The horror genre is one of the most interesting in gaming to trace the history of. While most genres evolve thanks in large part to ever-improving technology, horror has moved in entirely different directions since its origins. Early text adventure and point and click titles did their best to set up a horrifying atmosphere, but something remained lacking. It was with the 1992 release of Alone in the Dark — as clunky and awkward as it now appears — that started a trend which Resident Evil would follow upon launch in 1996. There was a huge, creepy mansion and monsters within it. Thanks to tank controls, a frightening atmosphere and a high difficulty, players would need to survive – hence “survival horror.”
Even if you’re not a fan of Resident Evil, you’re likely aware of where the series went from there. For a while, it remained pretty close to the survival horror template it helped to set up. Other games followed in its footsteps while some, such as Silent Hill, added more psychological elements. After a while, though, even these sprinklings of new aspects failed to draw attention. That’s when Resident Evil 4 launch and completely reinvigorated the genre. Now survival horror was not quite so focused on highly restrictive inventories and more about being good at third person shooters. This single game bridged the gap between old Resident Evil and what it became with its next few iterations. Despite being enjoyable games in and of themselves, Resident Evil 5 and 6 both pushed even further into the action horror category.
At that point, very few found themselves actually frightened when playing a modern Resident Evil game. While the series trucked further into shooter territory, the indie scene took a step back and appraised what made horror so good to begin with. Titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, and even Five Nights at Freddy’s made players vulnerable again. Capcom must have certainly been keeping an eye on trends and the sales prospects of yet another Resident Evil game in a long winded franchise. Bearing the current gaming climate in mind, they made the bold move to stop the Resident Evil 5 and 6 formula dead in its tracks with a return to form.
Resident Evil 7 is an intriguing game because it feels both new and comfortably retro in how it handles horror. Does it feel like a classic Resident Evil, though? Not quite. Those games were plodding and more mechanical in their implementation of survival horror. This one, on the other hand, is far more active. Still, that doesn’t mean it is a pure action game either. As players explore the Baker family home and assorted nearby buildings, they are kept on high alert even when no nefarious characters are nearby. The fear of something beyond a door remains present throughout exploration. So too does the inability to catch a breather. If you do, it’s probably timed perfectly with a well-placed enemy or scare to chide you for letting your guard down.
Then there are simple puzzles which feel right at home with the original Resident Evil. These silly, sometimes ridiculously ornate puzzles are not the real gatekeepers. It is collecting the items required to solve them that forces players continuously out of comfort zones. Did you hope to have finally finished exploring an awful underground area? Too bad – it’s time to backtrack and find new nastiness within! In these ways, Resident Evil 7 definitely hearkens back to its origins. The game also manages to keep from following too closely to its own original designs.
There was a reason that horror evolved over the years and there’s no doubt that Resident Evil 7 is an evolution of its classic formula. The aggressive pacing is only part of it. There’s also the matter of a modernized take on survival. Sure, Resident Evil always had some form of survival via inventory management and craftable healing items. But now it doesn’t feel quite so plodding or annoying to deal with. Instead, the desire to survive is palpable. The need to make those healing items last and not screw up any shots enhances gameplay tremendously. Difficulty (as long as you’re not on the Madhouse setting) also has been reduced. With auto saves aplenty, even when something goes terribly wrong you’re not far from an adequate restart point. These are totally modern conceits which help rather than hurt the experience. Then there’s the matter of optional PSVR support which amps everything up further for those fortunate enough to have a headset.
Finally, there’s a matter of the storyline in Resident Evil 7. Without spoiling anything, this game feels like a complete break from everything Resident Evil used to stand for. Instead of focusing on simple, shambling zombies (or heavily zombie-like humans), you get a supremely creepy family. This is a bold move which honestly feels more in line with recent horror films than anything seen in gaming. There’s no way a game like this would have existed twenty years ago. Games of the horror genre simply weren’t ready to reflect upon themselves in such a smart way. Sure, there’s still a lot of kookiness involved, but players aren’t kidding when they say this game totally freaks them out.
Resident Evil 7 was an incredibly brave move for Capcom. They could have continued down the path of Resident Evil 6 with another shooter-focused light horror experience and few would have complained. Instead, they decided to completely disassemble modern Resident Evil in order to truly scare gamers. It appears their experiment has been a success thanks to how it pulls from both the old and new. Even if you’ve not played Resident Evil for years, you’ll want to jump in with this one. Despite not being particularly connected to past games, it feels wonderfully familiar without growing stale.