The Resident Evil game series was growing stagnant, with both Resident Evil 5 and 6 feeling particularly lackluster. In an attempt to revive the title, Capcom went back to basics and drew on other successful horror games. The result was Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, a terrifying new entry that’s definitively in the survival horror genre.
By changing the point-of-view to first-person and returning to slow, drawn-out terror, RE7 reinvigorates both the series and genre in a way fans haven’t seen since Resident Evil 4 over a decade ago. Now that RE7 has redefined the franchise, what could all this mean for the Resident Evil entries to come? [Light SPOILER warning from here on…]
A New Twist on an Old Formula
After years of genuine survival horror, Resident Evil 5 and 6 both featured more action than fear. The games began to feel like Gears of War with Umbrella Corp. and zombies. RE7 returns to the series’ roots in dank, dark spaces. The game takes place in a creepy mansion in a Louisiana swamp. The maze-like mansion is a direct callback to the labyrinth maps of early games in the series. Shadows are used to full effect, forcing the player to look carefully in every corner, even if they’re afraid of what they might find there.
By forcing the player to conserve resources and carefully select what they carry, RE7 brings back the “survival” part of survival horror. Our hero, Ethan Winters, isn’t a S.T.A.R.S. agent or a soldier or even a cop; he’s just an average Joe who stumbles into this hellish landscape. He’s clumsy with his weapons and slow to reload, giving an added layer of realism. It’s terrifying to unload a clip into one of the game’s many monsters, only to discover that the monster isn’t quite dead yet and you’re still stuck reloading.
There are no mentions of the existing Resident Evil universe until near the end of the game. This works to the game’s benefit, as the reality it slowly reveals is fascinating even apart from the mythology of the previous games. This lets old and new players alike experience the game the same way and allows for new methods of storytelling.
Making Survival Horror Gumbo
It’s apt that the game is set in Louisiana because RE7 feels like survival horror gumbo. Concepts from other contemporary horror games are mixed together in one big stew, creating a grotesque and masterful end product.
The main ingredient in RE7 comes from first-person horror titles like P.T., Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s Silent Hills demo. P.T. (short for “playable teaser”) was revolutionary. It was a first-person survival horror game — the first for Silent Hill — that focused on dramatic tension and psychological thrills instead of simple gore or jump scares. P.T. was also set in a dark, creepy old house.
Unfortunately, publisher Konami cancelled Silent Hills; fortunately, Capcom’s new horror game has more than a little in common with P.T. Back in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 era, Silent Hill was Resident Evil’s primary competitor, so the desire to give horror fans a completed first-person game with a genuine sense of dread was a no-brainer.
In addition to P.T., RE7 draws upon two other great survival horror games: F.E.A.R. and The Last of Us. Instead of relying upon an unseen virus to create monsters, RE7 instead uses a black mold that grows all over the swampy setting. The mold is reminiscent of The Last of Us’ parasitic fungus, based in part on a real-life fungus that attacks insects. F.E.A.R.’s influence isn’t apparent until the latter half of the game, but big bad Eveline is definitely from the same mold as F.E.A.R.’s ghostly Alma.
A Cinematic Shift in Tone
Capcom went in a completely different direction from previous Resident Evil games with RE7. The previous games featured massive, near-future cities with advanced technology. There was a mix of science fiction and sleek gothic horror. There’s nothing sleek about RE7. From beginning to end, the game feels dank and disgusting. From the first time you open a refrigerator, it’s evident that this is a nasty, visceral ride.
This tonal shift echoes one we’re currently seeing in horror cinema. After nearly a decade of found-footage films and ghost stories, horror flicks are starting to get gritty and gross again. Recent films like Don’t Breathe and Green Room are grimy, gory flicks. There’s no reliance on jump scares, and thankfully RE7 uses them sparingly.
RE7 and its film peers draw from classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, along with foreign fare like the insanely disturbing Frontieres. Thankfully, RE7 wears its influences proudly. There are even horror-movie Easter eggs, including one particularly great Evil Dead 2 reference after a chainsaw boss-battle.
This shift in tone isn’t just referential to its cinematic forbearers, it also embodies them. The lighting, sound design, voice acting, and prop design are all reminiscent of great horror films. This in turn makes the game feel more recognizable to our pop-culture addled minds. This familiarity makes us feel comfortable for a moment, only so we can be shocked back into panic.
A New Point-of-View
Another immersive element of RE7 is it’s first-person POV. The field of view is designed in a way that mimics peripheral vision on a flat screen, allowing for slight changes on the far ends of your view to register. A shift in shadows or a flickering light way off to one edge can be enough to ramp up tension, and the sound design highlights this eerie experience. When you’re trying to hide from enemies, even the slightest bit of movement can get your heart racing.
This particular element draws from the 2013 game Outlast. In Outlast, players couldn’t fight their adversaries but were forced to hide. RE7 relies on item scarcity and super-powerful baddies that simply require you to hide instead of fight. It’s a complete 180 from the battle-heavy Resident Evil 6, and it makes the game incredibly scary.
The last time developers changed the POV was in Resident Evil 4, considered by many to be the best game in the series. Instead of having awful static cameras, they posited the camera over Leon’s shoulder. First-person (and the mind-numbingly frightening VR) are just the next evolutionary step.
Bringing in Umbrella and the Future of the Franchise
Alright, BIG SPOILER time. Near the end of the game, a helicopter comes to rescue Ethan from the psycho-hillbilly hellhole he’s been trapped in. Emblazoned on the chopper is a logo that turns out to be Umbrella’s new symbol. You’re also helped by a guy named Redfield, who is revealed in the credits as Chris Redfield. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though, because the guy is way too young to be Chris. Some fans have theorized that he’s actually HUNK, a creation made by Umbrella Corps.
What does this mean for the future of Resident Evil? If the critical and fan reception is any indicator, it means we’ll get some more great games out of the franchise. Eveline and the Baker family are fascinating characters to build a new foundation on. RE7 seems to be a soft reboot for the series as a whole, a chance to start a new mythology and weave in favorite existing characters.
The events of past games haven’t been forgotten. The survivors of Raccoon City are mentioned in-game. It would be a blast to go back to the locations in the first game with first-person perspective and updated graphics. There are endless possibilities from here now that Capcom has settled upon the basic game mechanics. Resident Evil is scary again for the first time in over a decade. That alone is worth celebrating. Here’s to future installments, to other games that capitalize on RE7’s success, and to lots of scary, scary games.