Friday, February 10, 2017

Game Review: Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil 7 is the ultimate love letter to horror fans; whether you love horror movies or horror games, it's simply an experience you can't miss.

Resident Evil 7 (going forward I'll refer to it as Resi 7) was released only a couple of weeks ago but it's already made a huge stamp on the video gaming world. It's arguably the first major video game release to include virtual reality, and sold 2.5 million units and 7.15 million downloads in the first three days alone. The first game in the series was released 21 years ago and is often cited as the pioneer video game series for survival horror. The release of Resident Evil 4 in 2005 dramatically changed the series into a more action based shooter with horror elements rather than being an all-round game with horror at the core. Resident Evil 5 and 6 further continued this direction with mixed critical response but strong commercial success.

Capcom knew that the change in direction with the gameplay started to alienate their original fanbase. But with the gameplay changing to a first person shooter with horror being back in the centre of the fresh direction, are they now alienating their newer fanbase? Time will tell.

Regardless of if you're a newer Resident Evil fan or an old school Resident Evil fan this game will be a completely fresh experience for you, at least in the world of Resident Evil. As stated earlier, this is the first game in the Resident Evil series (apart from any spinoffs) to be a first person shooter. You play as Ethan, who comes across as a relatively normal man, who is married to a woman named Mia. Ethan's wife went missing three years prior to the beginning of the game. However he receives an email from her out of the blue, asking for him to find her in a house in Louisiana . That's the basic story of the game without explaining too much more.

Unlike most of the other Resident Evil games before, weapons play a far less important role in Resi 7, or at least for the majority of the game. Instead you can dodge enemies a lot easier, or block them with your arms to absorb blows to the head. For a lot of the start of the game you can utilise a knife which can attack enemies or break down boxes (a nod to Resident Evil 4 and beyond). But as the game progresses you do get other weapons such as a handgun and a shotgun, and even the grenade launcher and machine gun. Despite this, for the majority of the game ammo is in extremely short supply, to further emphasise that this is about survival and not about taking the battle to the enemy.

...nope. Just nope.
Another aspect of Resi 7 that separates it from most of the other games in the series is how you can use chemical fluid to enhance herbs and gunpowder into more powerful first aid items and ammo. This for me is a nod (and enhancement) to Resident Evil 3 when you can start to create stronger ammo if you use certain gunpowder in that game often enough. For a good portion of Resi 7 you depend on chemical fluids a lot, because it's very hard to find general ammo lying around.

Similarly to Resident Evil 5 (and 6 somewhat) you can use the d-pad to quickly change any weapons you hold in the top four spaces of your inventory. Speaking of your inventory, that also is a throwback to Resident Evil 1 where you only have limited space and you have to choose carefully whether or not you want more spaces for other items you may find in newer areas you're about to explore or to use your spaces for ammo and herbs that will be paramount for survival going forward.

Like the older Resident Evil games, the use of safe rooms and item chests have returned. There's also "safe room music" when you enter a safe room which, like in the older games, gives a lovely feeling of safety and to give you a breather for the horrors that are to come. In the safe rooms are cassette players in which you can save your progress, another throwback to the old typewriters that you used to find in these games. Thankfully you don't need to find cassettes scattered throughout the game, like you used to find ink ribbons though! Also as stated briefly earlier, herbs have returned to the Resident Evil series, which is great, however only green ones, so no red or blue herbs are in this game. Not that you can get poisoned anyway!

The house in Resi 7 is thoroughly explorable and, without spoiling too much, is just as good as the Spencer mansion in Resi 1. It feels great (and horrifying) to explore a house in a Resident Evil game again to great detail. There's something about the closed spaces, long corridors and going back and forth from different parts of the house only to find new locations later on to go to. Speaking of, keys have also returned. In the old games you used to have many locked doors that were only accessible with certain keys that were difficult to find and when found, lead to new areas. It was a great feature that got dropped in the later entries into the Resident Evil series and it's returned to form big time in Resi 7. Puzzles also return in Resi 7 although they're no where near as "riddly" or difficult as their predecessors.

Again, without spoiling too much, certain antagonists in the game are relentless in their pursuit of you. If you've played Resident Evil 3 you'll know how harrowing it can be having Nemesis stalk you throughout the game, and before it, in Resident Evil 2 having a certain Tyrant breaking through walls just to get his hands on you. Trust me, the antagonists in this game have a good time trying to kill you and they're just as tenacious in their different approaches.

You just wouldn't would you?!
The graphics in this game are great. Bullets hit and blood pours out as expected. Black goo, puss, saliva, vomiting, body mutation and many other lovely horror elements are all enhanced to great detail throughout this game. Rooms are generally dark and full of terrors (Game of Thrones reference yo!) and, when too dark, your character generally uses a torch to help see at least a small amount further on. Steam is used to great effect in certain areas, dust, and light can enhance the experience. Throughout the house is lots of family photos and artwork to help you feel that you're truly in someone's house. You can pick up a lot of different items and open a lot of cupboards and drawers, some of them for no reason at all, and all are in good graphical detail to really add to the experience.

Where Resi 7 excels, undisputedly, is for the sheer tensity and drama. Unlike a lot of other Resident Evil games (past or present) there is very little music in the game. Silence is a killer in itself, adding pure terror in every footstep you take, unintentionally or not. Hearing enemies from somewhere you can't see is more scary than hearing any tense classical music that other games in the series have usually chosen to put in front of you instead. The characters and monsters, and their respective voices all add up for a better experience than any music too. Trust me, even though there's little music, you'll never feel alone because chances are someone or something isn't too far away! You dread going into rooms and locations you've never explored before and when you have to return to an area you've been before but has changed somewhat, it resets the sheer fear of entering those areas once again, not knowing what may come your way.

Resident Evil has always been well known for its epic boss battles. For me, this is an area that lacked greatly in more recent games (5 and 6 specifically). Resi 7 brings the fun, the gore and the body mutation of the classic games back to the forefront in these boss battles. And when I say fun I mean FUN. The boss battles in this game for the most part are a lot of fun and remind me a lot of the battles I had in Resi 4, in a good way. Every boss battle is different and concentrate on different things for instance, one battle is done over two floors and you have to target certain parts of the monster's body. In another boss battle, a battle of the chainsaws ensues. They're fun and highly unpredictable, at least in comparison to the main game.

Before I did this review I looked at what other reviewers were saying, and also what gamers were saying on Facebook and Twitter and other social media. There are pockets of fans that didn't like this game and I want to take this moment to respond to the different criticisms aimed at the game. Some fans criticise Capcom's decision to go to first person perspective and cite that the game series isn't first person. While for the most part that's true, fans are forgetting that Resident Evil Survivor exists, a 17 year old game. And secondly, why shouldn't the game be first person? These fans weren't complaining when Resident Evil 4 was an "over-the-shoulder" action game. At this rate every 3 or 4 games in the main series could be a new reinvention of the horror franchise. I've also heard people say "I don't like first person shooters so I won't play it". I feel that choosing to see this game as an FPS rather than a horror game is disappointing. This isn't Call of Duty. The horror story that Capcom want to give you is best displayed in first person. It's not an FPS game, and as stated before, guns are not the most important part of the game, horror is.

You've seen the horror movies. You know this doesn't end well when they're not facing you!
Another criticism I've seen a lot is that we don't know much about Ethan. There was no way that Capcom were going to give us this horror experience with Chris Redfield or Leon Kennedy in front of us. What Ethan experiences, as someone who has never been in that situation in his entire life before, is what makes the game so scary. Having Chris Redfield punch his hand through a monster's stomach or see Leon give monsters scissor kicks wouldn't give the same experience. I've also seen people describe Ethan as some what of a "chicken" which is really untrue, when you see what he's gone through in the first 30 minutes of the game never mind the whole experience. Like Chris in Resi 1 and Leon in Resi 2, the heroes of the Resident Evil franchise all have balls and deal with their respective horror stories with steel.

As a fan of Resident Evil for nearly two decades and a fan of horror in general, I welcomed a lot of the changes brought into Resi 7. For me, the decision for Capcom to look at the mixed critical reviews and look at the high video game sales and despite the latter, realise that they were not necessarily going in the right direction is a very bold move. It feels a lot of video game companies look at sales and think, if it's selling well then don't change anything. Resi 7 is expected not to sell as well as Resi 5 and 6 despite the high praise the game is getting on most fronts. But it shows that Capcom care more about their fans and their reaction to the gameplay rather than seeing how well games are selling. A massive thumbs up from me there, kudos.

It's funny that fans critical of Resi 7 have been split, pretty much, into three categories. There's the purists saying "we like the old school games", the modern Resi fans who loved the "action over horror" direction, and there's the "I can't play it because it's an FPS game". I've talked about the FPS fans before. But as for the two other categories of critics, I must say, I swear I've mentioned pretty much every single Resi game in this review at some point or another. There are elements of Resi 1 in here, the limited spaces of inventory, the return to atmospheric horror and the setting of a house, or a mansion if you will. Resident Evil 2? I mentioned Tyrant stalking you in the 1998 classic, and similar things happen in Resi 7. Resident Evil 3's gunpowder returns and is also enhanced. Resi 4 and 7 have similar boss battles stylistically and you can break down those boxes all over again. Resident Evil 5's quick gun change system is in use here. I suppose the only two games I've not mentioned are Code Veronica and 6, but my point still stands. The game uses a lot of the elements from previous games in the series to good effect in Resi 7 so while it's a refreshed, reinvigorated first person horror experience, it does it with nods to its past.

I've given examples of Capcom going back to their previous games above. But what games have inspired Resident Evil 7? A lot of people point to Outlast, and despite Capcom denying that Outlast inspired them, you can't talk about first person horror games and not talk about Outlast. That being said though, those fans that say this is an Outlast ripoff really need to play it. It doesn't feel anything like Outlast, for me, it's a closer feeling to Resident Evil 1, all over again, two decades later. Other games that I've noticed inspiration from? Silent Hill 2, especially certain parts of the end of the game. There's an enemy you go against also towards the end of the game that very much resembles one of the major infected monsters in Left 4 Dead. Forget games, what about horror films? Certain films have definitely inspired Resi 7; the likes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Saw series are very reminiscent here, and there's a quote from The Evil Dead in the game - there's even a quote from Planet of the Apes in here!

For me ultimately, what Capcom did after the mixed success of Resi 6 is take a massive step back and went, "What is Resident Evil? What is horror? What is scary?", and looked back at their entire 20 year history of video game making, looked at other horror games and looked at horror movies and took the best of everything to make the best horror experience they could possibly give us. And they damn well exceeded. Resident Evil 7 is the ultimate love letter to horror fans of all kinds; whether you love horror movies or horror games or both. Forget "oh I wish it was more like the newer games", or even, "I wish it was more like the old games". Forget that it's first person, just think of it as a horror game. If you like horror movies and aren't really sure about gaming, give this game a go, or at least watch video game footage on Youtube or something. It's simply an experience you can't miss.

Rating: ****1/2 stars

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