Resident Evil 7 has a strong opening, a sagging middle, and a disappointing finale. In other words, it hews closely to the arc of most horror. But to Capcom’s credit, this Resident Evil is taking pages from books it hasn’t previously read. I’m not convinced it understands those pages, but at least it’s attempting something other than the usual roiling mass of black goo with bright orange weak points you have to shoot. For a while at least. It’ll get to that. But before it plods through its sagging middle to its disappointing finale, Resident Evil 7 is at least trying.
After the jump, found FPS isn’t a thing.
For the strong opening, Capcom borrows from some intriguing sources. From Silent Hill, it takes the idea of a protagonist making his way through a mundane place gone too quiet, dark, and otherworldly. A nightmare. The kind of place people move away from. But the protagonists in Silent Hill games plunge headlong into these nightmares for a very specific reason: they’re looking for a lost loved one. This powerful character motivation is probably the most universally understood anxiety. Separation. Consider that the fear of separation trumps even the fear of death. Some religions reassure us that even after we die, we’ll be with our loved ones.
The first Silent Hill was about a man looking for his lost daughter. The second Silent Hill was about a man who gets a letter from his long lost wife, telling him to come find her in a distant town. This is exactly how Resident Evil 7 opens. This is exactly the motivation of the main character. The character models, which come very close to climbing out of the uncanny valley, are used to good effect to set the motivation. The location is detailed and evocative, thanks to Capcom’s latest graphics engine. Okay, sure, it’s a little Doom 3 plasticky, but it still does a lot of heavy lifting during the stronger points of the game.
From Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Resident Evil 7 borrows the idea that murderous psycho cannibal families are creepy. It’s on shakier ground here, because the implementation is so obvious, over-the-top, and clunky. How are you supposed to build a game around this? Stand by. Oh, it seems Capcom doesn’t have an answer. It instead has a few boss battles. Some of them are with Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto V. I’m not sure that was a casting choice. With the addition of a few silly Resident Evil puzzles, this part of Resident Evil 7 plays out like a hillbilly version of Saw. That is by no means a compliment.
From Blair Witch Project, it borrows the idea of found footage, and here are a few flashes of ingenuity. Instead of showing you a cutscene, the game has you discover an old VHS tape. You find a VCR — which isn’t easy in this day and age, let me tell you! — to play the tape. Pop the tape into the machine, and then your first-person view zooms into the TV screen. Now you’re playing the guy with the camera filming the found footage movie being watched by the character you were playing a moment ago! Brilliant! It uses this for a bit of backstorytelling, some minor puzzle solving, and as a way to set up upcoming settings. It also uses this for the single scariest moment in the game. Never mind that it’s a direct rip from a movie. It works.
But this initial ingenuity is indicative of how Capcom’s ideas fall apart as sure as their monsters (they crumble or melt when you kill them). Any found footage movie has to struggle with the question “Why is someone still filming this instead of just dropping the camera and running away?” Blair Witch Project relied on its main character’s Ahab-like obsession with getting her documentary done. But you can only use that one so many times. So you get TJ Miller in Cloverfield playing a character named Hud running through a Godzilla movie. “Get it?” JJ Abrams asks. One of my favorite answers to this question is a 2014 movie called Alien Abduction. The footage is being filmed by a young boy who’s autistic. He’s fixated on his video camera. It’s his security blanket. The scarier things get, the more he clings to his camera. Clever. A little dumb, but still clever.
Resident Evil 7’s first two found footage sequences are promising for their clever metagame storytelling. But the third tape suggests Capcom is losing interest. Or maybe there’s an unwitting GoPro involved that happens to be fireproof. Whatever the case, the concept doesn’t quite hold up. After that, every subsequent tape is just a cutaway first-person gameplay sequence, with no suggestion of footage being filmed. Found first-person shooter. Which isn’t a thing, Capcom. So there’s no need to keep up with the VHS tape in a VCR conceit. You’re only doing this because you think it’s better than a loading screen, right?
As this clever conceit falls away, what’s left is the usual Resident Evil nonsense, all in the context of a linear once-and-done sequence of getting this key for that door so you can get that other key for this door. But if you want to know how a Texas Chainsaw Massacre set-up fits into a Resident Evil game, rest assured Capcom has an answer. Plus, someone over there sure did like Monolith’s FEAR games.
I suppose I shouldn’t be disappointed. They can’t all be winners, like 2015’s Revelation 2, the last non-awful Resident Evil. Resident Evil is just a pair of words that appear in the title of whatever pastiche of horror Capcom is attempting at the moment. It was never original. The first Resident Evil gave the survival horror genre its name, but by no means invented it. It was just a retread of a game called Alone in the Dark from a few years earlier. You know the Resident Evil trick of dogs jumping through a window? Straight from Alone in the Dark.
The only consistent aesthetic throughout the Resident Evil games is its Transpacific awkwardness. For instance, the inventory management is a bigger challenge than the combat, which feels like an obligatory nod to “gameplay”. The most welcome thing you’ll find isn’t more ammo, a better gun, or even a key to the next area. The most welcome thing you’ll find is a bigger backpack. So instead of a horror game that follows through with the obvious inspiration it draws from Silent Hill, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Blair Witch Project, you get a horror game that taps into your fear of not having enough room to carry the green herb you found. Hopefully, Capcom’s next inspiration will be Soma, a best-case example of why you don’t need combat or an inventory in a horror game, and why being linear and once-and-done doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
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