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‘Resident Evil 7’: A Frightening Return to Form

4 STARS

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Disclaimer: This brave reviewer made an attempt to play the opening 30 minutes of “Resident Evil 7” after several glasses of wine and an indeterminate number of shots.

He confidently dove into this treacherous bayou simulator, because the Deep South must be this terrible for anyone who has never been there. He boldly challenged the television screen to “come at me, bro” and dared his own avatar’s rendered shadow to “cash me outside.” All taunts came to a standstill, however, upon the first sighting of a hillbilly non-player character (NPC), walking with an eerily slow gait off-screen until he disappeared into seemingly thin air, as if possessed by the devil. Ahah! The classic bait-and-switch. “The oldest trick in the book,” our reviewer reassured himself as he continued into a blatantly foreboding haunted house. There, he found his impressionable, inebriated self victim to images of rotting intestines, bloodied family photos, and an actual possessed woman chasing him down the hallway with a chainsaw. Slightly nauseated, the reviewer proceeded to shut off the game and vomit in his toilet four times. He remembers everything to this day. Some say the video game was so horrifying that he needed to expel the evil spirits he witnessed out of his psyche. His roommates say it was obviously a result of bad decisions and overdrinking. We will never know for sure. Alas, he lived to tell the tale, and continued to live a normal, adjusted life in Kirkland House afterwards, and recovered enough to complete the entire game sober.

My drunk experience is a testament to how “Resident Evil 7,” in its broader moments, can shock and thrill. Yet, playing through its nine-hour campaign with a discerning, sober eye made for a thoroughly tense experience. The risky creative decisions Capcom made to revitalize its struggling franchise all boil down to the shift from the third- to first-person perspective, resulting in a fundamentally different game from its predecessors—one that succeeds in catching up to modern standards where past games have failed.

Players control Ethan, who journeys deep into the American South to search for his missing wife, Mia. Hopeful and terribly naive, he willingly enters a decrepit, downtrodden plantation house in the middle of a bayou, full of indications of death and decay, without any assistance or regard to common sense. Of course, nothing can come between a man and his wife. There, he is captured by the Baker family who have seized control of Mia through a fungus that turns people into superpowered, invincible pseudo-zombies. Ethan must find a way to cure Mia and escape the clutches of the sadistic and warped Baker family as he explores their estate and uncovers the mystery behind their tragic fates.

The Bakers themselves, Jack, Marguerite, and Lucas, speak in thick Southern accents. As antagonists, they are the source of the game’s many successful sections in which you must adjust to fighting and outsmarting their AI through quick sleight of hand and nimble, stealthy steps. With different behaviors and tools of destruction, from Jack’s rake to Marguerite’s pesky bugs, they proved continually inventive, frightening, and surprising whenever encountered. Interestingly, this wacky interpretation of the hillbilly may reflect just how Capcom and its designers view us Americans: dirty, violent, but ultimately sympathetic, in an almost condescending view of how tragedy befalls the simple-minded. These monsters we face are “scary” not because of how grotesque they are, but because of how eerily human they remain while possessed by an unspecified evil and darkness that pales their skin, bulges their veins, and blackens their eyes. These are the most compelling enemies “Resident Evil” has had in recent memory. They leave you feeling powerless, but not hopeless, and capable, but not optimistic, in your attempts to overcome them. Whether in sneaking around the patrols of Marguerite or solving Lucas’ maniacal torture chambers ripped out of “Saw,” the player will be left on edge, desperately hoping to escape their presence as they explore their not-so-homely abode.

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Capcom has resolved to please loyal fans by structurally returning to the seminal game that started it all: “Resident Evil” (sans number). We once again find ourselves stranded in a unrealistic mansion full of trap doors, absurdly complicated puzzles, and medicinally revolutionary herbs. This time around, however, the boxes of ammo and guns littered throughout various nooks, crannies, and shelves are narratively justified by the intention to capture an essence of Southern America. The “Resident Evil” franchise has always indulged itself in its own silly idiosyncrasies that have become, at this point, obligations of legacy.

The most pivotal tradition of this survival horror series is its use of the third-person perspective, which moved from fixed, omniscient angles, to a controllable, over-the-shoulder camera in the simultaneously action-packed and tense “Resident Evil 4.” This revelation only signaled the beginning of the end of this beloved franchise, spawning two installments that struggled to modernize themselves by modeling third-person action games such as “Gears of War.” They quickly lost themselves in B-movie spectacles full of explosions and writhing, behemoth monsters that were more laughable than intimidating. Consequently, the series’ tradition of stiff, tanky characters mixed with high-octane action never truly worked. In “Resident Evil 7,” Director Koshi Nakanishi strips away spectacle and returns to subtle, quiet horror that is refreshing, and long overdue.

Controversial statement though it may be, horror seems to belong in the first-person, as indicated by players and the industry. From “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” to the phenomenon “Slender,” and the recent “Alien: Isolation,” both independent and large studios have discovered the practicality of generating tension while occupying the claustrophobic and limited head-space of the first-person perspective. Its merits are obvious. By obscuring surroundings and severely limiting their sense of control, the first-person perspective plunges players into what is arguably a more immersive and vulnerable position in the game world. Unlike in the third-person, the player can no longer find comfort in a visual comprehension of the game environment, so threats can be suggested almost in every dark corner by audiovisual cues. Here, the mere horror of suggestion—the implied presence—sends shivers down your spine. I found myself shocked at the sight of my own shadow upon walking in front of a bright light source, and constantly jerking at the sound of my avatar’s own footsteps on the creaking wooden floor. Harsh dissonance and silence play equally important roles in generating an atmosphere of perpetual unease. The scariest moments of the game can stem not only from the explicit appearance of enemies but also from their implied presence, in which the looming shadows in the distance could be either a hallucination or, God forbid, a real threat. Those damn decapitated mannequins, for example, find a way to pop in at every inconvenient moment.

At the core of horror is the defamiliarization of a space that you felt was once safe and known. It is alien. Dark. You do not know what might be around the corner until you check it yourself. In film, the camera guides viewers through the space. This game forces players to check what’s under the bed on their own volition. “Resident Evil 7” plays like “Gone Home” if your suspicions of danger were actually true. The house itself is your enemy, a maze you must traverse and a puzzle you must crack to find relief in the nearest safe space you can find. Backtracking, in which the player is forced to retrace their steps to previously explored areas that may no longer be safe, is another well-tread series tradition that is used to extensive effect. “Resident Evil 7” formally returns to its concern with how details from the smallest creak in the distance to the door closing magically behind you can generate more tension than the writhing masses of goo-monsters of the series’ past two installments.

Ethan, similar to past installments’ characters, moves and aims guns with a sloppy weight and stiffness, continually resisting the player’s need for precision. The designers implement subtle mechanics in nearly every aspect of gameplay to make the player feel bound to external forces, never having full control of the situation. This design philosophy is exemplified in the scarcity of weapon ammo so that running away may be the only option, or in the invincibility of certain enemies, so that running away is, yet again, the only option. This crucial feeling of powerlessness, of feeling incapable of overcoming every obstacle through brute force, is a design philosophy antithetical to the majority of modern games outside horror, and it is what carries this game’s first six hours to success.

At the six-hour mark, “Resident Evil 7” encounters the trademark fatal flaw to any horror experience. Pacing is a pivotal element that is criminally overlooked, particularly in an industry that feels an obligation to justify its asking price by investing in the quantity of game rather than its quality. Horror games are often overlong, and can repeat and recycle encounters to extend game time. “Alien: Isolation,” an otherwise spectacularly produced horror game, was stretched to a maddening length at 15 hours, which is about twice as long as it should have been. The inherent problem is that the longer the game runs, the more predictable scenarios and enemies become and the more player unease becomes annoying, rather than entertaining. The more time you spend in this game, the more you realize that this environment and world that was once scary is actually a sadistic obstacle course. The artifice becomes blatant, and the charm wears off. “Resident Evil 7,” after having taken two steps forward, takes another step back in its final acts by throwing waves of walking black goo-monsters that are only scary because you fear having to use precious bullets to kill them. The game regresses back into its roots of action gun-toting gameplay—it betrays the strong adventure-game core it spent so much time meticulously developing in its opening acts through wonderfully eerie environmental horror.

It is disappointing that a game so delightfully scary in its first two thirds should end in dull, grating action. You can blame the developer’s burden to satisfy an action-hungry audience by giving them B-movie horror spectacles in the form of writing monsters with several glowing weak points to shoot bullets into. Yet, that is the reality. The good, but unscary “Resident Evil 5” and atrocity that was “Resident Evil 6” were some of the bestselling games in the series—in spite of mediocre reception. “Resident Evil 7” will not come close to their numbers.

I cannot truly claim that “Resident Evil” has come back into its own with this game, but it has certainly made a firm decision about its creative direction, at the cost of broad, mainstream appeal. The series’ disproportionate obsession with the absurdly grotesque, of writhing black goo, perhaps represents a creative drought that pales to the creative monster design that can otherwise be seen in “The Evil Within,” the truer-to-form spiritual successor of “Resident Evil” from series alum Shinji Mikami. It is unclear where this obsession with black goo stems from, unless it is commentary on the corruptive nature of oil on both the environment and the economy, both of which are represented in the thorough decay in the poverty-stricken bayou rendered here.

This is not so much groundbreaking survival horror as it is an incredibly satisfying refinement of modern horror principles. It has the advantage of learning from lessons that other horror series has refined up to this point. Still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and, based on where the series stood a few years ago, “Resident Evil 7” is an excellent and necessary step onto the correct path.

—Staff writer Richard Nguyen can be reached at richard.nguyen@thecrimson.com.

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