldbuilding documents are a staple of the Resident Evil series, and while there thankfully isn’t anything as patently ludicrous as the one in Resident Evil 4 that was simply titled “Our Plan”, they’re still a worse method for dispensing important story beats than real interactions between actual characters.
Then again, all of the characters involved in this sequence are too busy tripping over ammunition, health, crafting resources and remote bombs to even think about the story they’re wrapped up in. Eventually, Resident Evil VII loses the sense of impotence that characterizes Ethan in the early-game. Part of what makes his encounters with the Bakers so effective is that they’re invulnerable outside of story-mandated encounters; whenever they’re patrolling the halls and rooms, the only thing you can realistically do is run and hide. Even during boss fights, they blunder through so much ballistic trauma that you feel as though all the bullets in the world wouldn’t be enough. Once the game starts to move away from patrolling hillbillies and towards generic slime-monsters, something is immediately lost. You no longer feel vulnerable. You’ve got a bandolier full of shotgun shells, and you’re dropping remote explosives everywhere like Bomberman. None of this is bad, but it’s much less scary and effectively tense than what came before. There’s probably a thread of grim irony in the fact that as Resident Evil VII becomes more of a Resident Evil game, it becomes a lot worse.
I’ve seen people declare that they prefer their Resident Evil games without guns. It’s an admirable stance, but I wonder how people arrived at it – there hasn’t ever been a Resident Evil game without guns. You could strip the firearms from this one, but then it wouldn’t be Resident Evil anymore. It’d be Outlast: Deep South Edition. I’d probably play that game, but that isn’t what Resident Evil VII is. I completely understand why some folks would want it to be; why that style of gameplay is more consistently harrowing than what Resident Evil VII devolves into. But if you want that style of gameplay, go and play Outlast. It still exists, and so does it’s surprisingly-decent expansion, Whistleblower. Play the Amnesia games, which are the same thing in gothic Lovecraftian paint, or SOMA, which is a science-fiction version of the same thing, or Slender: The Arrival, which is the same thing, just in the woods. My point is, these kinds of experiences are readily available. Asserting that Game X would be better with the inclusion or removal of Thing Y is perfectly fair and reasonable criticism, so long as Thing Y makes a degree of sense in the context of Game X. If it doesn’t, the criticism becomes redundant; you’re asking for a game – an installment in a long-running franchise that has already completely rebuilt itself twice, no less – to morph into a hypothetical experience you’ve made up in your mind. To remove the guns from Resident Evil would be akin to removing the giant, gloopy, eyeball-festooned bosses. It would be contrary to what the series has always been, in all its various guises. That might make you happy, but it would completely alienate a significant portion of the game’s target demographic. At some point, you have to factor the fiscal realities of game-making into your criticism.
And, look, I get it. I didn’t much care for the more frequent, less scary encounters with the smiley fungal zombies either. But what I’d suggest as an improvement would be perhaps less of them, and fewer remote bombs to blow their legs off with. Ease and convenience are not elements that are conducive to a horror game. But you can limit those things without fundamentally altering the nature of the game; without stripping it of its own (however delirious) identity. I’d prefer it if Resident Evil VII incorporated these things, but I don’t think the fact it doesn’t necessarily ruins it.
What will ruin it, eventually, will almost certainly be Capcom. That’s just their way. I’ll certainly look forward to seeing how creatively they manage it. In the meantime, though, Resident Evil VII is quite easily the best Resident Evil game since 4, a (mostly) terrific experience in its own right, and yet more proof that sometimes, if you try and don’t succeed, you should probably give up and do something completely different.
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