Capcom’s third wind for Resident Evil amounts to a reset, going back to a familiar premise with new tech and ideas cribbed from rivals. Effectively jettisoning the reams of lore the series has built up–along with the over-the-shoulder gunplay which became a staple from Resident Evil 4 onward–Resident Evil 7: Biohazard drops us in a Southern Gothic mansion populated with creaky doors, themed keys, puzzle traps (occasionally lethal), and skulking, hard-to-kill monstrosities. There are few weapons, and even fewer clues for survival.
As a setup, it’s basically identical to Shinji Mikami’s original, genre-defining installment. Time and tech advances have allowed for a far greater degree of formal playfulness, which Capcom’s team uses it to its advantage. Besides the switch from fixed Dutch angles to the ever-present POV shot giving a more visceral thrill to every creeping encounter, there’s also the way Resident Evil 7 presents challenges which only appear to conform to gamer expectations. Interactive video tapes of previous victims appear to offer solutions for future puzzles (and also questions about how the camera is being held in the found footage), but have steps that could very well cause death. Apparent boss fight scenarios which require players to opt instead to run over their immortal enemy with a car, or avoid the fight entirely. Whether less complicated or more, answers are counter-intuitive to how decades of genre-building have conditioned its audience.
This lines up nicely with the fringe nature of its storyline. Ethan Winters (a stock name for a stock protagonist) is searching for his missing wife in the Bayou when he runs afoul the Baker family. Trapped and forced to use his wits, players must wind Ethan through the cannibal rednecks’ labyrinthine estate, fighting/running from them and their brood of mutant horrors while piecing together clues about the latest bioweapon.
Delightfully, Resident Evil 7‘s aesthetic is built around oily corruption. Human(oids) come with a constant sweaty sheen. The grounds are overgrown with weeds and the swamp encroaches, as if nature is reclaiming this place. Early on, Ethan is tied at a dinner table where oozing, rotten innards are served on a platter like fried chicken. Where Resident Evil‘s more stately mansion had a cleanliness bordering on preserved sterility, every surface in Resident Evil 7 breathes and breeds. This isn’t a viral outbreak in a lab, or even a zombie siege, this is an epidemic hiding away in a remote corner of rural America. Appropriately, the monsters–bloated, distended beings with engorged mouths, protruding teeth, and blackened skin–seem to birth from bulbous sacs which line the walls of the Baker house’s bowels. The casual revelation they are missing people, having been abducted, experimented on, and “turned” subservient to a hierarchy of masters, almost qualifies as a political statement. It evokes the kind of revulsion you feel when recognizing an ugliness that’s always been in front of you.