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For many games, making headway is often cause for relief, whether you’ve passed a gruelingly long platforming section or overcome a hellishly tough boss. It’s natural to feel excitement at the prospect of exploring a fresh new area.
Resident Evil 7 is at its most effective when it deprives you of these positive emotions after you’ve overcome a given obstacle. It removes all doubt that new hardships and scares are only a room or hallway away. The only thing worse than these frightening moments is their mere anticipation. The fact that this is zombie game—where you’re never certain that something is truly dead—only strengthens this feeling of constantly being on edge.
Its plot’s introductory section evokes Leon Kennedy’s mission in Resident Evil 4: a classic and presumably straightforward search and rescue. In the case of Resident Evil 7‘s protagonist Ethan Winters, it’s his wife Mia he’s searching for. Missing for three years, a clue has led him to rural Louisiana and a mansion in the fictional town of Dulvey. This clear, uncomplicated starting point complements the simplicity of the house and its surrounding areas as the primary setting. There are no densely packed villages of infected former humans or elaborately lethal castles. Instead you face a reclusive family known as The Bakers and their guests, some of whom were originally unwilling visitors.
Resident Evil 7‘s unusually personal premise—notably disassociated from the series’ S.T.A.R.S. organization and its many former members—is further reflected in the game’s intimately dark designs. If this was deliberately conceived as a response to the over-produced and bloated Resident Evil 6, it does so through its elegantly concise and confining levels and the familial makeup of its antagonists. Boss fights aren’t drawn-out chase sequences that level half a city. Instead, Resident Evil 7 features—among its myriad encounters—a thrilling dance of avoiding a car (driven by the murderous Baker patriarch) while trapped in a garage. As Ethan survives one harrowing situation after another, you’re reminded of his characterization as an everyman. He questions the effectiveness of a knife, a stark and amusing contrast to practically every Resident Evil hero before him, combat specialists who’ve killed countless zombies with equally small blades.
Resident Evil 7 is a delightfully layered experience, managing to carve its own identity even if its influences are easy to spot. It not only borrows from other first-person survival horror games but from the Resident Evil series itself. There are chases reminiscent of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis where there is gratification in evading pursuers by capitalizing on the Dulvey Mansion’s non-linear layout. The suspense of sneaking past hunters—often crouched and in the same room—was particularly reminiscent of the superb Alien Isolation.
The most obvious gameplay throwback is the classic Resident Evil item-fetching loop. Paired with puzzles that are—at their most difficult—moderately challenging, thoroughly inspecting every hallway and room is positively nostalgic. As you descend into the house’s basement and crawl spaces, you feel like you’re using and exploring every available square foot. It echoes the thoughtful layout of Spencer Mansion from the original Resident Evil right down to the near-symmetrical foyer. The Dulvey Mansion features a much tighter design, which makes the backtracking (a trademark of the series) hardly a chore. Navigating through a wall cavity in Resident Evil 7 is a rare instance where moving in a tight gap actually feels practical rather than tedious (eg. Thief, God of War III). You move with trepidation as you reach the end of a cavity and you look through any available holes to ensure at it’s safe to proceed.
As much as Resident Evil 7 centers around Ethan, the discoveries of VHS tapes and the option to watch them serves as an inventive expository device that sheds light on the fates of the supporting cast. Transitioning from Ethan to the playable perspective of the videographer in a given tape makes for an almost dreamlike out-of-body experience. These interludes aren’t just novel breaks that help expose Resident Evil 7’s backstory; reaching the end of these side quests offers hints on what Ethan should do next.
This Blair Witch-inspired component is just one element of Resident Evil 7‘s extensive and disturbing art direction. You see it in the mansion’s dilapidated state where cockroaches are feasting on rotten food and opening a lunch box reveals an equally disgusting colony of maggots. Just glancing at a group of human-sized incinerators can make one feel uneasy as does the sight of a corpse wrapped tightly in plastic. All this imagery can feel heavy-handed, but the deliberately troubling aesthetic ultimately fits in the overall context and deathly ambiance of the Dulvey Mansion. And just because naked mannequins in a survival horror game are an overused and cliched visual doesn’t mean they’re ineffective at creeping me the hell out.
Beyond the intrinsic immersive values of the first-person perspective and the fitting, yet optional PlayStation VR functionality, it is the environmental sound effects that should get the most of the credit for enveloping the player in Resident Evil 7‘s troubling and confining world. It’s a surprisingly noisy playthrough for what is mostly an exploration in solitude. That’s clearly deliberate, with all the silence and mood music, sounds that aren’t attributed to Ethan’s footsteps become all the more magnified. There is strong compulsion to look around upon hearing any sound that’s out of the ordinary. It could be Ethan harmlessly knocking over a plastic chair or someone from the Baker clan banging on the other side of a wall in an effort to taunt you.
Resident Evil 7 is that breed of survival horror that manages to instill a omnipresent sense of fear. I was constantly concerned about my immediate needs rather than planning for the long term. In turn, I broke with my survival horror play-style traditions, using all available weapons and resources when necessary instead of playing conservatively in anticipation of challenging boss fights and possible difficulty spikes. It turned out to be the right choice, which is a credit to Resident Evil 7′s fair difficulty.
The shift to the first person view—uncommon for the Resident Evil series—only compounds the game’s high level of suspense while also amplifying the sense of immersion. I knew that any modicum of forward progress—whether I found an item or unlocked a door—could potentially trigger the appearance of an enemy. After I attached up a fuse, found a passage, or detached a weight from a grandfather clock, I always had to make sure I wasn’t alone. That’s how Resident Evil 7 gets under your skin, and I was pleased that this palpable and pervasive sense of tension seldom let up.
Disclosure: Capcom provided a PlayStation 4 copy of Resident Evil 7 for review.
Miguel Concepcion is a video game reviewer and the editor of GameSpot. His work can be found in VentureBeat, Tech Radar, and Complex.