Was Resident Evil VII a True Return to Survival Horror?

Was Resident Evil VII a True Return to Survival Horror?

The year is 2016. Horror games have seen somewhat of a resurgence on the PCthanks to games like Amnesia, Outlast, Alien: Isolation and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Still, the focus in lot of these games is more about fear through helplessness, rather than survival design, which had been the dominant element in the previous generation of horrorthanks to series‘ like Resident Evil.

But Resident Evil didn’t exactly seem concerned with filling that niche anymore. Whether the recent games in the series were of quality or didn’t matter; all that mattered to most fans of the series was that they weren’t survival horror. Even games like Resident Evil: Revelations never quite jumped all the way back into what so many fans were lusting for.

PT Gameplay

MeanwhileP.T. made an enormous splash in 2014, showing everyone what triple-A horror could seem in the modern age. It was unsettling, disturbing, and was really great at getting under a player‘s skin without relying on cheap tactics like musical stings and jump scares, all while looking and feeling like a big-budget affair. Most importantly though, it had signaled the return of Silent Hill, the only series to really ever compete with Resident Evil in terms of mindshare.

Unfortunately, the elation that came with this new work was deflated quickly after Kojima and Konami had their famous falling out. Everything seemed to crumble, and the project was eventually canceled. This was an enormous blow to fans of horror games everywhere.

Kitchen VR Demo Gameplay

Not long afterward, a solution cropped up from an unexpected place… Capcom. In 2015 they showed the press a VR demo entitled “Kitchen”, which implied to some extent that they were interested in making some more traditionally horrific content.

The next E3 saw the release of a demo to the general public, known as Beginning Hour. This release was a pretty large surprise to many people and only continued to be more surprising as people started playing it and realized that it was actually pretty well made. Though it seemed to take a lot of cues from P.T., Beginning Hour was still largely satisfying to many people. It was horrifying in its own ways. Was this truly the direction Resident Evil would be going in for its next installment?

Beginning Hour takes place in what would later be known as the Guest House section of the final game. A lot of the design decisions made here are mirrored in the final game. The setting. The first-person perspective. The filmic look. The emphasis on slow gameplay, puzzle-solving, exploration, and videotapes. Also… the scares.

The only real enemy in the demo is a single Molded in the basement, which is the core enemy type in Resident Evil 7. And even then, access to this area of the demo came later, as the demo was expanded through updates as 2016 waned on. This was extremely smart on Capcom’s part, considering it got players to anxiously await new updates, allowed them to get feedback from players, and most importantly… kept Resident Evil 7 on consumer radars.

That being said, Beginning Hour goes much more in a psychological horror direction than the final game. A lot of what happens in the demo is supernatural, like when how mannequins at the entrance to the attic move whenever you look away from them. In order to complete the demo correctly, the player is expected to perform a very specific set of actions, which allow them to escape without being infected by the Molded in the basement. This includes finding the parts to a dummy hand and pointing it at specific locations in the house, along with finding a small handful of secret locations that lead to the mysterious cackle of a little girl. Similar to P.T. this stuff isn’t easy to parse out alone and feels more like it was intended to be a communal effort.

Beyond all of this, the player is being haunted by a mysterious man, who you can catch walking through the hallway at one point, and will assault you if you escape incorrectly. “Welcome to the family, son.” has since arguably become just as iconic of a line as “Where’s everyone going? Bingo?” from Resident Evil 4.

The demo itself is a great showcase of what the team was going for with Resident Evil 7, without revealing everything. That being said, some people -myself included- were still a little apprehensive. Could they actually pull it off and make a true survival horror experience of this caliber? P.T. had set everyone’s expectations extremely high, and Beginning Hour seemed to fall just short in comparison for a lot of players; still commendable, but also still a shadow of what Silent Hills seemed to have been shooting for.

What’s more, there was no indication of the actual survival design that had made Resident Evil a household name. The game seemed to have a lot more in common with games like Outlast and Amnesia, and for a time people wondered if it would even have any combat real at all. Would Resident Evil 7 end up being a five-hour-long combination of a walking simulator and a puzzle game with some hiding mechanics? Or would it actually end up being more like the early games in the series? Was this even in the same canon? Sure, people noticed an Umbrella logo on the tail of a helicopter in a photo upstairs. But it still could’ve been a reboot. If it was a reboot, would it keep a lot of the same themes, or abandons everything? If it wasn’t a reboot, would it carry over all of the baggage from the last two decades?

Ultimately, Beginning Hour was a question, rather than an answer. More than anything, it left people asking… what would Resident Evil 7 actually be? It succeeded in so many ways. But could it stretch that out into a full game, and also include the mechanics hardcore fans of the series so yearned for? Could it be as polished as it needed to be?

By the time the final update came out, players didn’t have a long wait to find out. Those of us who were avidly awaiting Resident Evil 7 made sure we got the best ending in Beginning Hour so that we had access to the Dirty Coin it gave us, whatever that did. And then we waited.

The Resident Evil 7 family

It didn’t take long for people to realize the Resident Evil 7 game was in most major ways, classic Resident Evil through and through. The player was given access to a select few large areas to explore non-linearly, solving puzzles, finding keys, and trying to stay alive. Combat did indeed exist in RE7 and was a major part of the experience. But it was still slow, thoughtful, tense, and asked the player to weigh each shot against the cost in resources. There was an emphasis on the atmosphere, rather than action. The game prioritized quiet horror instead of jump scares and gore. And when jump scares and gore did appear, they were all the more impactful due to the sparing use.

But first, we should probably talk about the story a bit. While the core experience with the story is still fulfilling due to the different layers, you can focus on, it does have a few issues.

Resident Evil 7 initially starts as a story about a man named Ethan who lost his wife Mia under mysterious circumstances while she was on a trip a few years ago. Eventually, though he receives a letter from her telling her to come to a house in the middle of nowhere; Dulvey, Louisiana. When he arrives, Ethan quickly realizes that things aren’t well here. Mia is locked up in the basement of the guest house, doesn’t remember sending the rescue letter, and she seems more frightened to see him then relieved.

All too quickly things turn sour when Mia is possessed by something evil and repeatedly tries to kill Ethan. She struggles to maintain control, and though Ethan fights back, Mia seems unstoppable. Eventually, Ethan temporarily takes Mia down and tries to escape, but is blindsided by the owner of the residence, Jack Baker. Ethan wakes up at a frighteningly disgusting dinner with most of the Baker family; Lucas, the son, Jack, the husband, Marguerite, the wife, and grandma.

As soon as he gets the chance, Ethan once again tries to escape and eventually gets a call from the final Baker, Zoe, the daughter. Mia and the whole Baker family have been infected by some sort of parasitic fungus which gives them extremely violent tendencies, regenerative powers and an obsession with growing their family. Zoe wants no part of it and has been in hiding for years. But she has learned how to make a serum which turns a person back to normal if they’re not too far gone.

Ethan sets out to get the ingredients while trying to survive the other Bakers. Eventually, it’s revealed that this problem was caused by a little girl known as Eveline, who was part of some sort of scientific experiment. She controls the fungus and any of the host bodies. She can spread it far and wide and is the reason for the violence and obsession inherent in the Bakers and Mia now.

After Ethan gets the serum ingredients and takes down Jack for the last time, he is left with just enough for either Mia or Zoe to use. At this point, the player gets to choose between the two, with choosing Mia being the canon ending. Choosing Zoe leads to her quick death right afterward, and then later Ethan needs to kill Mia as well.

The choice is yours.

If you choose Mia, Ethan promises to send help for Zoe. While trying to escape down the bayou, their boat is stopped by Eveline’s fungus, and Mia wakes up on shore only to find Ethan right before he’s taken by the monstrosity. She follows it and eventually runs into Eveline. Up to this point, Mia doesn’t remember how any of this started, but it’s revealed to her that she was actually part of a crime syndicate of some sort that was working with Lucas Baker to create Bioweapons similar to Eveline that can infect enemies and turn them against their own forces. Mia was tasked with escorting Eveline on a cargo ship when Eveline escaped and destroyed the ship. She then infected Mia, and the two of them were found by Jack Baker. Eveline quickly infected them all.

With her knowledge restored, Mia focuses on finding Ethan so that they can put an end to Eveline. But when she does, Eveline intervenes, forces Mia back under her control, and Ethan barely escapes. He makes his way through the lab in the mines, creates a substance that’s supposed to destroy Eveline, and heads back to the guest house where he first arrived. Clearly, he too is infected, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s under her control.

Though before that can happen, he confronts the true Eveline, who has actually been aging rapidly and is revealed to be the grandma. Ethan injects her; she turns into a giant face that continues to grow until it engulfs the house, and some soldiers who appeared on the estate right as Ethan was heading into the mines drop you a Samurai Edge pistol that has some serious upgrades. It quickly takes care of tentacle-face Eveline, ending the horrific night.

The game closes with the soldiers coming to collect Ethan. One of them reveals himself to be a series veteran Chris Redfield, who is now… part of Umbrella…?

Was this the Real Chris Redfield?

Before the player can really process anything, Ethan is taken to the helicopter, where he’s delighted to find Mia is still alive and is finally free.

This story works because it’s mostly about the Bakers and their infection. When it starts to turn all science-y and Japanese is when it starts to most closely resemble traditional Resident Evil. While for me this is the least effective bit of the story, it’s also something that feels natural for the series. If you ignore some of the nuances -particularly because they often conflict with how the canon DLC is written- the bigger picture of the plot is great since it’s the most grounded and intimate that Resident Evil has been since arguably Resident Evil 2.

Still, it does come with some pretty major confusion, especially if you haven’t played the DLC. The crime syndicate thing isn’t really explained well, and it wasn’t until after the game that I really learned it was a thing. Up to that point, I thought Mia was part of a resurrected Umbrella.

To make things more confusing, Umbrella technically was resurrected in 2007 -before Resident Evil 5 even takes place- but now has a blue logo, and works to combat bioterrorism instead of facilitating it. Chris eventually joins them after leaving the BSAA, which is why he seems to be working with the bad guys… who are really good now…

There are also a few small things I’m still confused about. For example, if Eveline is actually grandma, and the young Eveline is just a hallucination seen by people who are infected, whose body is in the small cubby behind the bed after you beat Marguerite? It looks like Eveline to me, and I have no idea who else it would be, particularly since the arm from this body is used in the serum that removes Eveline’s influence.

Things like this bring the story down if you really think about it, and these aren’t the only issues either. The properties of infection are unclear as well, with documents and events contradicting each other. But again, as a big picture, this story works incredibly well, and in particular, the Bakers are wonderful. They’re simultaneously fantastically fun villains, terrifying, and genuinely endearing when you realize that they used to be kind, caring people. I enjoyed them so much that honestly, my biggest regret in playing this game is the knowledge that they’re likely to never appear again… except maybe Zoe and Jack’s brother Joe, who is shown to make it out alive in the DLC.

Visually, Resident Evil 7 is a real treat. This is another game that shoots for a distinct style that uses a lot of post-processing effects to give it a specific look. And it really works here, often even masking some hilariously low-quality assets that are just sort of hanging out in the open. But the vast majority of the time you’re not likely to notice because the aesthetic as a whole is so strong.

What’s more, the game runs at a solid 60fps on PS4 Pro, thanks to the need for the game to maintain a high framerate on the Playstation VR headset without making people more sick than it already would.

Probably the weakest bit visually comes down to some of the character close-ups, particularly when characters are talking. Sometimes the lip syncing is great. Other times it’s rather laughable. It never really brought the experience down for me, but it’s worth noting.

Sound effects are all crisp, gunshots have great impact, gore sound effects carry a lot of the auditory experience, and there’s some great pseudo-3D surround sound going on here, even for people just using a stereo headset or television speakers.

The music is just as fantastic, and I really grew to love the rural southern vibe it gives off. It still feels just like classic Resident Evil music in many ways and focuses more on melody than you find in most other horror games. But the arrangements using things like banjos really sells the aesthetic extraordinarily well, making it stand out.

Gameplay largely carries on this torch of quality. Enemies in Resident Evil 7 aren’t the most varied, though, for the most part, they aren’t super diverse in the classic survival-oriented games either. For the most part, you’ll be facing the Molded, people who have been infected with a fungus that gives them extreme regenerative powers and transforms their physical form into something grotesque and dangerous.

I personally don’t love the basic Molded, though they’re more than serviceable. The other core types, being the Armored Molded, the Four-Legged Molded, and the Fat Molded all provide different enough types of encounters that the configurations of enemies can create a wealth of challenges. Though it’s worth noting that I wish the Molded had clearer death animations because it’s easy on your first playthrough to waste ammo trying to shoot them while they’re already defeated. The wriggling animations aren’t different enough from those they exhibit while simply knocked down.

Still, while I appreciate that RE7 went for fewer enemy types with more memorable encounters you can strategize around, it is somewhat undermined at times thanks to the actual mob configurations. The first section of the game entirely consists of Jack Baker in the main house, and then somewhere around ten basic and Armored Molded in the basement. It took me about three and a half hours to go from the intro section to the point where I defeated Jack and moved outside. About thirty minutes of that was me exploring the basement and killing all of these Molded. They were more or less all packed in a small stretch of gameplay. Because I didn’t get stuck wandering up and downstairs trying to figure out what to do, I literally only ran into Jack once after I got to the main hall area. This means these Molded were kind of exhausting and stilted the pacing of this first section of the game a bit. This pacing issue isn’t guaranteed to happen though, depending on what order the player chooses to do things in.

One of the last sections of the game meanwhile is supposed to be a sort of combat gauntlet, where tons of each type of enemy appears in quick succession to halt your progress. This section of encounters really illustrates why it’s good that this game went for a slower pace. Too many enemies at once can kind of devolve into a mess, and one missed shot can lead to huge repercussions. The classic titles relied on simple auto-aim with the ability to either aim straight forward, aim down, or aim up. This meant that combat was more about strategizing around your clip size, and the timing between when enemies would reach you. RE7 requires actually aiming, so if there are too many enemies, the strategy can sometimes just sort of go out of the window.

The worst bit is the final section of this gauntlet, where you face two Fat Molded. On top of the regular difficulty selection, this game uses an adaptive difficulty system similar to the last decade of RE titles. Enemy damage, health, ammo found, etc. can change to a certain extent depending on how well you’re doing. I suppose I must’ve been doing really well both times I got to this point because while Fat Molded would usually take two Remote Bombs, these two took four bombs and seven bombs respectively. Fat Molded love to do massive damage if you get to close and have the only long-range attack out of basic enemies. So it’s extremely difficult to get through this encounter in a way that feels smooth. Particularly because the environment here seems to be really inconsistent when it comes to blocking the Fat Molded’s vomit attacks.

Taking jack to the store!

Once you get outside after defeating Jack, the game opens up, and you realize that this area is actually much bigger than you might have expected. You’ll suddenly be able to explore the dock house nearby, as well as a rather large greenhouse. At this point is where you’ll start to deal with Marguerite and her insect army. The larger flies are easy enough to deal with using your knife, and the hoards of small flies generally require a bit more persistence. They’re best taken out with the flamethrower, and then you should prioritize their nest so that they don’t respawn indefinitely. Once again, when combining with the Molded, and the stalking Marguerite, encounters can be rather intense and dangerous if you’re not careful, without turning into Resident Evil 6.

Marguerite is for me the most unsettling of the family, which I’m sure is a sentiment echoed by many others. Not only do her powers dive much further into the realm of evil and unnatural when compared to Jack’s regeneration and super strength, but after your first real fight with her, she’ll later show up as a four-legged mutation of her previous form that has some sort of hive on her lower half, extremely long limbs, and the ability to climb on walls and ceilings. The first time you see her crawling through the little cave in the dock house was truly unnerving for me. Where Jack feels dangerous, Marguerite is truly horrific.

Here's Marguerite!!!!!

The final boss fight with her is probably the strongest in the game as well. Jack is a strong encounter on his own, mind you, in all of his incarnations. His chain-scissor weapon during the basement fight can block poorly aimed shots, and he’ll start destroying the bodies you can stagger him with, and even destroy the center pillar that allows you to avoid damage if you try to cheese the fight. It’s clear in design, requires skill and thought to overcome, and feels like a good end to the first section of the game. These are more or less the only quality bosses in the survival horror games the series offers.

Marguerite can easily overwhelm players who don’t pay attention. She’ll initially try to grab the player from a window as they head upstairs in the greenhouse. After that, she’ll either stalk you on all fours or while standing upright, crawling all over the place to try and get the jump on you. When she’s on all fours, she’s really fast, and there’s no easy way to reach her weak spot, which is the hive she has growing down there.

She also has a lot of health and isn’t easily staggered. But the key to her fight is listening when she’s not chasing you directly. If you start hearing her making gross noises, she’s trying to plant a hive on a wall somewhere hidden. At this point, you want to do everything you can to find her and stop her. Otherwise, you’ll have to track down the hive and waste ammo destroying it while she chases you because not doing so means a constant barrage of both the big and small flies.

I cannot stress enough just how good this encounter is both to learn and to master. Though it does bring up a good point, which is that I wish the game wasn’t so forward with its hints in loading screens. When you die, the game will usually give you pretty relevant hints related to overcoming the obstacle you just failed. But I think it goes too far, often just straight up telling you the solution. When it’s explaining the mechanics of a weapon, a smart way to use a piece of equipment, or just reminding you of ability like the quick turn, it’s great. But when it straight up tells you the trick to beating a boss, it feels like too much. Maybe relegate that to a player who’s died multiple times and doesn’t seem to be picking up on the concept. After all, figuring out that one strategy makes a world of difference, and is therefore extremely satisfying to find on your own.

After this is probably the tensest part of the game on a first playthrough, but on repeat playthroughs, it is kind of just a minor time sink. Once you defeat Marguerite, you explore an upstairs part of the building, which is extremely dark, quiet, and builds up the atmosphere with small touches like the children’s toys littered around. It’s a stark contrast from everything else up to this point due to how isolated and it feels. Every corner feels like the moment for the ambush, and things like the bear which starts leaking mold from its mouth once you pick it up, add greatly to the tension.

Eventually, you make it to the end, find an old body, take its arm because “Resident Evil storytelling”, and then turn around to find a pair of legs facing you. Whoever they’ve attached to runs away, forcing you to face the unknown on your way back.

This is where the ambush shows up, though it’s just more Molded. As I said, this section works really well for the first time. But after you know how it works, you know that you’re safe until you reach the end and have to turn around, which is a bit of a shame.

The same can be said when entering Lucas’s old room from when he was a kid. Inside, you find a journal talking about how he locked a fellow kid in the attic for being mean to him. He then says that he can sometimes hear something knocking around up there, and something starts leaking from the ceiling. I was convinced that something was going to be up in the attic, but there’s nothing. It’s an effective tension building, but again, it’s a bit of a shame there’s really nothing to it. Randomizing elements like this a bit could’ve provided replayability where there currently is none. Then again, maybe these changes on Madhouse mode -the hardest difficulty- because a lot of other things certainly do.

Madhouse mode limits your saves like the old school titles, removes checkpoints, makes the Bakers much more dangerous, makes Molded act more erratically, changes item placement, and forces the adaptive difficulty system to stay maxed out, similar to Professional in Resident Evil 4.

After this is the section where you deal with Lucas, which is much more about puzzles and traps, due to him being a rather inventive, Jigsaw type psychopath. While interesting in its own right, this section doesn’t have too much worth discussing within the scope of this article that wouldn’t be redundant.

Once you’ve dealt with Lucas’s traps, and put down the returning blob-with-too-many-eyes that Jack has turned into, you head to the place this all started, a crashed ship not too far from the Baker residence. This section makes you play as Mia instead of Ethan and forces you to temporarily start over in terms of inventory. Half of it is exploring the ship in the past before it has crashed, and then you re-explore the same sections in the present. This sounds repetitive, but it works fairly well thanks to the differences between the environments in each time period.

Eventually, you’ll get Ethan back, and you’ll head down into the mines which lead back into the guest house. You’ll take down the boss, and that will be that.

The section with Lucas and the mines are both fairly linear, which provides a nice break from the open nature of the Baker house and the ship. In this way, the game is paced pretty similar to the classic titles, which for me just feels right.

Not everything mirrors the classic titles though. One of the best changes I think they made was deciding the game would be played from a first-person perspective. Though completely different in function, this camera angle channels one of the key advantages of the fixed camera angles from the early games. One of the major advantages of fixed camera angles was limited visibility. It built tension related to where enemies might be, and hide things from players. It made the layout of rooms, items inside, and particularly the threats somewhat of a mystery until you forced yourself to explore.

Starting with Resident Evil 4 though, and continuing on even though Resident Evil 2 Remake, the camera is placed behind the character, and in later titles, you can even freely move the camera independent from the character. What this means is that you have a lot wider field of view, and have options for keeping your character safe while scoping out rooms.

The first person perspective in RE7 prevents this. You can only see the incredibly limited perspective of your character, and if you want to see around a corner, you have to walk around that corner. If you want to see enemies you’re hiding from, you have to peek through cracks and spaces in the environment. If you want to see behind you, you have to turn around, but that also means that what was previously in front of you is now no longer visible.

When used correctly -as it is in RE7- this is incredibly effective at removing a lot of the player’s power, without constantly doing it the cheap way, like by turning all the lights off so you’re in pitch black, or not letting players defend themselves. RE7 can use these tropes sparingly specifically because even your base viewpoint, movement speed, etc. do a great job of making your character less omniscient and more vulnerable than in other games.

I could continue on, discussing all of the DLC the game has to offer. In fact, all of that can be found in my video on the topic, where it can be better illustrated. So if you want to know more, check it out (You can watch it above).

Overall, I am blown away at how well RE7 succeeded in not only bringing back the classic survival horror experience we’ve been missing from the genre for so long, but more importantly in just making a fantastically tense, scary, and well-polished game on its own. This is very nearly about as good as I could’ve hoped for and far more than I ever expected. Even two, almost three years out, it largely holds up, and will likely be considered a classic in due time.

But what d’you guys think? Have you played Resident Evil 7? How do you think it compares to the other games in the series? What about contemporaries from other horror franchises? What would you like to see from RE8 if they do decide to carry on from 7 instead of RE2 Remake? Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll see you next time!

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Editors Note:

LbraScope is a Content Contributor for 181Gaming, all views are his own. If you would like to create content for the community, click here.

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