An hour in to Resident Evil 7 [official site], lead character Ethan is having the worst day imaginable. Heading deep into the bayou to search for his missing wife, having received an email from her three years after her disappearance, he finds himself trapped in a horror house, taking part in a bizarre and brutal game of cat and mouse. He is the mouse and the various cats come in the form of local residents, The Baker Family. Ethan is your eyes, but it's the Bakers who are the stars of the show, and what a wonderful show it is.
Resident Evil 7 walks a difficult line. It's both a return to the series' horror house roots and a bold departure from the third-person puzzling and head-popping of the main entries in that series. It succeeds by delivering on both fronts, true to its origins but also eager to explore new ground.
If you've played Beginning Hour, the demo that introduced the first-person perspective and one of the game's smaller locations, you'll have a very good idea what to expect from the actual beginning hour. It's familiar territory, a slow-burn of dread that has you traipsing through a house mankier than even the worst student digs. The muck and the grime and the gore are layered on thick, and even though there's less detail than in the demo, it's all beautifully grotesque, and the pacing is perfect.
Pacing in horror is a tricky thing. There's the slow creep toward a crescendo of dread and violence favoured by the likes of The Shining or A Tale of Two Sisters, and the slow tightening of anxiety followed by startling catharsis, that can be either comic or cruel. That second option sometimes becomes a predictable sequence of quiet quiet quiet quiet BANG quiet quiet quiet quiet SCREAM quiet quiet quiet quiet CORPSE, and I didn't expect anything more from Resident Evil's opening. Isolated house, dark corridors, darker basement, creaking floorboards, a horrid VHS tape...
Rather than using all of those elements to build toward monstrous jump scares, Resi 7 finds a shrieking pitch that stirs up memories of The Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and a hundred video nasties. There are quiet moments throughout the game but when things escalate, they escalate quickly and ferociously, and the first act lays the table perfectly for the feast that follows.
It's a feast made up of so many courses that I continually found myself excited to see what came next, while also having occasional doubts about how it all fit together. It's a game that sometimes seems like its losing its grip, not quite sure what kind of horror story it wants to tell, but in the end, the way it reels from one fright to the next felt like exactly the right approach. I laughed a few times, when once-threatening figures tipped over into absurdity, but I was soon wincing at some new twist in the tale, sent cowering back into the shadows.
Resident Evil 7 is inventive. Although its main point of reference is the first game, its energetic changes of pace show some common ground with series creator Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within as well. That under-rated (by me, at release) gem was directed by Mikami, who also took lead on Resis 1 and 4, and it played with its creator's own past, most obviously when revisiting a version of the Spencer Mansion. Something similar is happening here, though with less of the surreal scene changes of Evil Within.
Where Mikami's latest is like a remix tape of various horror subgenres, Resident Evil 7 is a dirtier, nastier take on the original. It seems to take cues from all over the place, from the films mentioned at the beginning of this review to Monolith's melee-focused horror-brawled Condemned: Criminal Origins, but when you peel away the layers and look at what really makes it tick, it's Resident Evil through and through right down to the safe rooms and their item boxes. Given how distant from the increasingly daft main series plotlines the demo seemed – even hinting it might be about hauntings rather than viruses and sort-of-zombies – I was concerned that the gloomy mood might fall to pieces as soon as the shadow of Umbrella Corporation fell over proceedings.
For the most part this is a game that looks at horrible acts of violence happening far from the reach of special forces heroes and corporate science villains, and where it is frightening (and it often is), the sense of isolation is a vital component of the terror. You're stranded in a place inhabited by monstrous people, they want to kill you (or worse) and nothing else really matters. “GET OUT OF THE HOUSE”, as the prime objective says. Not “PUNCH THE WESKER” or “EXPLODE THE LAB”. Just GET OUT OF THE FUCKING HOUSE.
To my surprise, Resi 7 slots into the series neatly though, and without damaging the tone of this new entry. In part, that has nothing to do with the way that the connection plays out – and I won't spoil that at all – and has more to do with how traditional Resi 7 feels once you scratch beneath the surface. The things that you do, for the most part, wouldn't feel out of place in any of the core, numbered entries in the series The first-person perspective lends the horror a much greater immediacy than the camera angles of 1-3 and over-the-shoulder action cam of 4-6 could ever hope for, and the design of the Baker residence and the game's other areas makes the most of the new perspective. Like Alone in the Dark before it, Resident Evil often used its camera angles to make you feel as if your character was being watched. Where you were observed, you're now the observer, looking at every grim detail up close.
And it's no mistake that the Baker's home feels like a broken-down version of the Spencer Mansion. The latter was a front, hiding underground labs and dark secrets, but the Bakers have all their dirty laundry on display, and the skeletons have already left the closets; they're sitting down at the table waiting for dinner to be served. Ethan may or may not be that dinner.
We need to talk about Ethan. I nearly referred to him as Ethan Surname in the first paragraph because I genuinely couldn't remember his name, but I thought that might be confusing. He is Mr Surname though, a boring man who doesn't seem either frightened or curious enough about his situation. At one point he's trying to convince someone that he's an innocent, trapped, and he sounds like he's trying to explain that it wasn't him that blocked the toilet rather than that he's terrified for his life and trapped inside a horror house.
The game itself sometimes seems unsure of what it wants to be – whether it's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or one of the sequels that makes Leatherface into a bit of an oaf, and sniggers at his family – but it is so damn good at being all of the various things it attempts that it works tremendously in the end. Just as the original was never really a George Romero game, but rather its own weird little mashup of mad science and mutants, Resident Evil 7 is very much its own thing. Ethan is a bit of a blank at the centre of it though and thank god it's all in first-person so you can mostly ignore him.
And thank god for the Bakers. They're awful, spiteful and cruel, but most importantly, they're vocal. There are some similarities to Resi 3's Nemesis enemy, an unstoppable creature hunting you across the entire game, but these bastards are far more enjoyable. One of your first fights will be against a member of the family and it's a good example of how gunplay tends to go down. Put simply, bullets are hard to come by and not all that useful. There's a fair amount of combat throughout the game and you'll pack more than the initial peashooter of a pistol, but it's never the focus. Everything is more dangerous, and more interesting, than poor old Ethan.
Shooting and stabbing and bludgeoning feels a lot like survival horror combat planted into a first-person perspective. It works well, but you're mostly at very close quarters, firing off rounds in a panic and hoping to hit whatever looks most like a face. You can see the wounds left by bullets and knives, which sounds terrible, but is actually extremely satisfying. If the fuckers won't drop quickly, at least you can see them falling apart piece by piece.
The stealth doesn't work quite as well as the shooting. For reasons mentioned already, you'll want to avoid combat as much as possible and there are certain encounters that you simply can't win. To take down the toughest of your enemies, you'll need to be in the vicinity of the proverbial kitchen sink that finishes them off once you've thrown everything else at them. So you sneak. Except you don't, not really. You can crouch and you can walk slowly, but you can't lean around corners to check if someone is coming, and most of the areas are so compact that hiding is tricky. It's frustrating because the sound design, an essential component of most good stealth games, is extraordinarily good. Threats, abuse gurgles, growls and laughter bleed through the walls, helping you to locate enemies, and you'll hear them stomping around the house, hunting for you. Oh, for a lean button to allow for a visual check that doesn't involve flopping your whole body into view when you want to check around a corner.
In the end, it's a minor complaint because the game does so much else well, and special mention should be made of the PC version's strengths. It has solid mouse and keyboard support (I never thought I'd be playing a Resi game, on launch day, on a PC, using a mouse), lovely graphics and plenty of settings to tinker with. I've had slight loading stutters when entering new areas, but they don't last long and my GTX 970 is hardly top of the range anymore.
As for the game itself, the scripted chases outshine Outlast with their brilliant tension and there are great first-person animations (you can't see Ethan's body when you look down, but his hands are very expressive) that make you feel more a part of the environment. The flashback VHS tapes, though few and far between, are a brilliant touch, and just one more part of the game that could have been run into the ground had Capcom overused them. No one aspect overstays its welcome and even in its final hour, the game feels fresh.
That said, even as the end approached and Ethan's story seemed to be done, I still didn't care about him at all. He's flat, bland and the one big turning point in his development seemed preposterous. Resident Evil 7 isn't really his story at all though. It's the Baker family's story and they're magnificent. Grotesque, yes, but delightfully so. Like Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and the rest of their kind, it's a game centred on its villains rather than their victims. And, like those series, this is a game that can scare you, startle you, shock you, draw a nervous laugh out of you and make you shake your head in disbelief, but mostly it's just here to entertain. And the Bakers are right at the horrible heart of it all.