Like many others, I was genuinely surprised to see Resident Evil 7’s E3 reveal indicate a change in style and direction for the series. For many years now, the Resident Evil brand has lost a bit of its shine. Ever since the release of Resident Evil 4, the series has gone down the path of third-person action-adventure games, complete with nonsensical plot development, and forgotten characters. With the latest entry in the series, it looks like Capcom is ready to take the franchise back to its survival horror roots, and rekindle the element of fear that made the original titles so special.
There are two things that made the classic Resident Evil games stand above the rest: the environments and the atmospheric tension that came with it, as well as the implementation of environmental puzzles. Resident Evil 1 placed you in the iconic Spencer Estate, 2 had the intricately designed Raccoon Police Department and a large portion of Raccoon City itself, and Code: Veronica brought back a mansion, and also introduced a creepy ass base in Antarctica. Having a good set-piece in a Resident Evil game is important; you start off with only a small portion of the area to explore, but as you slowly gather the courage to venture out and gather more clues, you unlock newer parts to go to. All this while, players are assaulted with a sense of dread. The original Resident Evil games relied heavily on jumpscares, yes, but those were only effective because the majority of the game had you wandering through quiet halls where you’d hear nothing but your footsteps and the occasional zombie groan.
Resident Evil 7 seems to understand the importance of atmospheric tension. Not only does the Beginning Hour demo place you in a desolate house – one that looks like a smaller and more broken down version of the Spencer Estate – it implements the first-person view to heighten the player’s sense of immersion. I’m not a fan of VR myself, but having the option to play through the demo with the PSVR truly made a difference. You were forced to look at every little, rotting detail of the house, and there was simply no escape from it. Well, except for removing the headset entirely, of course. But even without the VR, the sound design in the Beginning Hour was enough to generate the tension that longtime fans will be familiar with. The house moves and creaks along with you, doors slam behind you, and the entire estate genuinely feels like a living, breathing being.
Yes, there are a couple of jumpscares in Resident Evil 7, but even those didn’t feel quite as scary as the throaty chuckles I could’ve sworn I heard, or the mannequins that somehow turned to stare in your direction while you were looking elsewhere. Resident Evil 7 revives the atmospheric tension of the classic titles, and it feels like a breath of fresh air again.
The environmental puzzles were another trademark of the series; players would constantly find odd items, and stash them in their inventory box until they could figure out what they were used for. While the demo didn’t exactly give us a lot of items to work with, we did get a glimpse of the inventory management system and it looks like players will have to be careful with the number of things they carry around in the final game. Much like the inventory case in Resident Evil 4, this one features a grid where you can fit your items, and rotate them to make space for more. The bulk of the demo also had us hunting for environmental clues and using them to solve ‘puzzles’ that would lead us to the next area, and eventually the way out of the house.
While environmental puzzles may not sound particularly impressive on their own, they also become a very effective source of tension when put together with the creepy environments of Resident Evil 7. Players are forced to actively explore a potentially dangerous house, while searching for items that would lead them to safety. The possible presence of a threat is always looming over you, making it actually scary to wander around the house, searching for a pair of bolt-cutters.
Both of these elements have been noticeably missing from the past three Resident Evil games. While the Revelations spinoff games did succeed in bringing back a bit of that fear, the main series has gotten progressively less scary. It’s fascinating to watch Capcom bring Resident Evil 7 back into the genre of true horror, and maybe – just maybe – we’ll get to experience that same feeling of sheer terror we felt when an undead dog jumped through a mansion window for the first time.