Old and new collide. The result is brilliant.
Resident Evil 7 both is and isn't your father's Resident Evil all at once. In a sense this is the game's greatest triumph - it manages to straddle the line between respecting the past and trying something new startlingly well, coming up with a compelling formula in the process.
Capcom's marketing has worked both for and against it in this sense, and I want to take some time out at the top of this review to dispel some common misconceptions about Resident Evil 7 as a result. There's no doubt that Capcom were inspired by the rise of games like Outlast and Amnesia, but this also isn't that type of game. There's the first-person horror aspect, true, but that's about where the comparison really ends. The closest thing to Resident Evil 7 is, well, Resident Evil, the 1996 original.
"Don't write this off as some Amnesia or Outlast clone. It's a whole lot more than that."
I'm going to remain spoiler-free here, but to speak broadly around the game's flow it's fair to say that it changes a lot as you progress. You begin relatively powerless and there is that sort of first person hide-and-seek terror that was popularized by a bunch of PC horror darlings, but soon enough the game shoves a gun into your hands. Then you're scrabbling for ammo and supplies in every hidden corner and dealing with a worrying flow of shambling, gross and threatening enemies. Crafting health kits, ammo and other items is back from later entries in the series, though scarcity of resources makes each choice all the more important.
Your control over protagonist Ethan is fluid, but there's what feels to be a deliberate looseness to his use of firearms. Ethan's no S.T.A.R.S. agent, and his weapon proficiency is meant to reflect that. In a weird sense the game encourages the classic RE flow in combat; I found myself running from enemies, turning around and planting my feet to place shots and conserve ammo. Upgrades you can find or buy throughout the game slowly increase Ethan's health, reload speed and dexterity, which in turn gives a sense of light progression to his skills.
As I said, here the game feels most like the classic RE. You can backtrack and puzzle solve to get optional extras such as shotguns and a grenade launcher. You're dealing with animal-coded keys and colour-coded keycards. Encounters with less powerful zombie-like enemies, the molded, are backed up by stressful brushes with the Baker family, seemingly invincible and sentient infected who you're better off running from.
"In a sense it feels like a microcosm of the entire Resident Evil series: it starts out more subdued and intimately terrifying within the confines of one house and estate, but later on veers into some of the action and melodrama the back half of the series became known for."
As you move through the house in search of your escape the game slowly morphs. You go from terrified hiding to reluctant fighting and back again, then to more prepared fighting where you are the pursuer. There's a section of the game that riffs on the Saw torture puzzle, and eventually the game takes a hard turn into a very different tone.
In a sense it feels like a microcosm of the entire Resident Evil series: it starts out more subdued and intimately terrifying within the confines of one house and estate, but later on veers into some of the action and melodrama the back half of the series became known for. Nobody's going to punch a boulder in RE7's more grounded world, but it pushes away from the plodding, methodically-paced house of horror into some tense action-horror sequences.
This is all smart. Discounting the time lost on my 10 or so deaths Resident Evil 7 took me around 11 and a half hours to finish on my first normal mode play-through, and none of the game's sections outstay their welcome. Each time the tone is shifted the replacement attitude only lingers precisely long enough to satisfy and then gets out. Once the credits rolled I was content, but what speaks best of the game is perhaps the fact that I jumped right back in for a second run.
Some interesting enemy AI, optional items and emergent stuff (your limbs can be lopped off for instance, but this never happened to me) make the game worth a replay, but also like previous Resident Evil games there are unlocks for completing the game with certain endings or by fulfilling different criteria; these encourage replays. By my third run I'd unlocked enough bonuses (such as a super-powerful pistol, shoes that let you run faster and glasses that let you detect items in the environment) that I managed to speed-run the game on easy in a little over 3 hours. I've since started a hard mode run that's definitely going to take me several times that. I realise that some will question the value of a 11-hour, single-player only story-driven game, but I personally found RE7's depth of content to be satisfying.
The game's narrative is doled out in a surprisingly even-handed way when you consider that the constant third-person perspective means no traditional story scenes. Files are dotted around the world to provide extra information, and I pieced together the biggest mystery in the story around an hour before the game revealed it proper. Also, for the record: Yes, this game is connected to the existing RE lore, though it creates many questions and hooks for the future of the series along the way.
One of the smartest storytelling techniques in the game comes in the form of its VHS tapes. There aren't too many of these (I wish there were a few more - one of my few criticisms), but these literal 'found footage' tapes scattered throughout the world let you get out of Ethan's body and see through somebody else's eyes for a while. They're often a little more scary, too - characters in tapes can die without it meaning game over, your inventory is often stripped away and they're a little more scripted and built to scare in specific ways.
The story is also given more clarity through these tapes, but they're also clues for both Ethan and you. Tapes typically showcase an area you're yet to visit, and by playing them you'll pick up some tips or environmental hints you'll then be able to use when you arrive there proper. In one instance I completely sequence-broke a puzzle as Ethan because I'd played out the solution inside a completely optional tape already. When I broke the puzzle, the game actually acknowledged it - a great moment.
Oh, and... this might be the most impactful PlayStation VR experience yet. I'd honestly recommend playing the game through once traditionally first, but it's a damn nice extra to have.
Crunch time. So, what about the bad? There are a few wrinkles in Resident Evil 7: there's not enough variety in enemies, with a handful of slightly-different molded all you're given besides bosses. There's some excellent music work that's under-utilized, with soundtrack only fully used once the game hits its more action-driven areas. I would've liked some more tapes, and the final sections of the game barrel along just a little too quickly - more time for a little more detail on the later story revelations would have been welcome.
"We don't do scores here on VG247, but if we did I'd be thinking hard on if I should give this a 10 - which to me by no means translates to perfect, but translates to 'must play'."
But damn if this isn't an amazing game all the same. We don't do scores here on VG247, but if we did I'd be thinking hard on if I should give this a 10 - which to me by no means translates to perfect, but translates to 'must play'. It's high praise, and for the record I'd be edging closer to the 10. Resident Evil 7 feels perfectly pitched in terms of finding a new identity for Resident Evil while respecting the old and is also amazingly confident in its execution. I have no doubt some Resident Evil fans with more specific expectations will feel less enamoured than I, however, but hey - that's what our review round-ups are for.
Thick in atmosphere and skilled at manipulating your mental state to get your heart pounding with horror, plot twists or action, Resident Evil 7 is my first major game of the year contender for 2017 - I loved it. So... I'm going to go back to playing it. Just do me a favour - don't write this off as some Amnesia or Outlast clone. It's a whole lot more than that.