Resident Evil 7 is a reboot. An apology. An attempt by Capcom to remove the series from its depressing downward spiral by returning the franchise to something simpler, something more sinister. For every excellent thing Resident Evil 4 did over a decade ago by adding more action to its survivor horror, its sequels deviated more and more from the original formula to finally position the franchise in a laughably bad, horrendously stupid game I came to hate - Resident Evil 6. 7, subtitled Biohazard, takes the franchise back home as it ditches geopolitical biowarfare for a dingy mansion setting hidden away in the swamps of Louisiana. The game almost succeeds at reinvigorating the Resident Evil franchise, only to then waste it away with one of the most uninspired transitions in recent video game memory.
The essence of Resident Evil is playing the role of a regular person cast in the middle of a dark setting with little in the way to defend or heal oneself. It's about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ethan is that every-man protagonist who seems down on his luck. His girlfriend, Mia, has been missing for three years until one day he receives an email informing him that she is alive and that she wants him to come get her. So the game begins as Ethan finds himself on the edge of the Baker Farm in Dulvey, Louisiana. The setting is so reminiscent of the original Resident Evil, from the intricate mansion design, clever item placement, and multi-layered progression of design. It really does beckon to the first time, as Jill Valentine, you explored the mansion in the original Resident Evil, only this time without any of the antiquated features we smirk upon recalling.
Bad voice acting, set camera angles, stodgy tank controls, and irritating opening door animations don't make a return appearance. Ethan is initially confined to narrow corridors and dimly lit rooms as he struggles to explore the property he finds himself at. Each room has a purpose, and the atmosphere and grungy presentation only serve to heighten the experience. The Baker Farm serves as more of a companion to the journey than a simple string of set pieces. You'll come to shudder at thinking of the Dissection Room. Or the Boiler Room. Or the old house by the lake. Each of these places has a story to tell. If only these walls could talk.
Before long, Ethan will come across Mia and discover, as if it wasn't obvious from the first sight of grime and dried blood, that something isn't quite right with this set up. Not much sooner after, you will meet the Baker family, a real swell group of folks, offering up some fine Southern hospitality as they make Ethan the honored guest at their family dinner. Please pass the human flesh.
Ethan is no Chris Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy. He's physically weak, getting knocked around the first time he finds himself in combat. His strengths can only be attributed to how well you control him. His appearance is only ever hinted at. His emotions are limited to frustration and curiosity. We know so little about him. Yet we sympathize with him because, even though it's his own damn fault for going to the Baker Farm, not searching for Mia would be a regret more unnerving. Finding Mia, seeing her scared, pathetic self, and then realizing that there is more to her than meets the eye, hooks Ethan into delving ever deeper into the dark void staring at him head on.
Wanting to see what is next. How will Ethan survive? Can he ever repair the physical and emotional damage sustained during his visit to Dulvey? Even if he does save Mia, would he even want to still be with her knowing what she is?
The game only hints at the outcome once the dust has settled, and it quite frankly doesn't even matter. I'm sure two or three sequels from now will have these characters playing Rambo-likes in a worldwide struggle between man and bioweapon. But until that day arrives, we are left with a game that tries to keep things intimate and atmospheric. Every step of the way through the Baker property should be methodical and with purpose. You never know what you're going to find hidden around the corner. Each encounter against a Baker family member is a frantic game of cat and mouse. Avoidance is preferred, but it cannot always be the outcome. Ethan must hold his ground and fight from time to time. These first few battles are harrowing yet extremely satisfying upon completion, knowing that weakling Ethan just did something great, though it damn near killed him.
The Bakers are not zombies, but they're certainly not normal people, as the first battle with "Daddy" Jack will make apparent. Ethan will strengthen his position throughout the course of exploring the mansion by obtaining a small cache of weapons and healing meds, in addition to keys and puzzle items. It all feels like the original Resident Evil, and each newly explored room or fight against the Bakers or their teethy, sinewy victims adds to a certain sense of accomplishment. For being such an atmospherically creepy setting, the mansion sure is a joy to explore.
But then the game's progression spirals out of control. Ethan is no longer tasked with fighting an insane hillbilly family armed with only a pocket knife and a few measly handgun rounds. Increasingly, he encounters mutated gargantuans in ever-more elaborate battle arenas that make no sense, and the game's setting abandons the creepy mansion for a boring shipwreck setting. The plot is explained. We learn the truth about Mia and the Bakers. We come to learn that they are just pawns to the real evil puppeteering behind the scenes. Revealing the unknown, or attempting to rationalize it, does a great disservice to a game like Resident Evil 7. Is it not enough to simply allow evil to fester unexplained? Why does it always have to come with an explanation wrapped with a bow on top? How is Umbrella still around? Will Capcom ever try to fully realize the essence of what makes Resident Evil such an everlasting idea? Do they even care?
At the end of the journey, Ethan fights a grotesque head with writhing tentacles. The sense of dread over what lies around the corner is far removed. Ethan will have a machine gun, a grenade launcher, and enough healing items to stock a hospital. Resident Evil 7 transitions from quiet fear to a loud action. Ethan saves the world, or at least the bayous of Louisiana. As one door closes, he calmly remarks, another door opens.
But instead of offering something truly worthy to the spirit of Resident Evil, it turns out that behind that door is just more generic action schlock.
Community review by Fiddlesticks (January 28, 2017)
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