While Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) might just be the biggest marquee name in survival horror video games, complete with its own mutant spawn film series starring Milla Jovovich, its chapters are only sporadically successful beyond a certain core audience, like even-numbered Star Trek films. The first game offered original PlayStation gamers a rework of the groundbreaking Famicom horror title Sweet Home, adding into the mix its own Hollywood action movie panache, but sequels soon supplanted innovative gameplay with caked-on conspiracy theory/telenovela-level lore and a helluva lot o’ ports. The (relatively) uncluttered story of elite commandos fighting to survive in an isolated, trap and puzzle-festooned mansion overrun by hideous manmade biological weapons and zombies as part of a global terrorist conspiracy started to lose some of its potency through repetition and elaboration, especially when contrasted with the dehumanizing personal visions of madness and vulnerable protagonists over Silent Hill way.
The last really groundbreaking Resident Evil title was 2005’s Resident Evil 4, one of the first killer apps on the Nintendo Gamecube, which broke from the series fixation with zombie-plagued Raccoon City and the sinister Umbrella Corporation to follow Resident Evil 2 hero Leon Kennedy – once a rookie cop, but now a special agent grim badass, albeit still with boy band hair – on his mission to rescue the president’s daughter from a cult in rural Spain. Instead of zombies, Leon was primarily ventilating cult members, all of whom had the grimy aspect of background extras in an AIP or Hammer period piece and sometimes sprouted tentacle heads. The game mechanics evolved, too, most notably switching from the fixed angle camera to an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective and the novel concept of aiming when you shoot. Then the model went into sequelitis torpor again, mostly trying to invigorate the series by pawning off A.I. companions on the player. It was sort of like trying to fix your relationship by having a threesome. Then again, there’s no horror like the horror of being forced to socialize.
This brings us to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Including both the American and Japanese titles in one seems to signal either a trip back to series roots or a great rejiggering, and it is kind of both. Don’t call it a comeback, but it’s the scariest Resident Evil in over a decade. And if you’ll excuse me, I will be over here quaking with sudden terror at the momento mori that comes with knowledge the Resident Evil series at this point is so very old.
At first, RE7 seems to have taken the RE4 path of better Resident Evil through less Resident Evil; gone are the various police and paramilitary heroes, the shambling undead, and its familiar stable of mutated Bio Organic Weapons, like the froglike Hunters and Gene Simmons/Venom crossbreed Lickers. Our hero Ethan Winters is just an ordinary Joe, without any weapons training or apparent survival instincts, who follows his dead wife’s trail deep into the swamps of Louisiana. While it’s certainly secluded enough for a secret Umbrella B.O.W. testing ground, the bayou plantation house setting is a new one for the series that feels at least superficially more grounded than an opulent police station secured with playing card suit-themed keys or a ghost ship with a manifest comprised entirely of biological weapons. Like in RE4, we have a big, big camera change, this time to first-person, making it available to play in PlayStation VR and, for some, introducing verisimilitude into the survival horror experience via irresistible nausea. Most notably, I think, the personal nature of Ethan’s search for his wife Mia versus the typical Resident Evil scenarios of high-profile rescues and terrorism investigations immediately dislocates it from its forebears. This is a page out of Silent Hill 2’s playbook, said everyone on the internet. And you know, at least this time, everyone on the internet is right.
Still, a Resident Evil is as a Resident Evil does. While the POV change, setting, and story are far from mere window dressing, the backbone of the game itself is a return to the original game’s emphasis on painstaking exploration, harvesting items, hoarding ammo, and, well, surviving. You poke around, solve a puzzle, unlock a new area, poke around, solve a puzzle, fight a boss, change your underwear. Aside from the Baker family, the only enemies to contend with are two flavors of lurching monster called the Molded, and while they aren’t zombies, they’re nearly as uncreative. Like swapping from RE6’s automatic checkpoints to RE7’s cassette player save points, echoing the series’ original typewriter save points, the seeming upgrade of the core game is essentially all callback.
One thing though that is definitely not a callback, and the biggest success of Resident Evil 7 as measured in dread, pathos, and cartoonish player screams, is the spotlight on the murderous Baker Family. It’s the signature departure from Resident Evil canon and the aspect that most closely realigns RE7 with American horror rather than Hollywood action films. I really love the Bakers. Though you don’t get the full impact of their story without the DLC add-on chapter “Daughters,” even in the abridged version covered in the main game, the Bakers are as tragic as they are terrifying. You have father Jack, mom Marguerite, black sheep son Lucas, and estranged daughter Zoe, plus their comatose Mother Bates-looking old lady in a wheelchair, whose all but lifeless body still made me yelp like so much Shag and Scoob when rounding a dark corner on my way to the item box because oh, my stars and garters, lady, you were in the dining room, how did you even get on the second floor?!
Each of the Bakers has his/her own particular scare mechanic, almost splitting the game up into subgenres. Papa Jack stalks Ethan through the derelict plantation house with the confident pace and effective invulnerability of your Michael Myerses or Jasons. While Jack can do you a mischief if he gets a hold of Ethan, encounters with Marguerite and her swarms of stinging insects are even less forgiving, forcing the player into tense games of hide and seek. And Lucas enjoys setting up byzantine puzzles and traps in the manner of “Saw,” offering brief, vicious vignettes of slaughterporn that is also a series first. As far as Zoe is concerned, she’s actually trying to help Ethan make an antidote for the crazies her folks have come down with, but only insofar as she periodically calls to give Ethan new waypoints and objectives; she’s not getting her hands dirty. The walkthrough is coming from inside the house, Ethan.
Once the Bakers have been dealt with, the game’s last act deals with Ethan’s discovery of Mia, infected with the same virus that turned the family into cannibal monsters, and forces the player to decide whether to save Zoe or the wife. Whoever Ethan chooses, the player will play as that character for a time, in keeping with Resident Evil tradition of a mixed gender player character team, before it rolls into some classic Resident Evil biohazard denouement that will be familiar ground for series fans, including fans of the movies, with its final boss in the shape of a creepy little girl. The only thing it’s missing are the MO disks. This section of the game seems to hew more closely to Japanese horror tropes, especially the creepy little girl, but is diluted with the fresh infusion of Michael Bay action movie energy that comes with it, making it markedly less frightening than everything that came before. While the final fight is horrifying, for me at least, it’s more horror at the player’s compelled actions than the final form of ultimate evil.
Real talk about Ethan versus Silent Hill 2’s James Sunderland though. Not to get too much into the weeds, but Silent Hill 2 was a masterpiece of psychological horror precisely because James Sunderland wasn’t quite…right. Throughout the game, he underreacts to genuinely disturbing scenes and people, not least a saucy doppleganger of his own dead wife, and while he evinces all the traits of a sympathetic everyman, something about James’ unflappable banality tempts one to question it. The game puts that in context with teasing hints that culminate in the final, dreadful revelation James smothered his dying wife, and so in the final act, he is laid bare as both a little mad and very guilty. There’s no accompanying psychological dimension in RE7 to explain Ethan’s unflappable banality though, and while it might be unreasonable to suggest a horror protagonist ever be reasonable, Ethan could at least be as scared as I am when the nigh-immortal redneck caricature is bearing down on us with giant shears. OK, I guess he does put a few bucks in the swear jar over the course of the game, but F-bombs do not put paid to his lack of hysteria and calm acceptance of some really scary, or at least grody, things.
I don’t think the takeaway here is either than Resident Evil 7’s core gameplay is too hackneyed to be horrifying or that it only scares when it’s not being Resident Evil-y. Actually, I think the core gameplay – the poking around, saving your last two shotgun shells for something special, and piecemeal assembling a forensic narrative – works a treat, and they should never fear embracing that. I think the problem with Resident Evil 7, and really every Resident Evil, is that from the beginning, each installment builds steadily toward an ending that is more about rocket launchers, countdowns, and helicopter escapes than the creeping dread and jump scares that get you there. They all become action games by the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean a marked tonal shift from the likes of Silent Hill to something more akin to Doom, and that’s never going to leave anyone awake at night. In that sense though, one might well look at the franchise as an affirmation of military power and big-ass bombs, an interesting point of view for a Japanese game developer. No matter how bleak and disturbing the scenario, by the end, sweet player, we will be hanging from a rope ladder over an impressive blast radius, flying into the dawn of a new day, probably uninfected. Or maybe the fact that heavy weapons will inevitably be necessary to put down the evil that men gin up in a covert lab is the real existential horror.
One day, Angela wants to be rich enough to have a home security system consisting entirely of puzzles.