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.
It actually starts off quite well: At first VII appears to follow in the successful footsteps of more than two decades and almost two dozen Resident Evils that came before it, your experience largely defined by a seething mass of corrupted bodies and not enough handgun ammo to make you feel at ease. The creeping black mould that connects the infection and the infected is a great idea: it’s inherently vile, unwanted, and organic – a contaminated environment capable of stirring up unpleasant thoughts of damp smells and spores without any further explanation required. Even my intense dislike of the “Molded” monsters that arise from this icky substance (to cut a very long rant I’d typed up short: I feel they’re irritating and artificial path-blocking bullet sponges who very obviously de-spawn the instant you leave their designated area, which only makes them feel even more like irritating and artificial path-blocking bullet sponges) is tempered by the fact that they visually they fit their surroundings well and you can easily believe these toothy annoyances would be the (un)natural result of coming into contact with this moist and invasive substance.
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”.
And the traditional Resident Evil ick – drooling Lickers with their spear-like tongues, hordes of zombies noisily munching on the bodies of the fallen, and rotting dogs gnashing what remains of their teeth – has been reduced to the most straightforward form of body horror for the modern era, chasing after the fleeting shock value of vast quantities of offal, splatter, and shiny eyeballs rather than the relative subtlety of Nemesis’ “STAAAAAARRRSSSSSS“ or the increasingly dangerous array of enemies encountered towards the end of any of the previous games, all quietly implying you’re now nothing more than a hair’s breadth away from being completely overwhelmed by bioterroism’s most ghastly products. The cartoonishly extreme nature of what should be VII’s most stomach-churning moments swiftly inures players to these straight-to-DVD attempts at carrion-covered gore: The disgust of Ethan’s hand getting suddenly chainsawed off is swiftly replaced by laughter as he holds his bloodied stump up in front of him, his wrist squirting blood like he’s a supporting character in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, as he carries on pushing buttons and solving puzzles. When Ethan’s leg fell off again during a later fight (to be clear: this was after the scene where Jack cuts it off with a shovel) it should have been terrifying for us both – the unexpected loss of control for me while I was shooting at another Molded, Ethan’s body literally falling to pieces before his eyes – but his silence and the game ushering me into a repeat of the earlier “fetch Ethan’s leg” sequence only made it comical. The issue here is not with the level of graphical violence itself, but its overuse – when every surface is covered in barbed wire and chunks of meat it reduces all the bloodshed to nothing more than the expected level of visual background noise. The free sloshing of buckets of body parts ends up working against what should have been some memorable highlights: There’s one point where you must take a look at a whole charred corpse propped up on a chair – it should have been a horrific warning of what might happen to you, a reminder there is nothing you can imagine that is too awful for these people to act out – but by that point the frequency of this gross-out gore combined with the lack of reaction or commentary from Ethan makes what could have been a fantastically grim moment fall utterly flat. It’s just another dead body, and you’ve seen so very many of those already. Alone this would be a disappointing misinterpretation of the fear of disease and death Resident Evil was previously trying to achieve with its bloodied body parts and vomiting zombies (the current team did make up for this later with Resident Evil 3 HD‘s brilliantly unsettling opening nightmare sequence), but the already low levels of fear are then thoroughly destroyed by the introduction of numerous poorly-explained supernatural elements. Scenes where you walk through an abandoned room that’s clean on entry and covered in the scrawls of a child on your exit or objects suddenly drop or bounce into view from nowhere would be fine additions to any supernatural horror game – but as much as this game apparently wishes it wasn’t, this is still a mainline Resident Evil title, and that means no matter what happens the weirdness has to be caused by weaponised experiments and viruses gone wrong. It’s the one and only thing the series can’t ever change, no more than Fatal Frame could decide that going forward all of its spooky ghosts were actually being produced in an evil ghost-making laboratory by ghost-scientists, and what this failed shift means for VII’s “occult” events is that they don’t read as warning shots from a malicious unseen entity but something far more ridiculous instead – there must be someone standing just out of sight dropping things on your head, or a small girl standing in a room with a crayon in hand, because proper magical powers were always a step too far even when Resident Evil was going through its robed cult phase. Far too late in the game you learn these incidents (and the Baker’s violent actions) are caused by Eveline, a childlike bioweapon who was supposed to be uneventfully transferred from one evil facility to another before escaping to the Baker’s home, “explained” off-hand as hallucinations and backed up by a room stuffed with scientific notes near the very end of the game – the reasoning feels weak even by Resident Evil’s already low standards, and Resident Evil’s had singing leech men. Now even if you ignore the fact that hallucinations can’t tear apart the sides of a ship, force people off their feet, leave deep imprints on arms, or spontaneously cause distant escapees to become covered in mould and die on command the way Eveline can and does there’s never anything to these events that makes you believe they should be taken at anything other than face value, that you can’t trust what you’re seeing. Allegedly imaginary objects do not vanish as you approach or turn to mist if you reach out to something that might not be there – they’re just permanent physical items sitting on top of other solid surfaces, left forever wherever the physics engine made them lie.
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.