So you’re this guy, Ethan. Three years ago, your wife Mia took a babysitting job (… maybe) and didn’t ever come home. Now, you just got an email from her that tells you she’s in Louisiana and that you should come and find her, and also that you shouldn’t come and find her. It’s not the only time she, um, can’t make up her mind about stuff. Anyway, it turns out the address is at the derelict “Dulvey Haunted House”, a dusty, crumbling colonial estate and former residence of the Baker family, who died (… maybe) about the same time that Mia vanished.
What a coincidence (… maybe).
But first, a public service announcement. Up to now, I’d only previously played Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5, both of which were very different to Resident Evil 7, but also apparently very different to the first three (million) Resident Evil games. It doesn’t even matter, though, because while there are some oblique references to other games in the series here and there, none of it is obviously relevant to the plot of this one. The point is, if you’ve never played a Resident Evil game before, you can totally start with Resident Evil 7. And you totally should, because Resident Evil 7 is totally brilliant.
Somewhat reminiscent of games like Dead Space, Outlast, and even Alien: Isolation, this is a survival horror with an equal emphasis on both “survival” and “horror”. You’ll probably die a lot, you’ll definitely shriek a lot, and that’s only the first time you’re out of ammo. Resident Evil 7‘s mashup of campy Texas Chainsaw Massacre hillbilly cannibal panic and claustrophobic, disorienting level design is as exhilarating as it’s terrifying, and even the grimy, rotted mansion itself feels like one of the deranged cast of supporting characters. There’s also a decrepit granny in a wheelchair who manages to get up and down stairs and all over the house on her own somehow, and spook the shit out of you.
Much like those other games too, combat in Resident Evil 7 is infrequent and mostly unexpected, and with only a few exceptions, one-on-one. Depending on the difficulty mode, however, actually killing those enemies can be a tense, frantic business, often requiring you to back up several rooms as you desperately try to reload your gun, or simply rush for the closest safe room to de-spawn them. Yes, that works. You can thank me later. To keep things interesting, you pick up new, more powerful gear as you go, and a number of permanent health and item storage upgrades are also available, either in the environments around you or by cashing in collectible coins hidden all over the place to purchase things. Out of bird cages. In a caravan. Parked on a dilapidated plantation in the middle of the night. It’s a bit surreal, perhaps, but hey, it’s not a potential sex offender selling illegal weapons out of his jacket pockets.
The occasional, unavoidable boss fights aren’t controller-smashingly frustrating, so that’s nice, but one or two did seem needlessly dragged out and – blasphemy, no doubt – I’m not convinced they’re even necessary. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it kind of breaks the game’s otherwise almost faultless pacing, swapping out its meticulously curated atmosphere of suspense and genuinely menacing stalkers with tedious, generic shoot-them-in-the-gross-bits sequences that might’ve been much better as dramatic cutscenes instead.
… Which is something the game really needs more of. Besides the awkward Tetris inventory system (WHY?!), the lack of meaningful plot exposition in Resident Evil 7 is its worst problem. I mean, relying on subtlety, ambiguous implications, and the player’s own assumptions about some aspects of the story is fine, and the most important details are explained in documents and files and such – but you could miss these entirely if you weren’t looking hard enough, and without spoiling anything, parts of it are sort of inconsistent and even stupid, and a lot of it just doesn’t make sense. And then, everything ends very abruptly, and it’s, like, what? I had to read a bunch of comprehensive Wikia entries to work out what exactly happened, and I still have questions.