The biggest question surrounding Resident Evil 7 is: What kind of experience is it? It is a throwback to the Resident Evil games of old? Is it full of superhuman rock punching and zombie suplexes like the last couple of entries? Or is it something entirely new for the series? The answer is somewhere in the middle of all three of these, with a heavy dose of the game design methods of the independent horror hits like Amnesia or Outlast. But what’s important about this mashup of old and new, blockbuster game design and independent innovation, is that Resident Evil 7 scared the hell out of me.
To be more accurate, it gave me severe anxiety. I enjoy a good horror game, and I’ve played through lots of horror titles in a variety of different genres, from Dead Space to The Last Door to Ib. Nothing has bothered me as much as Resident Evil 7. There is something in the game’s specific combination of ambient sounds, level design, lack of soundtrack, and camera acceleration speed that ended up ticking all of the boxes for making me feel profoundly and disturbingly anxious while playing the game. I was caught in a real conundrum. Do I stumble through this thing while feeling profoundly unhappy and adverse? Do I just give up and say “hey, I tried”? I went a different way. I brought in a ringer.
A note here before we get going: I didn’t play Resident Evil 7 with the Playstation VR headset. That would have completely wrecked me, and I’m glad I went with the good ole television experience.
Resident Evil 7 is so anxiety-inducing, I had to get someone to come play it with me. And I’m glad I did, because the game is probably best experienced in pairs. Its story is told in fits and starts, providing several opportunities to theorize about what is actually going on. Being a first-person horror game, there’s a lot of time spent avoiding enemies and slowly creeping down hallways, and we spent a lot of that time between story beats hollering about what the game’s story was even about at that point in time.
I say that not as a complaint or critique about the game’s narrative development. Resident Evil 7 takes place at a backwoods farm in coastal Louisiana, and the feel is equal parts True Detective and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having grown up in the South, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the tropes that the game trots out in its portrayal. For example, the “crazy hillbillies” stereotype really should be over and done with at this point. However the game does some truly interesting stuff with those stock characters. The familiar virus-oriented zombie stuff that fuels every Resident Evil game is slightly altered, and the small family of antagonists are infected with regenerative powers; imagine, if you will, a guffawing Leatherface who can reattach his arms and legs.
Resident Evil 7’s gameplay is very classic Resident Evil. The player progresses by wandering around large, interconnected locations, gathering objects that open new areas as they explore. There are doors with snakes on them, and a matching key is needed to unlock them. Keycard door require a keycard. It’s simple, familiar stuff, and it is all about traversing the same areas over and over again. The regenerating antagonists make up the most interesting enemies in these sections, standing in open areas as the player sneaks or fights their way around them in pursuit of the objective. You’ll also see some faceless zombie-ish enemies, but they’re far less interesting than the flagship, profanity-screaming Louisianans.
There’s a lot to say about the specifics of the game, but I want to say some things about highlights that I really loved. There are multiple instances in the game where the player watches a VHS tape of a previous character’s encounter with the denizens in the house, and those tapes are an opportunity to play through their experience. From a pragmatic perspective, it allows the developers to re-use some areas in really great ways, but narratively it means that the game can show players a before-and-after perspective on the same area. It’s hard to elaborate further without giving too much away, but in one section you play through an “escape room” in the past and the present, and it’s one of the best experiences I have ever had in a game. It’s inspired, and clever, and I was smiling the entire time as we made our way through it.
The Resident Evil games have never had consistently engaging boss fights, and I was pleasantly surprised by the weirdness of those in Resident Evil 7. None of them are of the “shoot the enemy until it dies” variety, and all of them have some kind of strange and fun gimmick that doesn’t feel forced. One of the first boss battles took place in a garage, and we were able to finish it by stealing a car key, hopping into a hot rod, and running into the enemy over and over again. He had done the same to us in a previous attempt, ripping the roof off a car and doing donuts in a garage until he killed us, cackling the entire time. I was confused, and I was delighted.
There are some problems with the game, but they’re all relatively minor. The aforementioned boss battles feature weird hitboxes that allow or deny attacks seemingly at random. Winning them sometimes feels like a matter of luck. The enemies that lay in wait sometimes seem as though they’re not playing by the same set of rules that the player is bound by, and it often feels like they’re teleporting to the scariest places just so they can scream expletives right into your face. One of my biggest complaints is purely conceptual: I’m very tired of “psychological horror” that consists solely of warmed-over Sigmund Freud “daddy-mommy-me” family issues.
I had a really great time making my way through Resident Evil 7. It was a smart move to borrow from the last decade of horror-ass horror game design. Distancing it from its recent action game past gave me anxiety, but ultimately made me happy.
Resident Evil 7 was developed and published by Capcom. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.