Friday, 3 February 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - Review

Developer: Capcom 
Publisher: Capcom
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

Resident Evil 7 has had the benefit of what is a rather ingenious method of building hype, namely, by slowly evolving a demo over the preceding months. It was undoubtedly a savvy PR move, one designed to tap into the fan-obsession and over-analysis, click-bait videos that riddle YouTube.

That being said, Resident Evil 7’s demo was fascinating if only to see the constituent elements of its overall mechanics. The item management, back-and-forth level navigation and limited movement, along with the new first-person perspective. The intent was clear; if Konami were going to squander an otherwise fantastic concept in P.T., Capcom would happily pick up the ball and run with it.

It goes without saying at this point that the primary “goal” of Resident Evil 7 is to tap into some of its older design ideologies; the kind that gave birth to a golden age of survival horror in the mid-’90s. And the game certainly does that; there’s a house, spooky atmospherics, and a psychotic family hell-bent on doing something dreadful to you.

Yet, all of this needs to be done with modern players in mind. Resident Evil 7 might be happy to include limited ammo and low health, along with a stubborn movement system that deliberately limits your characters agility, but it wants to bring along new players too, and so straddles the line between classic homage and modern accessibility.

This means a fairly lengthy opening sequence as Ethan Winters goes in search of his missing wife, Mia, after receiving an ominous letter from her several years after assuming she was dead. The influences and nods are obvious, and the game is clearly knowledgeable about its genre. If the set-up is straight out of Silent Hill 2, then the Baker family and their run-down house in the bayou is straight up Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The game’s tone, likewise, balances a curious level of horror mixed with dark comedy. This is clearly an update, reboot even, for Resident Evil, as close to one that’s it’s potentially ever going to get. Part of the series’ charm however, has always been its refusal to ever wipe part of its convoluted, absurd plot from official canon. Resident Evil 7 is an attempt at something new in many ways, but it still understands its central appeal as B-movie schlock.

The Baker family inhabit this idea perfectly. Jack Baker, the family’s insane patriarch, stalks the game world endlessly, taunting you as you hide and scuttle about the landing and rooms of his labyrinthine mansion (here, piggy, piggy). It’s here where Capcom mesh their classic Resi concepts with ideas filched from more recent “sneak ‘n’ scream” stealth games like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation.

And Capcom do a good job of balancing these two gameplay concepts. Resident Evil 7 doesn’t go overboard with its stealth elements, and it doesn’t turn the entire game into a giant insta-fail cat-and-mouse like Alien: Isolation does. This means for each time you successfully avoid one of the Baker family, they’ll certainly be a time where escape is more difficult, or likely suicide, and so you’ll pump some bullets into them. It’ll never kill them, but it’ll stun them or delay them long enough to get away. The Bakers are directly tied to the game’s fundamental focus on resource management.

Whilst the Baker family are the new ingredient to the core classic Resident Evil recipe, everything else is nothing short of familiar. The Southern-Gothic mansion is a homage to the original game’s Spencer estate; there’s even a shotgun mounted on a wall that requires a broken shotgun in order for you to take it for crying out loud.

Item boxes, along with tape recorders (we’ve now upgraded somewhat from the humble typewriter) are your save and storage systems, respectively. Herbs require chemicals in order to create first-aid items, whilst extra bullets can be crafted with gunpowder.

The developers take a leaf out of The Last of Us by overlapping the items requirements for health and ammo resources. Making one naturally means getting less of the other. It’s a simple crafting system but one that’s gradually made a little more complex as new ammo types and weapons become available later in the game, giving the basic combat mechanics a bit more depth.

Zombies, or rather, “Mouldies” are the other, killable, foe that stalk about the game world. If the Baker family are one of the successes of this game’s design, then its the generic slime monsters that are one of its more disappointing aspects.

Enemy variety is something that Resident Evil 7 clearly lacks, and the mould-zombies bland design makes them come across as bargain-bin Necromorphs rather than a unique threat. It doesn’t help that the three or so variants are rarely different from one another. The game lacks a clear memorable encounter; like the Hunter reveal halfway through the original Resident Evil, or the first encounter with a Licker at the beginning of Resident Evil 2.

Likewise, the game chickens-out in its item management. Whilst item boxes are necessary, and the game does put a limit on what can be carried around at one time, there’s still enough space to haul around two or even three heavy weapons by the end of the game; including a grenade launcher and flame-thrower. Item management as a part of the game’s challenge is toyed with but very rarely has much impact as result, presumably to ensure the game still caters to newer players and survival horror neophytes.

The addition of Madhouse mode, ostensibly the game’s hard level difficulty, could do something to improve this. In addition to increasing enemy health and damage, cassette tapes, like ink ribbons, are required in order to save your game, whilst also putting a little more strain on your inventory slots.

The latter half of the game in particular struggles to mesh the best parts of its game design; the classic survival mechanics, the mansion navigation and the Baker family, with what it ends up doing. The final area leading up to the climax is a simple slog through a mine reminiscent of a bland remix of one of Resident Evil 4’s zones. The ammo count jumps up and the enemies grow in number, and the whole thing risks devolving into an on-rails first-person shooter.

There’s a sense that by the end Resident Evil 7 doesn’t quite know what to do with its burst off the start-line. The opening three or four hours are terrific, meshing balls to the wall weirdness with a tightly crafted, tightly paced, game structure. The fact that it eventually doubles back on itself and everything that made it unique; ending with a generic monster boss, before delving into F.E.A.R. territory and military dudes (a cameo at the end falls rather flat), betrays what made it so good at the beginning.

Resident Evil 7 is a fine addition to the series, and an instalment that’s well worth playing. Its first-person perspective, and perhaps the commitment to making the entire game VR-playable ended up helping the core design by trimming the fat and streamlining the mechanics. The atmosphere, the exploration and even the characters and story are a blast, and the removal of all the bloat and padding of previous instalments has definitely served the series well in the long run.

It’s a game designed to perk the ears of long-time fans that have perhaps checked out of the series for a few years. Its final few hours do disappoint, and it certainly could have been a bit braver in moving away from series clichĂ©s, but for what it does right, this is a solid foundation for the series to build on.


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