As Resident Evil Village fast approaches, Ross is going to be revisiting some of his favourite titles from a series that has undergone many permutations since 1996—from survival horror to white-knuckle third-person action—reinventing itself whenever the formula became too staid, to varying levels of success. But when it works, it really works.
Something’s wrong with her
Ethan Winters has a problem. His wife Mia, missing and presumed dead, has popped up again after four years. Apparently she’s deep in a Louisiana bayou—a lead which Ethan pursues in the hope of reuniting with her.
He finds a creepy house on a plantation, some unsettling totems, and a dilapidated van formerly belonging to a group of hack “haunted house” filmmakers. There’s nothing about this setup that bodes well, but with all the gumption of a man who definitely didn’t watch the first season of True Detective, Ethan enters the creepy house.
It goes downhill from there.
One of the Resident Evil series’ most impressive attributes is its ability to experiment with form. It hasn’t always been successful (for instance, I don’t much rate the light-gun entries), but it definitely commands respect.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was one such deviation from the norm—or at least what had become the norm. Swerving away from the action-oriented third-person format of the post-Resident Evil 4 phase (a game each subsequent instalment failed to live up to), Resident Evil went first-person for the first time since that light-gun game I didn’t much rate.
But it went further than that: it restored the series’ survival horror roots, which hadn’t really been seen in the mainstream since the remake of the original Resident Evil (2002).
I don’t begrudge what Resident Evil 4 brought to the franchise—it’s one of the best games ever made, so, y’know—but the gradual depletion of horror was nevertheless disappointing, especially when Resident Evil (2002) was firing on all cylinders. I suppose it was inevitable that Capcom would look to change gears after Resident Evil Zero disappointed… The series has often suffered from a “one step forward, two steps back” curse.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard brings most of that horror back, chiefly by making players vulnerable again and putting them at the mercy of a limited inventory.
The first-person perspective is an immersive tool used to sink us into the Bakers’ (the family who have kidnapped Mia) plantation and impede our movement. We’re slower here, incapable of kicking down doors and punching enemies, and our main mode of defending ourselves for the first part of the game is holding up our arms to block enemy attacks.
When the shooting does start it’s important to conserve ammunition and health, although that’s arguably much easier than it used to be. If you’re familiar with old school Resident Evil you shouldn’t have any trouble here, but there’s still plenty of decent scares—the plantation is an impressive setting and a mighty addition to Resident Evil’s unpleasant geography.
It helps that the game is absolutely gorgeous too, even when it’s dripping blood and ooze and, um, mould.
One of its issues is that it has a protagonist problem. Ethan Winters is straight out of a persistently mediocre horror film that’s been thrown onto Netflix to die. He’s totally boring in comparison to the two female leads, Mia and Zoe (the latter is the Bakers’ daughter, who provides help throughout the game).
The plot would’ve been much improved if it had exercised Ethan entirely and focused solely on Mia, whose backstory and relationship to the key antagonist is at least thematically relevant.
What of the plot, then? It’s okay, for the most part. It’ll keep you engaged, if not wholly compelled, for the game’s duration. It’s a plot that attempts to meld the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the creepy little girl trope, and Resident Evil’s love of bio-weapons together, and it is not successful in that attempt. None of these elements cohere.
Worse is that it unfortunately traffics in some ugly clichés of the America south. Whilst there is an attempt to subvert these clichés by making the Bakers victims of a strange infection, they indulge Southern tropes even in their possessed state, like derogatorily commenting on Mia’s sexuality. It’s so weird, in part because the approach is scattershot; it doesn’t resemble anything rooted in reality.
But even if the game fails to come up with a successful narrative, it fulfils much of the criteria to work as a successful piece of video game horror. And once the campaign’s done there’s two pieces of DCL that offer quite different slices of gameplay to the main game, meaning there’s a decent amount of content on offer for its asking price.
In a few days Resident Evil Village will serve as a direct follow-up to this one. Once again you’re Ethan Winters, which doesn’t inspire much confidence, but it recently revealed the voluptuous vampire Lady Dimitrescu, whose figure and hat set the internet ablaze. She on the other hand inspires quite a bit of confidence…
I’m really, really hoping that Resident Evil Village doesn’t fall prey to the series’ unfortunate tendency to take a couple of steps back after a triumphant fresh reinvention. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it did, but just like Resident Evil (2002) and Resident Evil 4 before it, Resident Evil 7’s fine reputation will remain intact, come what may.
You can pick up Resident Evil 7 on Steam and consoles.