This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 6 left the franchise in a bit of a state, didn't it? Imagine a nice, fluffy omelet that you mixed together from perfectly acceptable ingredients and lovingly cooked in a pan for just long enough, but then you cooked it a bit longer, then a bit longer still and subjected it to eight seconds of concentrated machine gun fire, that sort of state.
Fortunately, Capcom has an emergency policy in place in a little box on the wall marked "In Case of Resident Evil Becoming Shit Again, Break Glass", and that policy states that if at first you don't succeed, give up and do something else. It worked for Resident Evil 4, when Capcom said to itself, "Hey, we're shit at writing story and dialogue that always comes across as laughable and slightly camp. Let's just play that up and make the combat not so much like trying to teach the elderly how to dance to Stayin' Alive."
Resident Evil 7 again reworks the formula from the ground up. Now it's first-person, much tighter in scope, emphasizing the "horror" part of "survival horror", and Capcom have finally figured out how to write a half-decent story: they got someone else to do it! It's also emphasizing the "resident" part of "Resident Evil", because it takes place entirely in a spooky residence. Well, three or four spooky residences, but it's set in rural America, where there's fuck-all to do in the winter except build yourself another house.
Our protagonist, Ethan Winters, drives to a scary place in the middle of nowhere because his wife who's been gone for three years sends him a message asking him to-- Hey, wait a minute! That's just Silent Hill 2! Fortunately, RE7 swiftly differentiates itself, because while James Sunderland gets drawn into a masterfully crafted atmosphere of dreadful symbolism, Ethan Winters gets a hand chainsawed off. Well, that's much more expedient! He finds himself at the mercy of a family of psychotic superpowered Republicans who want to "Make Ethan's Bodily Integrity Great Again" by sawing more bits off of it. Whoops! Bit political, that; better insult the other side to retain balance. In contrast to previous Resident Evil protagonists, Ethan is a normal dude with all the fighting skill of a Democratic party election campaign, although having said that, he bounces back from traumatic injuries remarkably quick. Stuff gets shoved through his hand so often, he should start using the hole to store his biros and business cards.
RE7 has taken a lot of cues from that popular breed of claustrophobic first-person chasey-chasey horror of the Slender and Outlast sort of area that for a while was using Steam the way parasitic wasps use the bodies of caterpillars, the kind of thing that goes, "No, you can only run away and hide because we decided not being able to fight back is scarier, and it's just coincidental that it's also massively easier to program." Resident Evil 7 looked at that and said, "How about we do that, but also - weird idea - give the player a big fuck-off gun? Would that still be scary?" Yes, actually, especially since guns bother these regenerating rednecks about as much as maintaining cultural diversity.
Resident Evil 6's giant, overblown monster battles feel even sillier now that I'm ten times more unnerved from being chased around a coffee table by an angry bloke with a spade and a stripy pajama top. This does, of course, raise the question of why they bothered to give us a gun if redneck du jour can keep shrugging it off, but it turns out sometimes your attacks do have a permanent effect. It's a little bit inconsistent, story-wise, but the game usually gives you a signal to indicate you're supposed to stop running and start attacking. The signal is that all the doors are locked and there's a big neon sign over the roof saying "Boss Fight".
So why do you bother letting us have weapons anywhere other than in boss fights, Resident Evil 7? "Well, um, there's still all those crates to smash! All right, fine. We'll throw in some standard monsters for you to kill in between the Redneck Fun Time Hoedowns. Here comes some now! Woo, scary!" I look at the monsters, and then at RE7, and then back at the monsters. Is this a fucking joke? They look like theme park mascots. They've got huge, curvy smiles. They look like the dude in the original Japanese Godzilla costume went on a crash diet and fell in a septic tank. They slowly lurch around like they're balancing books on their heads, and every time I hit them with anything, they spend half an hour recoiling from it like they're trying to get me sent off the pitch.
There's always a palpable buildup of tension every time the game goes a bit quiet for a while, because I know it's getting ready to have Farmer Shovelfuck burst out of the medicine cabinet or whatever, but whenever they broke the tension by throwing more shit monsters at me, I'd think, "Phew, that's a relief!" The game stops being scary when it loses the Texas Chain Saw Massacre vibe and becomes... well, becomes a Resident Evil game, I suppose.
It's not very long, since it takes place almost entirely on the set of Little House on the Prairie and everything, and while it's at its most intense when you're trying to avoid patrolling hillbillies, looking back, there's only, like, three occasions when that happens, and they never chase you beyond a miniscule patrol route restricted to about two stretches of hallway and an outside loo. Then they pack that in altogether for the entire second half of the game and combat becomes mainly a single-file parade of comedy turd monsters.
And the game gets really overgenerous with supplies and ammunition. Christ knows why there need to be so many flame grenades around the farm; those groundhogs must be resilient little buggers. In the last hour or two, the game acquires a bizarre obsession with trigger bombs. I don't know if the level designer was in unrequited love with the person who designed the trigger bomb model and tried to get their attention, but you could re-tile your roof with the fucking things! They make the final gauntlet of monsters even more trivial since they lurch towards you slowly enough that you've got time to lay a trigger bomb in their path, back off to a safe distance, and read another chapter of Of Mice and Men.
I do recommend Resident Evil 7. I like the story and its reveals, the tighter focus, the fact that it's not Resident Evil 6, but then, after Resident Evil 6, I'd have been pleasantly surprised by a dead prawn in a sock. It's no Resident Evil 4, because Resident Evil 4 was replayable, and most of RE7's main strengths are lost on a second run when you know the mystery and where jump scares happen, and that once you get past the skinny lady that shits wasps, you might as well put your feet up, because there are very few really meaty challenges after that, and what passes for a "final boss" is about a half-ounce of powdered redneck away from being a series of quick-time events. But the first impressions were that it may even bring back memories of that wonderful first playthrough of RE4, especially as you skip down the opening forest path, dreamily not thinking about chainsaws.
So the stagnating franchise has been successfully rebooted once again; I look forward to seeing how they fuck it up this time. Going from established history, it'll either be from bringing back previous Resident Evil characters no one cares about, or from being incredibly racist. Properly racist, I mean, not just against rural white Americans, the supermarket-owned brand diet cola of racism.
- Spending time with the folks: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And to think all these years I've been chainsawing my own hands off to get out of family get-togethers
- Chris Redfield now available for after dinner speaking