Resident Evil 7: That is not groovy

20210118_070705 If there’s one thing that’s always the same in every Resident Evil game, it’s change. Capcom’s survival horror series has proven time and time again it is prepared to try absolutely anything, from intensely terrifying single player horror to co-op combo-scoring action, and whether these attempts have ended up being resounding successes or well-intentioned cock-ups I have sincerely enjoyed many of the series most notable “failures”, whether they come in the form of Outbreak‘s team-based horror or even Capcom’s first person perspective asset reuse ’em up Gun Survivor (all four of them, in fact). I make this meandering point because I want to make it very clear that neither being different to what went before (again) nor being viewed exclusively through the lead character’s eyes have ever been a good reason to not like a Resident Evil game, or something that has negatively coloured my experience once I’ve started playing (I’ll admit it has previously put me off trying one out though – and I was wrong) one in the past.

I just don’t like Resident Evil VII. Actually, it’s more than that: I honestly don’t think it’s a good horror game (Resident Evil or otherwise), whether I like it or not.

From there it sadly all falls apart, beginning with VII’s family of boss monsters, the Bakers.

Official Dad Jack Baker’s the one you encounter the most, and so it’s deeply frustrating to see him so poorly handled: His personal mutilation and nigh-instant healing make it clear he’s not normal, but you never get the chance to feel sorry for him or drum up any sense of fear that his madness may soon become your own because while he’s alive you are given no real reason to believe his actions are anything other than the behaviour of an abusive murderer who has got so good at killing people he’s set up a morgue in his basement and keeps carefully-pencilled lists of all his victims. The information needed to make his presence seem truly horrific, like the infected puppet undeservedly sloughed of all humanity and forced to exist in a waking nightmare he actually is, comes long after he’s been killed (for the third time), and even then bar one unexplained near-death hallucination there’s no communication of regret, struggle, or loss outside of the standalone paid DLC stories intended to be played after the main story been completed. In a series so keen on throwing monsters in your path for you to methodically shotgun to smithereens it’s important to handle the ones that aren’t straightforward bitey cannon fodder with great care. Think back to Resident Evil 2‘s succinct treatment of Marvin Branagh or Rebecca’s encounter with a zombified Edward Dewey in Zero: Shooting down their freshly-undead forms may not have been a tear-jerking trauma, but it did at least inspire more complex feelings and an unsettling awareness of the inescapable nature of this unknown virus than another run-in with a guy you only ever get to see lucidly revelling in his own violent behaviour.

His wife Marguerite is even less engaging, portrayed in Ethan’s adventure as little more than a shrieking swearbox with a mutated vagina full of stinging insects (I do wish I was making that up). Their son Lucas, as far as Ethan’s experience goes, is someone who expends a lot of effort antagonising him personally and then… just gets up and leaves. Now again a later DLC story (“Not A Hero”, this time) goes some way to excusing this behaviour but as far as Ethan’s concerned – as far as the main story’s concerned, as far as anyone playing through the game as it’s presented are concerned – if everything Lucas said or did simply didn’t happen Ethan would still end up in the same place with the same people as he would have done anyway, just an hour or so earlier. Lucas’ presence in VII is plain old padding in fingernail-pulling, enforced-cutscene-viewing, form. And Zoe… Zoe exists, I suppose. She’s a voice on the phone, and later the most-sensible-yet-wrong option in a highly engineered “choice”. This may all sound like little more than griping about the plot in a game about shooting scary monsters – who on earth takes a Resident Evil story seriously anyway? – but horror relies on the atmosphere to sell the setting, otherwise it’s just a ghoulish parade of weird moving targets and litres of bodily fluids. You have to believe these things are a threat, that you’re going to be next, for your reaction to be any stronger than “Ooh, that’s a bit icky”.

Normally you could rationalise this haziness away as a fault on the player’s part: If only they’d bothered investigating an out of the way room, or if they’d not missed that one vital clue, then it’d all make sense. Unfortunately that train of thought doesn’t apply here as your path through Resident Evil VII is so very heavily controlled it takes conscious effort to skip anything more significant than the bobble-headed “Try to find all of us!” figures tucked away in various corners of the Baker’s home – this is not a game where either you or Ethan survive the horror but are instead expected to do exactly what you’re told when you’re told to do it. The series newfound sense of realism only highlights the severity of this railroading: a painted-on pre-rendered door or a simplistic shape made out of a few polygons in the previous Resident Evils are abstracted enough to reasonably be considered one part of a clearly game-y puzzle, but a photogrammetry-created box closed with nothing more than a few pieces of sticky tape that can only be opened with one very specific sharp object that you are given (given, not found – you have very little agency here) at one very specific time in a house full of rusty bits of metal and drawers full of cutlery? It’s a jarring assault on common sense as well as the survival instincts that would naturally kick in when trying to escape a family of serial killers, and far from the only time the graphical fidelity is at odds with the rigid hands-off level of interactivity allowed with the environment. Resident Evil has always to an extent been about things you can’t do and places you can’t go until you have the right seal, key, or gem in your inventory but there are too many times in VII where you’re very clearly steered towards one room and one room only because someone was worried you might briefly get a tiny bit lost (or perhaps hadn’t seen another identical Molded enemy for five whole minutes). One of the best/worst examples of this excessive routing involves fetching two keycards at Lucas’ mocking behest to rescue Zoe and Mia from him: It’s bad enough he’s holed himself up in wooden house behind a thin metal fence that your boot, shotgun, bolt cutters, flamethrower and optionally-acquired grenade launcher cannot penetrate, and then made infinitely worse by him phoning up to tell you to look at a note on a freshly-left disfigured head just a few feet away from where you’re standing, which then tells you to go back to a room in the house you’ve already been in to get a new key, prompting Lucas to then tell you to use that new key to go find the keycards you need to get through the invincible door that was back where you started. And once you’ve got those two keycards? Lucas calls again to remind you they’re used to open the door in the courtyard. The courtyard you started this whole time-wasting sequence in. The courtyard with the save point next to the door lit up like a Christmas tree. The courtyard with the save point next to the door lit up like a Christmas tree that now has a big sign outside just in case you somehow hadn’t worked out where to go yet. With “freedom” as ham-fisted as that, it’s a wonder why they ever bother letting you control Ethan at all.

Resident Evil VII is a game afraid, or perhaps incapable, of truly letting go and being itself. It has to be a VR game… that also sells to and works well for people who will never go near a headset. It has to be the next Resident Evil game but also nothing like the last batch of multi-million selling Resident Evil games (whether you love or loathe 4 and after’s action-heavy formula there’s no denying they consistently sold very well). It has all that incredible RE Engine graphical detail but doesn’t really know what to do with it and doesn’t quite have the resources to convincingly pull the illusion off, resulting in some very obvious prop repeats and lots of pointless interaction for novelty’s sake. It’s a game about an infected lead slowly succumbing to a mind-controlling bioweapon that does virtually nothing with this fantastic concept outside of the opening segment of the final battle. It wants to be REmake for an era where mainstream games aren’t allowed to let player’s get lost, the constant tension between what was intended to be a taut and disempowering experience with a game so afraid of its own level of detail it invented an item that highlights everything you can pick up nearby with a little pointy arrow only coming across as a confused compromise that satisfies neither. A lot happens to these characters and yet due to the lack of empathy the game engenders for Ethan, Mia, Eveline, or any of the Bakers it feels completely inconsequential: Ethan’s a deliberately bland nobody who found himself somewhere he shouldn’t have been with a bunch of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, all of them strung along by a bioweapon with the emotional maturity of a juvenile goldfish who wasn’t supposed to be there either.

Further reading:

7 thoughts on “Resident Evil 7: That is not groovy

  1. Excellent work on this one! Like I said on Twitter, I basically forgot everything about this game when I’d finished playing it, and I think your points about the characters probably picks up on one reason I forgot a lot of it, the characters are just kind of There and don’t stick in your head like Marvin and Barry and the like. You would think, you would really think, I would remember something like “a mutated vagina full of stinging insects” but nope, completely dropped out my head.

    This post did jog my memory on a couple of things, mostly the comical absurdity of how you recover health (splashing the HEALTH JUICE over your hand, yep, that’ll do it) and how I wasn’t expecting the game to keep going for a few hours more after the big ~moral choice~.

    Perfect video to end on too :V


    1. Just on that Marguerite point: Even though I’d literally just played that segment I did find myself going back to check some screenshots because… because… they really did just do that, didn’t they? o_O

      Apologies for jogging your memory for this one Ant! XD

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed VII more than you did, it seems, but yeah – it all falls apart once it has to start being a proper Resident Evil game with proper Resident Evil things in it. Without a strong enough core identity of it’s own it just gets pulled apart by the contradictory pressures on it. I did like wandering around that rotting corpse of a mansion though.
    Feel like a lot of the tonal issues come from it being ‘Westernised’ – a mostly-Japanese dev team trying to make something stereotypically ‘American’ and not getting it quite right.


  3. As someone who forgot about RE7 a year after it came out, this post really is making me wary for RE8, both from what we’ve seen and the rumors about what happens in the game. At the very least, I hope it’ll feel more meaningful and thought-out than RE7 was.


  4. When they first showed the game, I really just wanted to skip it altogether. So much of it just isn’t for me. I’m not a fan of first-person horror games, I didn’t find the setting interesting at all and the characters, well the main character, let’s just say it would be a challenge to come up with anyone more generic in a video game. I played that demo/beta whatever before release. Okay. Still didn’t want to get the game. But it’s still Resident Evil, and despite my gripes with many of its games, it’s still one of my favorite series. So in the end, I watched a complete playthrough of the game on YouTube (something I usually never do) and came to the conclusion that I was right not to play it. :P
    And Ethan’s actually more boring than he looks.

    But it’s still Resident Evil, so eventually I bought it when the Gold edition was like €5. Still haven’t played it, though.


  5. I’ve just finished playing through this, so I came back to re-read your post with a new eye.

    I definitely liked the game more than you did (overall I enjoyed it, though didn’t love it) but I agree with your criticisms. Especially the Molded and the disappearance of Lucas. There was that whole sequence of him taunting Ethan at length, baiting him, and for the rest of the game (the Ethan parts, anyway) I kept thinking “I can’t be quite at the end yet because I still have to fight Lucas”…all the way up to the final confrontation with Eveline. It’s a bizarre choice to hype Lucas so much and then have him just vanish from the story.

    As to the Molded, on a number of occasions I ducked quickly into a save point room while being chased, then came back out to empty corridors. It was a cheap tactic but it’s the game’s own fault for making it work that way! Very sloppy.

    Funny that you mention Ethan’s leg coming off. I never encountered that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s