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Resident Evil 7 review: a bold and terrifying return to form

You’ll probably want to play with the lights on

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Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil is at its best when it’s doing something new. When the series debuted in 1996, its slow-paced, exploration-heavy take on zombies was so influential it spurred a whole new genre dubbed “survival horror.” A decade later, Resident Evil 4 shifted directions with a pitch-perfect action experience that’s arguably the long-running series’ highlight, and helped shape the look of action games in the years that followed.

The seventh entry in the series, which launches tomorrow, similarly alters the formula in dramatic ways. Its measured pace and focus on exploration harkens back the original Resident Evil, but a new first-person perspective and stunningly detailed visuals makes for one of the most vicious and powerful horror experiences ever created. It maintains the best parts of the series — a methodical, brutal form of horror combined with a tense and challenging take on survival — and grafts them onto something that feels modern and new.

And while the more recent entries in the series, in particular the disappointing Resident Evil 6, focused on action and gunplay at the expense of scares, RE7 does the opposite. Rest easy: Resident Evil is terrifying again.

Resident Evil 7

Initially, RE7 almost doesn’t even feel like a Resident Evil game. The shift to a first-person perspective, combined with a relatively slow pace, gives a feeling reminiscent of narrative-focused indie games like Firewatch and Gone Home. Early on you’re mostly wandering around and looking at things. It’s very different from the fast-paced recent entries in the series — but that feeling doesn’t last long.

You play as a young man named Ethan who is investigating the disappearance of his wife, Mia. (Yes, the character who is MIA is named Mia.) After three years of no contact, he receives a mysterious message from her telling him to come to a house in Louisiana. He arrives to find a massive, disgusting, and seemingly long-deserted home. Rooms are filled with piles of rotting garbage, and the remains of putrid meals are scattered around the kitchen and living room. If you’ve played the RE7 “kitchen” demo, the surroundings will look familiar. It’s a terrible place that only gets worse the more you explore. Eventually Ethan runs into the home’s residents, the Baker family, and that’s when things take a turn that’s much more in-keeping with Resident Evil.

The enemies are a lot scarier than simple shambling zombies

Venturing through the sprawling Baker home and its surrounding areas is very reminiscent of the vast mansion from the original Resident Evil. It’s equal parts huge and unsettling, filled with locked doors and plentiful cryptic puzzles, as well as a dark and violent history. But its inhabitants are a lot scarier than simple shambling zombies. While there are monsters in RE7 that serve a similar role as the undead — i.e., they’re essentially fodder for your small arsenal of weapons — the real scares come from the likes of Baker father Jack and his ilk.

These characters play a role similar to the gruesome nemesis monster in RE3, or the cunning xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. They’re ever-present, impossibly powerful threats that could pop out at any time, anywhere. At no time did I feel safe wandering the halls of the Baker home, knowing that Jack could decide to smash through a wall, chase me down, and decapitate me with a shovel. The tension is so constant that even minuscule details prove chilling; the home’s main hall features a simple rotating desk fan that cast a huge, looming shadow I never got used to. The stress was so much that I would often use the game’s save rooms — the only safe haven — to literally catch my breath and plot my next course of action.

Resident Evil 7

What’s perhaps most impressive is how the game manages to continuously up the ante and throw you into even more disturbing and grotesque scenarios. For the first few hours of the game, I lived in constant fear that Jack was near, and when he did appear I’d shoot a few bullets to slow him down while I ran for my life. By the time I made it further into the depths of the house, and started to understand the mysteries at the heart of RE7, I almost wished for the comparatively tame Baker patriarch. With the exception of a flashback-heavy lull toward the end of the game, this constant one-upping remains intact for the dozen or so hours the game lasts. It just gets worse and worse.

RE7’s focus on survival only adds to this tension. Like in the original game and its successors, weapons and healing items are in short supply in RE7. It’s not a shooter where you can go in guns blazing, and this makes you vulnerable. When you only have a handful of bullets, you need to make each one count. Likewise for healing supplies. This tension is very present in the first half of the game, and while it diminishes somewhat in the latter portion as you acquire new gear, there were still plenty of moments where I was left wishing I had more supplies. This relative scarcity also makes for very satisfying moments. Unlike most games, in RE7 simple acts like finding a new weapon or crafting medical supplies feel important. It’s hard to put into words the excitement I felt stumbling on a backpack that let me hold a few more items.

What makes this all feel truly terrifying though, is the new first-person perspective combined with RE7’s incredibly lifelike visuals. It immerses you like no Resident Evil before it. The Baker home, in particular, is a gorgeously grotesque place, where simply wandering around and looking at things — cages whose use is best left to the imagination, or disturbingly bloodstained bathrooms — can foster a powerful sense of dread. Almost every encounter feels brutal and violent. You can see the toll the damage takes on Ethan by looking at his hands and arms close-up; being stabbed through the hand in first person is horrific, and there were times when I had to look away from my television. RE7 also makes great use of animation to instill terror. The slow, deliberate way Ethan opens a door always made me feel like something was hiding on the other side, no matter how many times I saw it.

‘Resident Evil 7’ confidently blends together the old and the new

That said, for all of its immersive qualities, at times RE7 can feel too much like, well, a video game. Over the course of the game you’ll encounter huge enemies with glowing weak spots, and caches of supplies conveniently placed before a big battle. A chainsaw wound can be healed with a splash of antiseptic, while new skill and weapon upgrades can be earned by seeking out hidden coins. Functionally, these elements work fine, and many help tie the game back to previous Resident Evil games. But their video game-ness also stands out given just how realistic the rest of the game seems.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint, and ultimately Resident Evil 7 is a bold and successful reinvention of the franchise. It confidently blends together the old and the new, combining the best of the series with more modern first-person exploration games. It’s a complex mystery that balances terror, action, and exploration almost seamlessly. And despite standing on its own quite well, it ultimately ties itself into the existing — and incredibly convoluted — Resident Evil mythos in a satisfying way. Following the success of RE4, the series has been somewhat of a shambling corpse itself, with recent releases unsteadily and unconvincingly moving forward into the world of action games.

Unlike those games, RE7 knows exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to do. And it wants to scare the hell out of you.

Resident Evil 7 launches January 24th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.