In an alternate universe, Capcom released another turgid re-tread of Resident Evil 4 that somehow managed to out-stupid Chris Redfield punching boulders and we all laughed in that sad kind of way. Capcom is its own worst enemy when it comes to milking its cash-cows because the cow in question has been horizontal since 2009 and was starting smell. Resident Evil 6 may be one of the most expensive videogame train wrecks to feature an actual train wreck and probably should have put a bullet in the series. But, in the style of MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order and id’s new Doom, Capcom have pulled off one of those delightful “reboot-but-not-really-because-some-people-like-canon-including-all-the-new-blood-we-hired-to-fix-this” reboots that also happen to be my favourite trend in big-budget games right now.
RE7 is a sensational re-imagining of the series’ legacy that smartly takes inspiration from popular trends to make a return to the original Resident Evil’s tension and scarce resources marketable, and in doing so it pushes both the series and the stagnant sub-genre it’s cribbing from into new and exciting territory.
The first-person perspective initially seems like it’s designed to pander to youtube racists (it is), but it’s also a clever delivery mechanism for RE7’s new grit. While there are multiple sections in RE7 where you are pursued by an invulnerable member of the Baker Family in the style of an Amnesia or an Outlast, there are an equal number of sections where you are fumbling shots at black mould monsters in the dark. The former is utterly fucking terrifying, but its’ success in making the latter work even half as well is RE7’s subtle triumph. Rather than being a haunted house ride where you work the accelerator and the brakes, RE7 is happy to let you choke your shots and back yourself into a corner. Careful resource management, manoeuvring and environmental awareness are all vital considerations. RE7 is a bona fide survival horror game.
This doesn’t necessarily mean RE7 is a great survival horror game. The slow-build towards becoming over-equipped and unstoppable that characterised genre heavy-weights Dead Space and RE4 is non-existent. RE7 beats your over the head in its first handful of hours with how vulnerable you’re supposed to feel, forcing you to tiptoe around Jack - the father of the Baker clan – with only a switchblade and your wits. This is unreservedly the best and most terrifying part of the game, and though there are highlights beyond these early hours, RE7’s moments of genuine horror are undeniably front-loaded. By the halfway point you’re strapped with enough firepower to mince the enemies who were mauling you without reservation an hour ago and who aren’t interesting or varied enough to sustain the combat in the game’s second half. RE7 fails to escape the quicksand that is the legacy of RE4’s final act, devolving into screen-filling tentacle monsters, shooting weak spots and J-horror bullshit that makes zero sense but looks rad. It didn’t have to end this way, but it does and it’s fine, really.
What isn’t lost after you’ve dispatched Jack however is RE7’s commitment to camp. Comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are more than deserved. After its harrowing opening, RE7 quickly lets on that it’s a Resident Evil game in every aspect, by which I mean that it gets hilarious and stupid real fast. The Bakers are a fascinating combination of idiot cliché and subtle characterisation and they walk the line between being scary and funny with absurd ease. The first time you’re locked in a room with Jack may be one of the most insane and hilarious things I’ve ever seen or done in a game this year. For all its savage gore and family trauma, RE7 is pure shlock. Its sharp writing and clever ties to the existing Resident Evil canon manage to put lipstick on one of the most pig-ass-looking-pigs in video game fiction and it’s an achievement that it works at all.
Ultimately, it’s self-awareness that makes RE7. It’s a competent survival horror game replete with inventive set-pieces of varying quality that manages to capitalise on what’s hot in horror to striking effect, and that alone would have been good enough. But RE7’s ability to both be spine-chilling and darkly funny means its captures both the original Resident Evil’s structure and its soul. It makes me excited for the future.