Resident Evil 7 Review: What's old is new again
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the flagship game for the series’ 20th anniversary, represents a series homecoming of sorts. Prior to release, it was difficult to judge the direction of this new entry, with comparisons being drawn more so to other products like Konami’s cancelled first person horror title, P.T., than to the RE series itself. Capcom claims the game, through its immersive first person perspective, “sets a new course for the Resident Evil series as it leverages it roots and opens the doors to a truly terrifying horror experience.”
Indeed, many aspects of RE7 appear to be new. More than ever, there is an emphasis on environmental exploration, something not really seen with the exception of the Chronicles games, and the Beginning Hour demo teased supernatural elements as the cause for the predicament confronting Ethan Winters, the main protagonist, who for the first time since the Outbreak games is an ordinary civilian rather than a skilled combatant. Until now every game in the series has used loose interpretations of scientific possibility to justify the existence of monsters, hence the Japanese name Biohazard. Revelations 2, released in 2015, did begin to push the boundary between scientific and supernatural, but RE7 attempts to take it to a completely new level – or at least Capcom wants us to think so.
I’ve completed RE7 three times now, in both the Casual and Normal difficulties, in both English and Japanese. As I become more familiar with the game, the new elements do certainly make for a unique experience. There are far more genuinely frightening and disturbing moments in RE7 than probably in every other RE game combined. It’s certainly a new game, with nothing else in the series quite like it.
That said, RE7, in its entirety, draws upon many memorable tropes and motifs that have come to define the series over the last 20 years. There is simply no way RE7 as a game could be made had the previous entries never existed. What Capcom has attempted to do is take the greatest elements of the highest-rated RE games and bring them together, improve upon them, and then tailor them to the first-person perspective. In an alternate universe featuring a more risk-averse Capcom, this very same game could have been called Resident Evil Revelations 3, or even Gun Survivor 5: Biohazard if they had one tenth of the budget. Still, Capcom deemed this entry worthy of what the Japanese dev team calls “Numbering Titles,” a quasi-Engrish designation meant to separate RE0 through RE6 from the Revelations, Chronicles, Outbreaks and other side stories.
Usually I wouldn’t begin a review with such an elaborate history lesson, particularly since Capcom has designed RE7 to be enjoyable without necessarily having to play through the rest of the series, but as a series fan for 17 years, I simply cannot just ignore the series pedigree like it never existed, and RE7 subtly and not-so-subtly reminded me why I fell in love with this series in the first place.
RE7, to describe in one sentence, is the best of classic RE reborn with a different perspective emphasizing up close and personal interaction with the environment, and a higher emphasis on horror and violence.
I’m going to keep the actual technical review short and direct, since there are a myriad of excellent reviews out there by people who are experienced in evaluating games. Philip Kollar at Polygon has delighted me yet again with a review that mirrors my thoughts quite closely, and Steve Wright at Stevivor draws some interesting conclusions that I strongly agree with.
Exploration and Pacing
RE7 draws heavily upon the exploration and pacing style of RE1, RE2 and RE0. No longer are we exploring entire cities like Raccoon City or Tall Oaks, nor touring through villages like Pueblo and Kijuju, and we certainly aren’t globetrotting from Eastern Europe to China. In fact, the game is very lean; perhaps equal in length to Leon or Chris’ campaigns in RE6. I beat it in my first run under 8 hours, and my third run clocked in at 4 hours and 6 minutes. Under 3 hours is certainly possible on a replay.
The game occurs in one large estate in a fictional Louisiana city before shifting to a dilapidated ship docked in a river nearby, and the experience is roughly broken up into five distinct parts; we explore one part of the estate before moving onto another; there is RE1-style backtracking at one point in the game, in which we return to a previous part of the estate before moving onto the next one. RE7 does an amazing job at keeping the pace moving while respecting the preferences of gamers who want to just observe the game’s beautiful visuals. The first-person viewpoint, combined with a relatively small number of primarily humanoid enemies, gives players the chance to explore the environment around them for clues, hidden items, ammunition and weaponry at their own pace. And it’s notable that this is the first RE game that doesn’t have a countdown timer at any point in the game – you are in control of the entire experience, and it does not do much to guide you. I could perfectly balance my desire to explore for a bit while advancing through the game at a faster pace, and it was very satisfying.
For the first time since CODE: Veronica, Capcom has brought back the mystical item box and the wonderful save rooms, ambient music and all. With inventory limitations, there will be moments when you will run out of space and will need to either consolidate, discard items, leave items to be taken later, or perform item box runs. This might bother some gamers, but as mentioned above, the player can move about at his or her own pace, allowing you to make what you want out of this feature, while in the classic RE games, you didn’t have anywhere near as much flexibility and item box runs were practically a must.
The last fourth of the game (the fourth area taking place on the ship and a series of mine tunnels after that) might be an exception to that last remark, but only because this particular part of the game resembles the original Revelations in atmosphere and pacing. It also features more of the Revelations-style slimy and vaguely humanoid enemies, and this is when the game finally gives you a machine gun and bombs, increasing the action level up quite a bit. The abrupt change in pace here seems to be almost a concession of sorts by the dev team to appease those who do prefer the action-oriented RE games, but I appreciated the variety and the effort to mix things up a bit. It’s not jarring, and not a negative direction at all.
Atmosphere and Graphics
Capcom developed the new RE Engine for this game, emphasizing environmental detail. The dev team created the world’s visuals by using real world objects and people as models, and the results are great, particularly on a 4K TV. Capcom has successfully and convincingly reproduced a rural American South environment, and the indoor environments portray a dilapidated residence hinting at the occurrence of violent, horrific struggles. RE7 is certainly the most grotesque and gory game in the series; in fact in Japan, the game was so violent that they are releasing two SKUs: a standard edition and a CERO-Z (think NC-17) “Grotesque Version.”
In terms of art direction, the game reminds me of REmake during the first three sections, Revelations during the fourth part on the ship, and then a bit of RE4 in the very last few sections occurring in tunnels. Aside from the superficial similarities the Baker Estate may have to the Spencer Estate from RE1 or Umbrella Research Center from RE0, there are certain rooms in the game where you may think you accidentally wandered back into the lair of Lisa Trevor, and you could be forgiven if you thought you were back on the Queen Zenobia toward the end. Capcom drew from the best of the series visually, and nothing about the experience disappoints.
The plot of the game skews closer to a Silent Hill game than any other RE; in fact the initial premise seems to borrow from SH2. However, by the ending, players will know that RE7 is undeniably related to the rest of the series, and like RE4, the last game to attempt to start a new plotline, players will see that RE7 is setting up for future stories.
I wanted to elaborate on the storytelling aspect. Anyone who played through the original Revelations will notice immediate directional similarities to RE7; both were actually directed by Koshi Nakanishi. In both games, there is a strong connection between the events of past and present and the storyline wouldn’t be complete without understanding both. In Revelations, these are told through flashbacks, while RE7 shows players the past in the form of antiquated VHS tapes. RE7 makes these video tapes optional, but I suggest going through them as they are rewarding parts of the experience.
The English voice overs are mostly well-implemented, and unlike pretty much every other RE game out there, there don’t seem to be any awkward one-liners or easily-misinterpreted remarks (no “Master of Unlocking,” “Complete. Global. Saturation,” “moist barrel of fucks,” “thermal underwear” or “AAAAH! HELP ME!” lines); at least nothing comes to mind even after three playthroughs. My only complaint is that, in the context of what goes on in the game, Ethan, the protagonist, doesn’t react how I would imagine one would if, for example, one’s limb were cut off. Admittedly, the Japanese dub does seem to get this detail down a little better, but it’s worth noting.
RE7 has a good, though not amazing soundtrack. Most of the tracks have been composed by Akiyuki Morimoto, who returns from RE6, with others composed by Miwako Chinone (Monster Hunter series), Satoshi Hori (newcomer), Brian D’Oliveira (Papa & Yo) and Cris Velasco (God of War).
The Go Tell Aunt Rhody arrangement made specially for RE7 has underscored several memorable trailers and has come to define the game’s eeriness and aura of mystery. Background music has been an integral part of the classic REgameplay experience and the Revelations titles, while being more of a secondary focus with the RE4-like games. While RE7 feels like a classic RE in terms of atmosphere, I feel the music isn’t closely tied to the gameplay itself. Some hardcore RE fans probably remember a specific track that plays in any room in RE1 or CV, but with RE7 music tracks aren’t tied to specific rooms. Rather, they play with specific cut-scenes and a few flashback moments.
My main issue is that no specific track seems as memorable as the best of the classic RE titles. After three playthroughs, I still can’t remember what the save room melody is. Aside from the Aunt Rhody theme, the track I can remember the most happens to be an arrangement of a track from REmake. I’ve got the OST downloaded and will listen to it over the coming days to see if my impressions change, but I don’t expect the music to be a defining experience for many gamers.
Combat and Action
My biggest complaint about RE7 is the actual combat mechanics. By design, they are far less advanced than RE4, 5 and 6, and more closely resemble the middle-of-the-road approach first seen in Revelations. While not terrible, the game’s aiming system makes enemies difficult to hit, and the few boss fights in the game require little creativity to complete; one of the earlier fights gets creative with the use of certain weaponry, by it feels more like a gimmick. Other fights are more conventional, such as aiming for specific weak spots. The combat is augmented by a new feature, Guarding. This is done with the left shoulder button; the slower nature of the combat and the first-person perspective means that unlike RE6 or the Revelations titles, dodging is not really an option. Guarding, therefore, allows Ethan to absorb hits and minimize the damage incurred. It's a simple solution and allows for the on-screen action to remain stable. Dodging might be a tempting strategy in some encounters, but it's difficult and unreliable in the game's small corridors.
While I am certainly no expert on game design, I must wonder if there could have been more creative ways to play through boss fights that actually utilize the first-person perspective better. I would even say that both Umbrella Chronicles and Darkside Chronicles had more memorable first-person boss battles than RE7 because they took the familiarity of their source material and twisted them around to fit the different perspective. With RE7, it feels disjointed and not quite as thought out, and is a point to improve upon in future entries.
The best RE since RE4 and RE2
I am comfortable in declaring RE7 as the best RE since either RE4 or RE2, depending on where on the gradually widening scale of RE styles your tastes lie. With only a few 1996-era staff still around, Director Koshi Nakanishi, Co-Producers Masachika Kawata and Tsuyoshi Kanda, and the rest of the development team were under tall orders to bring back the series to the upper echelons of game quality. They have succeeded in making an entertaining and unique game that tests new ideas while respecting the series’ 20 years of history.
If the upcoming RE2 remake or any other future game were to feature the same gameplay as RE7, I would welcome the move with open arms. I can even reimagine all the classic RE titles in the vein of RE7 and can’t help but be enthralled with the idea. With a more thorough development of the combat mechanics and boss battles, and perhaps an even stronger soundtrack, RE7 can be the seed that sows a new, bold direction for the series. I’m excited. Well done, Capcom.
A note on VR
I have yet to play through the entire game on PlayStation VR, and therefore I am unable to comment extensively until I do. I have played various demos in VR, and can say that based on those experiences, VR sounds like a nice bonus that is not essential to the enjoyment of the overall game. I hope to have more thoughts published when I do get around to it eventually.