RESIDENT EVIL 7 REVIEW

By Philip Kollar on January 23, 2017 at 11:00am

with Resident Evil 7, Capcom has proved me wrong about the Resident Evil franchise.

Resident Evil 6 was a game wildly out of touch with its own fanbase; this beloved horror series has struggled for relevance since. It’s had a couple ofsolid HD remasters, and the Revelations spinoff series has stayed strong, but the disaster of the last mainline entry in the franchise has lingered.

It got so bad for me, a Resident Evil fan since 1998’s Resident Evil 2, that I essentially admitted defeat. In my review of 2015’s episodic Resident Evil Revelations 2, I said that the game “provides a road map for where to take [the series] next” — but this felt like a concession, rather than anything truly revelatory. It wasn’t ambitious or particularly scary, but at least it wasn’t bad. Damningly, this felt like the best I could hope for from Resident Evil.

I was wrong.

Now, a little over four years since Resident Evil 6, Capcom’s new numbered game in the series is more than just a return to form. Resident Evil 7 capably demonstrates that, given the right mix of pressure and time, Capcom still has unique design and narrative space left to explore in what is by far its most popular — and commercially successful — franchise.

 YOU DON’T NEED TO BE INVESTED IN 20 YEARS OF BACKSTORY TO JUMP INTO THIS GAMEResident Evil 7 features Ethan Winters, a milquetoast protagonist whose search for his missing wife leads him to the bayou of Louisiana. Once there, Ethan finds himself kidnapped and tortured by a family of murderous cannibals known as the Bakers. Both in the specifics and general tone of its seemingly stand-alone story, much of Resident Evil 7 is a departure from the zombie outbreak roots of the series at large. I won’t spoil if or how RE7 might eventually tie in to the greater Resident Evil universe, but I’ll say this much: You don’t need to be invested in the 20 years of backstory that exists to jump into this game.

Capcom doesn’t require a degree in Resident Evil lore to jump into Resident Evil 7, but there are echoes of the series’ history within it. Dulvey, Louisiana, isn’t Raccoon City, but as with the first Resident Evil, RE7 takes place in and around a single large house. A huge portion of the game’s 10 to 12 hours is devoted to exploring the Baker residence — and not just exploring it, but really getting to know it. I had to scour every corner of the house for resources. I had to memorize secret passageways and figure out which doors I could hide behind, and which hallways could get me to safety fastest.

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That last requirement is notable, because no Resident Evil game since the first has done as good a job as RE7 at making me feel scared and helpless. Ethan is not a special forces agent or a police officer; he’s just a regular dude with no particular combat skills. When enemies start popping up in the Baker house — both the Bakers themselves and some other terrifying opponents — oftentimes Ethan’s best tactic is simply to run like hell. The more I memorized the layout of the house and surrounding areas, the more likely I was to dodge and juke my way past bad guys without wasting precious, rare ammo and healing items.

Of course, there is ammo, because there are guns, and combat is an option. Every weapon you acquire in RE7 feels different, and, most importantly, everything beyond the standard pistol feels powerful. When you blast a bad guy with the shotgun or fire a spray of machine gun bullets, it very clearly and visibly has an impact. Head shots, in particular, are both extremely satisfying and damn near necessary to take out most enemies without throwing away tons of bullets.

The approach to combat is fairly standard for Resident Evil — albeit more on the side of limited, difficult fights, like the early games, rather than constant combat as in Resident Evil 4 through 6 — but RE7 features at least one major controversial change-up for the series: It’s now in first-person. Some fans have decried this change as further evidence of Capcom losing its way, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The shift to first-person takes Resident Evil 7 closer to its roots than the series has been in more than a decade.

While a fully controllable first-person view is quite different from the static third-person cameras of the old-school RE games, it shares a key element with them: a limited perspective. Resident Evil 7limits this perspective even further by making turning speed very slow. This adds a huge amount of tension as you explore.

In the original Resident Evil games, you might be cautious because one corner of the room was obscured, and you didn’t know if an enemy hid there. In RE7, you have to be cautious because you never know if an enemy has slid into the room behind you, or if there’s some creature shambling down the hallway to your right. If you turn to check, you might find yourself suddenly blindsided by an attack from ahead of you.

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VR MODE

Those playing the PlayStation 4 version of Resident Evil 7 — as we did for this review — will have the option to play through the game in virtual reality using the PlayStation VR headset. I tested this mode for a short time, and while there’s something wonderful about being pulled into this creepy world more fully, able to look around at every detail and get up close with the game’s monstrosities, I found it a less ideal way to play.

The main issue I encountered while playing Resident Evil 7 in VR was a pretty common one for the technology: It made me extremely dizzy. Moving in the game while standing still in real life was a disorienting process. Beyond that, I found specific visuals in the game much darker and muddier in VR. For example, a photo I picked up and examined looked totally normal in the regular game, but was impossible to make out in the added darkness of the PlayStation VR headset.

To Capcom’s credit, the implementation of the VR option is user-friendly and acknowledges that you might be uncomfortable using it for long stretches of time. VR Mode is an option that you can flick on and off at will in the menu; it doesn’t require a separate playthrough or even restarting the game. If you’re curious to test it out, I would suggest swapping to VR during one of the slower, exploratory sections, where you can really take in the atmosphere; just be ready to swap back if you feel like you might fall down.

RESIDENT EVIL 7’S BOSS FIGHTS ARE BY FAR THE WORST PART OF THE GAME

This constant tension is compounded by the game’s sparse, creepy audio. The Baker house is constantly creaking, full of strange noises that left me terrified at what might be waiting beyond the next door or around a nearby corner. Was that slamming sound just a tree branch hitting the side of the house? Or is one of the Baker family about to burst through the wall and threaten to slice my head off with a shovel? These noises blended with tiny movements viewed from the corner of my vision, shadows stretching across the wall, teasing horrors to come. It’s extremely effective stuff, aided by that first-person point of view.

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Not everything is different, however. RE7 does fall prey to one of the series’ long-running weaknesses. Resident Evil 7 only contains a handful of bosses, but they’re by far the worst part of the game. These encounters break the otherwise perfect tension and pacing of the rest of the experience. You are by necessity given tons of ammo and healing items in the lead-up to each boss fight, because these bigger enemies are invariably bullet sponges, sucking dry whole clips from your gun before finally falling. Worse yet, the wonderful feedback that’s present in most of the game’s other battles doesn’t really exist here; in numerous boss fights, I found myself not totally certain if I was hurting the boss or how much, because the game doesn’t make it clear.

These frustrating moments wouldn’t be that notable, save for the fact that the rest of the game’s level design and pacing are so clever and well-done. The stealth and survival elements are caught in a constant tug of war with brief phases of empowerment, where you have enough supplies saved up to go all-in and attack every enemy you come across.

This is a tenuous balance that few games manage, but Resident Evil 7 finds it and, outside of those boss fights, walks the line flawlessly. The back-and-forth between slower low-power segments and faster-paced fighting creates a sense that the game is really mixing things up every 20 or 30 minutes, which means it never allowed me to get bored.

WRAP UP:

RESIDENT EVIL 7 TAKES THE SERIES IN SOME SURPRISING, GREAT NEW DIRECTIONS

I would have been pleasantly surprised with much less than Resident Evil 7 brings to bear. I would have settled for, been excited for “not bad.” But the Resident Evil series has thrived for over 20 years now in part because of a willingness to change the franchise, to mutate with the times. Resident Evil 7‘s changes — especially the shift to first-person — may be off-putting to some. But it’s an evolution that fits perfectly into the world and source material Capcom has created. It’s hard to know if Resident Evil 7 will stand the test of time as much as classics like the original, or RE4. Taken on its own, however, it’s an excellent game that pushes the series in worthy new directions.

Resident Evil 7 was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.