Home is where the horror is. No other theme is more apparent in Resident Evil’s terrifying return to form. Resident Evil 7 trades the globe-trotting, biotech conspiracies found in the last two numbered titles for an intimate experience. And what’s more intimate than family? With the Bakers center frame, Capcom reinjects the franchise with a design that harkens back to Resident Evil 4: creepy, harrowing, and a playable explanation for horror’s appeal.
The story begins with the kidnapping of Ethan’s (your) wife Mia. She’s been missing for like 3 years, but one day Ethan receives what is approximately a hostage message from Mia, sending him to a creepy plantation estate in search of his wife. Why Ethan goes there without a cell phone, concerns or weapons is further proof Resident Evil is back.
Expected plot holes aside this may be the best story that Capcom has ever told. Mainly because it leans into well-enough-rounded characters and understatement. It still does break into kitsch, especially near the end, but it’s to be expected. My particular ending even had an obligatory, cheesy voiceover exposition recounting the moral of the story. But again, this is Resident Evil.
Welcome to the Family
Ultimately, it’s the Baker family that keeps this narrative together enough to engage you. They’re interesting and broken. They have backstories of human existence that inform the monsters they’ve become. RE7’s story is Gone Home gone wrong. Notes and tapes accompany the dialogue, filling us in on the game’s core mystery and who they were before they were force-feeding Ethan body parts. Jack “Daddy” Baker, specifically, shines with his simultaneously terrifying and oddly comedic performance. And while I wish there was more to learn about your adopted family, a few more wrinkles added to their expositions, these characters showcase surprising (read: for video games) psychological depth.
The same cannot be said for the player-character Ethan. He’s a shell and who’s only redeeming quality is that he doesn’t get in the way or overly-inform how you should feel. He is so nonreactive to the awful shit that’s happening to him and his wife that I wonder if he actually loves her or is just there out of marital obligation. Till death do us part?
Not surprisingly, RE7’s flavor lies less in the narrative than in its petrifying scenes. The haunted house. The missing people. The found footage. The basement. The attic. The idiot who keeps walking into these spaces. RE7 leverages every major horror trope ever committed to film. Yet it adds an interactive flourish that renews these tropes. These “scenes” are made ever more frightening due to the game’s excellent antagonists informing the dark “what ifs” that creep into your mind as you slink through the house. And driving this point is RE7’s true brilliance: its understanding of player psychology.
Item placement, obfuscated gameplay moments, and level design are used to unsettle the player’s mind. Oh great, they gave you a bunch of items, so you know that something awful is coming, but you don’t what or where from. Or just as you feel the relief of figuring out how to escape a particular situation, Capcom throws in a twist that induces panic as you’re forced to adapt. And adapt you must.
It’s Called SURVIVAL Horror for a Reason
Precious inventory management and encounters that leave you with a single bullet are central to the game’s gameplay loops. When aiming, your gun bobs as the enemies dodge and rush, introducing a mechanical tension that compliments the atmospheric stress. Speaking of guns there are not many weapons in the game, but wait, wait, before you start looking up return policies, hear me out.
Sure the devs don’t make it rain with upgrades and firepower. Instead, they dole them out thoughtfully so as to be integrated organically into the game’s design. It makes each thematically and mechanically meaningful when initially introduced and long thereafter. This isn’t anything new for linear shooters (you get the sniper right before you’re placed on the rooftop), but here the conceit is given extra care and attention.
Earning guns becomes almost an optional combat puzzle. Specific weapons allow you to make progress in an otherwise nearly hopeless situation. And while there is plenty of action, you won’t need too many weapons as you can only quick switch between 4 active weapons during the frantic combat scenarios. Hordes of enemies are also pretty rare as even one is enough to make you refill your Xanax prescription.
Capcom has extended this anxiety to the boss battles. While some critics were frustrated with the “bullet sponge” bosses and their lack of health bar, the game does offer tells for weak points and damage that, for the most part, shoot for implication rather than explication. What’s more, once you figure out how a boss works, taking it down is a quick affair. And while not all the boss battles are successes, there’s a clear attempt to design them around inventive ideas without undermining the carefully crafted tension with red progress meters or prompts explaining what to do.
This decision, whether you agree it works or not, tells you a lot about Resident Evil’7’s character. Capcom aspires to, while adhering to classic Resident Evil logic, maintaining the integrity and atmosphere that powers the game’s tension-release. It does lose sight of atmosphere at times, but this philosophy guides everything from dialogue to the game’s outstanding level design.
Love What You’ve Done with the Place
RE’s rich, highly detailed estate feels organic yet the layout’s easy logic and clever wraparounds are clearly designed. You intuitively learn the house through trial and error, making slasher flick escapes thrilling and viable. RE has smartly stolen some tricks from From Software’s design book (see shortcuts for example) that add relief and reward to exploration. There are some surprises I won’t ruin here that ruin the game’s organic and elegant spatial construction, but they’re forgivable grievances. The house, its various rooms, and auxiliary structures feel lived-in and renovated to reflect the Baker’s deteriorating minds, a reality that only further makes the experience uncanny.
The Demons in the Details
But this is a Resident Evil game, so for all the impressive restraint, the game eventually stumbles onto mechanical quirks and caves into spectacle more aligned with the series’ historically B-movie aesthetic.
Gameplay wise, RE7’s doors can be exploited and break immersion when enemies clip through them or your flamethrower can’t burn down a wooden barrier. Capcom, can we get some spikes stabbing through the lumber, The Shining-style?
On the narrative side, cheesiness and “epic” set piece style boss fights break the unease the game so carefully crafts. When monsters turn huge and derivative and horror tropes are thrown in your face, you expose too much and the terrors lose their power. Like 1950’s erotica, the scares work best when you leave something for the imagination. Luckily, 3/4 of RE7 is butt-clenching scary.
Why Would You Do This to Yourself?
The looming question for anyone who’s vaguely or not at all interested in playing Resident Evil 7 (or any horror game) is “why the fuck would you do that to yourself?” This was certainly a question that knocked in my mind for the first couple hours of playtime. And two hours in, after a thrilling encounter with a boss, I had my answer. Edging. No, not that sexy kind, you perv. But it’s a fitting metaphor.
Capcom expertly controls tensions and builds towards these incredibly cathartic crescendos. From a design perspective, Resident Evil 7 is all about denying the player power before letting them unleash a loaded clip into the things that previously controlled us with fear. Capcom understands that horror games are so emotionally effective because they excel at producing player empowerment. Resident Evil 7 will likely go down as one of the best to ever do this.
The equivalent of this satisfaction can be found in overcoming the difficulty the Soul’s games offer, but the triumph is not mechanical but psychological. Resident Evil 7’s suffocating atmosphere, perfect pacing, and tension-release gameplay all reinforce this player gratification. The game keeps you pushing forward because the terror it fills you with is always paid back with catharsis: fear as fantasy. The threats are not real, but the feelings very much are. Resident Evil 7’s horror forces us to face those feelings, rewarding us not so much through overcoming fear but through overcoming ourselves.