Why would an author write a Resident Evil 7 review? It’s a video game, after all.
Because this author plays a lot of video games. More on that in the near future.
(Also because I have access to a blog platform and the absurdist millennial belief that anyone cares a spit about my banal thoughts.)
The TL;DR version of this review is as follows: purchase this game. If you’re a fan of the franchise (which I’m not, really) or a fan of survival horror (which I am), you’ll love it. I might recommend waiting for a sale (I didn’t), since it comes in a bit short for its price point.
Alright, now for the long version.
Selling Point 1 : You’re Not Helpless.
I’m pretty sick of helplessness as a game mechanic. If a game is only scary because the player is helpless, it’s secretly not a very scary game. Anything can be scary if it’s done in low light with tense music and ALSO YOU’RE HELPLESS. This entire trend is even more absurd because, very often, the player character is walking around an environment often littered with weapons. Look, Outlast scared the shit out of me, despite having some of the most eye-rollingly ‘shock’ moments in gaming history, but at a certain point I started rooting for the monsters. The player character may be a journalist, but he’s a journalist walking through halls full of possible improvisational tools! Pick something up!
People and, by extension, fictional characters, have a tendency to create tools and even weaponry with pretty much whatever is at hand. They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for fun, they call it that because the tools and weapons were made from stone. Human beings are so desperate for tools and weapons that we literally made them out of stone. But apparently our frightened avatars in modern horror games are too busy panting from terror to stop for a second and gather tools.
Resident Evil 7 assumes your character wants to make and use tools and weapons. That assumption changes everything. The environment is littered with resources, from big fuck-you-up guns to various chemicals and herbs to garden tools. It creates a more interesting dynamic than helplessness. Holding an ax gives you a sense of possibility, of strength. Swinging it gives you a sense of power. Whacking it into someone’s neck in a moment of desperate terror gives you an inch of control. Turning around to find the corpse mysteriously missing…
One of my favorite horror games ever was FEAR (and its sequel, FEAR 2.) It armed me from the start. The game handed its player a series of awesome, fuck-you-up guns. And then it peeled away the frail veneer of your confidence and dropped you into a situation far beyond your depth. Resident Evil 7 does something quite similar.
Selling Point 2 : A Dreadful Sense of Intimacy
The primary setting of RE7 is a sprawling plantation estate in rural Louisiana. It’s a family’s property. A fucked up family, but a family nonetheless. And the banality of that fact, the familiarity of a house’s interior, serves to create an unsettling intimacy. Family photographs, sports paraphernalia, book shelves, kids’ trophies, etc… the details of a family history are all there. There are even receipts and passive-aggressive sticky notes. And the player is pressured by game mechanics and curiosity to check everything, to look into every corner, to experience as thoroughly as possible this maddening juxtaposition of the familiar and the grotesque.
Perhaps this is what I like most about the game: the minimal scope. You are a lone human maneuvering through a minuscule slice of the globe. The massive, overarching lore of the franchise is missing. The vast scale of backstory is unimportant. This is a game about the protagonist and the antagonists and very little else.
Franchises tend to bloat. Scale expands and exposition piles up. This game, ‘reboot’ or not, solves that problem with a sharp, indifferent knife. It delivers what it needs: a tightly-focused story.
Selling Point 3 : Something For Everyone
Horror is lush with sub-genres. RE7 does its best to tap as many as possible.
Supernatural horror is immediately dangled in front of our faces. Body horror is omnipresent. Sci-fi horror is the franchise staple. RE7 even incorporates moments of splatterpunk and, of course, general action-horror. Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a whole SAW-inspired puzzle-solving section, too. Not to mention shades of Chainsaw Massacre throughout…chainsaw very much included. Which also reminds me that southern gothic archetypes and references are everywhere in RE7. There are also cosmic horror references, though that particular sub-genre doesn’t make any real appearances in the game proper.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something for everyone. And though the run-and-hide mode of helplessness horror isn’t an expressed requirement of the game, running and hiding is often the wisest course of action. So they’ve got that, too, if you like it.
One might worry that the ‘dash of everything’ approach might overclutter the game, but it doesn’t. It provides different levels to the gameplay and, what’s more, always seems in service to the story.
Selling Point 4 : Sadistic Antagonists
I saw an article online lamenting the ugly gameplay necessity of key gathering, narratively lampshaded with the idea that the antagonists want to make it hard for you to escape. The article pointed out that the antagonists didn’t bother reinforcing the walls, blocking the doors, or bricking up the windows. I imagined that such measures would take away some of the ‘fun’ for the antagonists. As much as they claim they don’t want to chase anyone down anymore, they seem to get a wicked joy out of doing just that. If they made it too hard to escape, they’d lose the ecstasy of chasing down the desperately hopeful escapees and butchering them!
Such is the rabid sadism of our front-and-center antagonists. Quite early in the game, during my second playthrough, I discovered myself gravely wounded by my pursuer. Instead of finishing the job, he set a healing kit down on the floor and cooed at me to use it. Once I’d patched myself up, he even gave me a headstart before coming after me again. So, in my mind, the key hunting has nothing to do with making it difficult for me to leave; it has everything to do with providing the antagonists with entertainment.
These batshit crazy sadists provide the main antagonism. Hordes of faceless monsters provide secondary, supporting antagonism (the ‘nameless goon’ variety, mostly.) And then, behind it all, there lurks a vast, faintly-inhuman force (oh, wait, I guess those cosmic horror references make some sense after all). Each layer of antagonism serves a purpose both to story and to gameplay. The front-and-center villains are charmingly psychotic and extremely terrifying. The nameless goons provide tense, strategic combat. And the terrible intelligence behind the whole show creates a layer of moral and intellectual questions the game would otherwise lack. It’s quite an exquisite array of enemies.
The Downside : It’s a Bit Pricey.
Currently, the game goes for $59.99, not including DLCs or soundtrack. My first playthrough took 10 hours, my second took 7. There’s an in-game achievement for managing it down to 4. Though it’s a bit replayable, if only for the sheer moodiness and the awesome realization of its setting, replayability isn’t its prime directive. I’ll certainly be prancing through it a third time, but I’m a particular sort of person. In the main, I doubt most people will go through it more than twice. So what that settles down to is that the base game provides, say, 10-20 hours of gameplay for a ~$60 price tag. No thanks.
It was worth it, for me, because I love the genre and I’m utterly sick of helplessness horror. I’ve played through twice and will be playing a third time at least. I enjoy the game from a gameplay perspective and from a horror theory perspective. I also sprang for the DLCs, not yet available for PC, which I hear add significant replayability–but we’re not discussing the DLCs, are we? No. We’re discussing the cost of the base game. And the cost of the base game, unless you’re a weirdo like me, is simply too high.
But I guarantee it’ll be on sale in the near future. So if you’re the patient sort, you’re in luck.
RE7 provides an excellent experience. It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, frightening, and fun. In my original 10-hour playthrough, I sweated and panicked through the first 2 hours like a man on the edge. For the few hours after that, my mood shifted between anxiety and joy. Anxiety at every door, every corridor, and every corner; joy at my increasing competence at solving my dilemmas. Most of the last hour was spent in full action mode, all sound and fury and laughter. It was an incredible emotional journey.
In my second playthrough, I was more confident. My relatively eased anxiety allowed me to appreciate the setting and the art of the game more deeply. The narrative flow, the peaks and valleys of fear throughout the story, etc. It was during my second playthrough that I really fell in love with the game.
So, yes, it’s an exquisite game, an excellent bit of interactive horror media, and a decently written (if also unevenly written) story. My only dismay is at the price tag, a number I think is a bit high for people less fanatical about their devotion to horror media and video games than I am. But I suppose that’s for them to decide.