Was Resident Evil 7 a True Return to the Series’ Roots?
Action vs. survival horror
The Resident Evil franchise holds the special distinction of defining the horror genre not once, but twice. The original game would create the modern survival horror genre, and Resident Evil 4 would become the standard of action-horror.
Despite the successes, the franchise as a whole has arguably had a tough time remaining the king of survival horror. After the failure of Resident Evil 6, Capcom went back to the drawing board and figuratively tore everything down to rebuild for Resident Evil 7. The good that Resident Evil 7 brings to the franchise deserves praise, but I just wish that they didn’t bring back the bad as well.
Resident Evil 7 begins with removing all trace of the last six main games in the series to start over with a new situation. Taking place in Louisiana, players control Ethan who has just received word that his wife Mia has been found after three years. Heading down south to find her, Ethan becomes embroiled with the Baker Family who each has disturbing powers and has kidnapped Mia.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Resident Evil 7 is played entirely in first person to great effect. The Baker estate is one of the most disgusting settings for a horror game, and that is a compliment. The new “RE Engine” creates one of the most lived-in game spaces I’ve seen yet, and is up there with Prey as having some of the best environmental storytelling. People have praised playing this game using VR, but I couldn’t do it at the time.
Resident Evil 7 is an odd beast when compared to previous Resident Evil games and recent horror titles; with both an emphasis and de-emphasis on combat.
A Private Tour:
Resident Evil 7’s biggest redemption play was to dial back the action in favor of the series’ original roots in the adventure genre. In turn, the game plays similarly to the Outlast series, with one obvious exception:players will be sneaking around, and hunting down esoteric keys and solving even more esoteric puzzles, but there is still a focus on combat compared to recent indie horror games.
There are two main enemy types in the game: The Baker family and creatures called “The Molded.” The Bakers represent alpha antagonists that will track and hunt the player in each of the game’s main areas. You cannot kill the Bakers until you fight them as dedicated boss fights. The Molded appear in specific areas of the game and can only be killed via head shots or destroying their bodies.
Combat and exploration go hand-in-hand in Resident Evil 7, as the days of the trader outfitting you with guns are long over. There are only a few weapon types in the game, with a strong focus of having to find (and craft) what you need.
Using chemical fluid, you are able to craft the first-aid sprays and bullets that used to blanket the areas of previous RE titles. Due to the photo-realistic graphics, you will have to pay attention to find the items you need. Despite fighting fewer enemies here, the individual battles are a lot more terrifying. Enemies lurch at you as their bodies contort and do what they can to make your shots hard to pick out.
The player is the slowest moving character in the game, and this can make fighting (and running away) very hard.
During the exploration parts, Resident Evil 7 is at its best, but when the game tells you it’s time to fight, the clunky combat becomes an exercise in frustration instead of fear.
A Family Tussle:
Our hero Ethan is a far cry from series’ vets Leon Kennedy and Chris “punched a rock” Redfield in the combat department. Your movement is so slow that it hits the point of just being cumbersome, and makes combat harder than it should.
In previous titles, the third person camera afforded you some spatial awareness around the character to make attempts at dodging. In first person however, enemies can easily gang up on you, and being slow in tight corridors is a recipe for disaster.
Enemies are more durable than they are cunning to fight. Combat begins and ends with the new “block” mechanic tied to L1. Since you can’t easily run away, you need to time your blocks if the enemy gets too close to mitigate damage. The difference in damage taken while blocking vs. not is huge, and can mean life or death on Madhouse difficulty.
Fighting the Molded, I wish that there were other ways of interacting with them, like using the environment or sneaking around. The second you walk into an area with them, they will spawn and immediately start tracking you. Without spoiling things too much, there are additional enemy types; each with their own unique behavior and strategy.
The real frustration came in during the boss fights themselves. The Baker fights tried to mix combat and puzzle design into a single fight. Beating them will require you to figure out how to actually do damage to them within the confines of the arena, and then hopefully having the health to survive.
However, despite the buildup leading to these battles, none of them manage to be as interesting as the first quarter of the game, and that presents a major problem.
The first quarter of the game is Resident Evil 7 at its best, but the game lacks the horror and adventure design to keep that feeling throughout the length of the game. Being stalked by Jack and the molded in the Baker’s home creates a great sense of dread and tension.
As the game goes on, the player’s ability to fight back removes any sense of terror when fighting the generic molded. There is also a lack of puzzle solving in the game, with many of the “puzzles” just simple “find the key” solutions. The best section for puzzles was the escape room area with Lucas, but that’s about five minutes of gameplay.
The limited number of enemy types and your overall power level turns combat from being tense into boring. Even though randomly placed ammo does have an impact, getting the shotgun begins your power climb. One point near the end of the game is just nothing but combat. While it may not look it, Resident Evil 7 is still an example of action-horror design; just really slow action-horror.
Going forward, I would like to see a greater focus on making combat interesting and tying that into the puzzle solving.
And as a final point, I didn’t like how the story ended, and how it tried to integrate the stories of the previous games back into Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 7 may not be the amazing return to form for the Resident Evil franchise, nor the outstanding reboot like Resident Evil 4, but it was still a great game and worthy of at least one playthrough.
There are a lot of little good parts to the design that I hope we see fleshed out with Resident Evil 8. For more on the game, you can watch my Madhouse plays on the Game-Wisdom channel, and the Dissecting Design I did on the gameplay.