Fear is a funny thing in entertainment media. We don’t want to be afraid in real life, but the fear that a good film or video game can instil in us is an experience that many pop culture fans crave. There’s a cathartic release that accompanies a scream, or a moment of unbearable dread culminating in something truly terrible.
Fear has also become something of a marketing gimmick, especially in video games. While we’re still seeing a proliferation of film trailers that show bad footage of fake test audiences screaming in night vision, gaming has had its own problems with these sort of scares. If we look at the likes of Outlast and the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, they feel particularly crafted to scare a YouTube audience. They’re tailor made for videos titled Scariest Game Ever?!?!
Resident Evil 7 could have been one of these games. Capcom’s flagship franchise has been on the downturn for a while now. The last well received core franchise entry was Resident Evil 4, which was out nearly 12 years ago. It’s regarded by many as one of the best games of all time and has been re-released into oblivion since its Gamecube debut. Resident Evil 5 was quite well received but criticised in many corners for its vaguely racist undertones and poor partner AI. Resident Evil 6 was a hot mess.
The side entries in the franchise have fared better, but when Resident Evil 7 was first revealed to be a first person title with a trailer and demo that were evocative of Kojima’s P.T. demo, fans were rather worried. Was this long established franchise about to turn completely on its roots and try to chase that audience of scared YouTubers? Did we have another horror game where your only options are run and hide, or die?
In hindsight, the uproar was odd. Resident Evil 4 bore no resemblance whatsoever to the first three entries in the franchise, save for the presence of green herbs, and the return of Leon Kennedy. Notably there were no zombies. Shock, horror. Resident Evil 5 and 6 both bore no resemblances to the PS One entries and little to 4, save for the over the shoulder shooting and again, herbs.
When you get past the opening hour or so of Resident Evil 7, you realise that this might be closer to the original trilogy than you could ever imagine. Somehow, the seventh entry in this monster mashing franchise manages to bring it all into the modern gaming world, with a few stylistic and gameplay choices that call back to the halcyon days of tank controls and Jill sandwiches. Yes, there are herbs too.
Resident Evil 7 starts out feeling like it might be one of those run and hide horrors, but the beauty is that it doles out these segments sparingly. The initial reveal of your foes causes you to have to sneak around and hide to open a trapdoor and escape beneath the house, but these segments are kept simple. Even later instances of this formula are refreshingly brief and instantly terrifying.
7’s genius is in how it gives, and how it takes away. You get a gun quite early on, and then you lose it. Then you’re unarmed, until you get a pen knife. There’s a wonderful feeling of bait and switch, with feeling powerful and feeling weak. Ammo is scarce, and often you have to choose between crafting healing items, or crafting more bullets. Enemy encounters are infrequent, and tough, and the first person view makes it all the more terrifying. Enemies will hide just out of sight, and your slow movement speed and painfully laborious turning circle means that you can’t keep your head on a swivel and make sure none of your foes get the jump on you.
While older Resident Evil titles hid enemies behind static camera angles and tank controls, 7’s terror is much simpler. It’s the fear of what might be behind you. What could be creeping into the room this second, even as you’re sweeping iit, and damn, do they deploy it well as a vehicle for screams.
The fact that you get opportunities to fight back is what separates this game from the recent wave of first person horror titles. Sometimes you’ll stand and fight, but much of the time, against terrifying foes and low ammo, you’ll flee. That’s fine too. It’s the power of the choice that makes Resident Evil 7 terrifying, but also satisfying.
The game has boss battles, which in many ways feel out of place against the oppressive terror, but they work in many ways, too. There’s a cathartic release when you best a boss who has been stalking you and tormenting you for several hours. Your character feels the same way, and while his shouts of triumph and curses feel a little out of place, there’s a release there that you feel alongside with him. You’re not powerless, even when forced into combat. It gives the game a nice ebb and flow until the next segment dips you back into the terror and the unknown again.
Resident Evil 7 occasionally suffers from the problems of its older brothers, but there are a host of ways which it side steps the criticisms of the franchise too. While there are cheesy moments and a few story beats or character actions that out and out don’t make sense, the characterisation and dialogue are better than they’ve been in any Resi title.
An early VHS tape sequence involving a ghost hunting TV crew could fall completely flat without good voice acting and a good script, but your few scant minutes with this character perfectly give a bit of context to the Baker Family and also suggest a long and fragmented relationship between the host and the producer. It’s this excellent build up that also makes the segment so much scarier. Even more so by the way the tape reveals a secret door to you, which you then have to follow in the present day.
Resident Evil 7 is so much more than a horror game, and much more than a Resident Evil game, to boot. Even if you’re not a horror fan, this game is a compelling, heart stopping treat where every environment, puzzle, and combat encounter feels carefully crafted and considered. Don’t consider this a review, consider this a plea to you - please, go and play this game. Crap your pants, and make it clear that this is how we want our horror games. Not for the YouTubers, but for us.