Since its surprise reveal during E3 earlier this year, the story of Resident Evil 7 for many people has been how different it is. For some would-be players, burned by the more action-y bent of recent releases in the franchise such as Resident Evil 6, this is great news. For others, desperate for a return to the days of classic survival horror as seen in the original Resident Evil, the changes don’t seem like enough.
After playing through four hours of a near-final build of Resident Evil 7 this week — around one-third of the full game, according to a Capcom representative present at the time — I’m happy to report that neither of these extremes are exactly correct. Capcom has embraced a lot of new ideas for the franchise with Resident Evil 7, but by and large they’re all serving to prop up things the series has always been known and beloved for.
Though technically taking place after Resident Evil 6 and sure to be connected to the series through some plot twist or another, RE7 feels very stand-alone at the start. Players step into the role of Ethan Winters, a man in search of his missing wife who has been kidnapped by a homicidal backwoods family living in a Louisiana bayou. My demo began with Ethan tied up at a dinner table, surrounded by the creepy family, with father figure Jack attempting to force some really disgusting-looking food down Ethan’s throat.
While this isn’t the precise start of the game — Capcom skipped me ahead a little bit to avoid some major spoilers from the beginning — it was an intense and revolting way to begin my time with Resident Evil 7. The idea of an innocent person kidnapped by an entire family of messed-up killers is a classic horror film concept, going all the way back to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But the Resident Evil series has never featured this narrative, nor has any other major survival horror game in my memory. It feels fresh and fitting to the medium.
Part of the way that Resident Evil 7 pulls players into this terrifying scenario is through one of the game’s most controversial changes: It is now a first-person game. This perspective shift has received a lot of criticism, but in my time with the game so far, it feels like a smart change that wisely serves the themes of the game.
Every previous main-line Resident Evil game has used a third-person camera, but Resident Evil 4 famously switched from a static camera that changed angles scene to scene to an over-the-shoulder, third-person shooter-style camera. This was where the series transitioned from survival horror into more of an action style, and it made sense. While many players loved the old games, many more complained about how awkward the static camera and “tank controls” felt.
By changing to first-person, Resident Evil 7 regains the benefits of the classic games’ limited perspective and slow, steady turning speed, but in a form that gamers are already familiar and comfortable with. Moreover, if you preferred the satisfying, challenging shooting of the more recent Resident Evil releases, that is, of course, also still very doable in first-person and seems to be a priority in this game.
Eventually, at least.
Resident Evil 7 starts Ethan out very helpless. After the startling dinner scene, the protagonist escapes and is left to wander around the giant bayou house this family lives in. But Jack is wandering the house too, and if he sees Ethan, he’ll come charging at him swinging a shovel, axe, spiked mace or some other extreme weapon.
In the first hour or so of the game, Ethan has no real defense against Jack. Even after he picks up a pistol, headshots will merely slow down the imposing enemy; you’ve got no real hope to stand up to him. Instead, the game embraces a structure that feels more like a more modern horror sensation, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Major portions of Resident Evil 7 are spent hiding in shadows, sneaking from room to room while trying to avoid enemies of supernatural strength.
This isn’t just Jack, by the way. In a later segment, after Ethan has become more well-armed, picking up a shotgun and makeshift flamethrower, he’s pitted against Marguerite, the family’s mother. While she may not have the brute strength of Jack, she has a disturbing power of her own: She can summon a swarm of powerful mutant insects and send them after the player.
It’s through methods like this that Resident Evil 7 continues twisting the narrative, constantly coming up with new scary creations to send players running. And while it may not come across perfectly in videos (like the gameplay montage above), this formula absolutely terrified me in practice. There were more than a few moments during the demo when I jumped in my seat, screamed or started spouting swear words as the intensity ramped up.
A big part of the the success of Resident Evil 7’s scares comes down to sound design. The game foregoes music most of the time in favor of focusing on the natural noises created by the unsettling environment you’re in. The old bayou house creaks, and outside the wind howls, creating a constant source of tension and uncertainty. Was that Jack I just heard sneaking up behind me? Or was it just the settling bones of this ancient building? I never stopped looking over my virtual shoulder to make sure.
At this point, fans of the more action-y Resident Evils might be ready to give up, but Resident Evil 7 has them covered as well. A couple of hours into the game, Ethan has his first run in with its stand-in for zombies, a new enemy called “the Molded” that are formed out of a black, tar-like substance.
Like the Ganados from Resident Evil 4 or the Majini from Resident Evil 5, Molded are faster and more dangerous than old-school zombies. They require some amount of strategy to take down; combat options in Resident Evil 7 include a quick turn and a guard button that significantly reduces the damage you take if you just can’t avoid getting hit.
Molded also soak up a lot of bullets. Despite the perspective shift, Resident Evil 7 employs the classic “hold down left trigger to aim, press right trigger to shoot” mechanic. Body shots will slow the creatures down a little, but with the limited ammo available in the game, you’ll want to aim for the head as much as possible.
Where Resident Evil 6 suffered from weak-feeling guns that didn’t have impact, RE7 is back to the high point of combat in the series. Yes, enemies are powerful and scary. But when a bullet hits them, even if it doesn’t kill them, they flinch. They stop shuffling forward, if only momentarily. Carefully aiming your shots, blocking against attacks and eventually popping a Molded’s head off feels incredibly satisfying.
Resident Evil 7 also demonstrates a clear commitment to expanding on combat. An hour after first encountering the Molded, I discovered an area where I could purchase upgrades. Over the course of the game, I had stumbled across a number of “ancient coins,” and here I could spend these to receive a handful of items. One increased Ethan’s maximum health; another improved his reload speed. A magnum revolver — a classic high-power weapon in the series — was also available to purchase.
It’s unclear how extensive Resident Evil 7’s upgrade system will be — it’s entirely possible that these are the only upgrades in the game — but their existence speaks to an understanding that some players are here for the combat as much as for the scares.
What really impressed me, though, is the pacing of RE7. I don’t mean this just in terms of its spooks, either. That moment when I found the upgrade system was just as I was beginning to really feel the limits of Ethan’s small health pool. Later, just as the game was starting to heap more and more items on me, making inventory management a chore, I came across a backpack that allowed Ethan to carry more stuff. There’s a thoughtfulness to the design of the spaces in this game, and the speed at which players find things, that the series has lacked for some time. It was sorely missed.
With plenty of Resident Evil 7 left to go, it’s impossible to say whether the game as a whole will be a success at this point. However, Capcom has impressed me with its early hours, breathing life into a series that had grown notably stale and disappointing in recent years. Insert whatever zombie metaphor you want here; I’m just happy that Resident Evil seems to be a series worth paying attention to again.