Not only do these tapes add background to the story, they also act as premonitions of future obstacles you’ll face. In one example, you’re forced to play a Saw-like game, and through the memories of the victim you can devise a solution to escape it when you have to play it yourself.
While Resi 7 uses the first game as a foundation, it has its own personality too. The Baker Mansion has a distinct atmosphere to it, swathed in the sweltering night of the Bayou. There’s also a much stronger theme of rot and decomposition. Environments are crammed with junk and litter, showing off the power of the new RE Engine to render the tiniest details. The walls and doors are smeared with a disgusting black ooze, and if you find yourself in a kitchen, do yourself a favour: Don’t look in the fridge.
The mansion also feels smaller than Arklay. This is partly because it’s not the only area you explore, with the grounds and several outbuildings also awaiting your arrival like spiders on a web. But it’s also a deliberate design decision. The corridors are narrow and claustrophobic, and even the largest rooms feel cramped thanks to the clutter littering the floors. All of this means that when something dangerous unfolds itself in front of you, it’s close at hand and hard to run away from.
Resident Evil 7 represents another step toward a more human horror for the series. As Resident Evil 4 moved from the undead zombies to the infected Ganados, so too Resident Evil 7 switches out the Ganados for what appear to be regular, albeit psychotic, human beings. Its horror is laced with elements of The Hills Have Eyes, and True Detective. Ethan represents this more human shift too. He isn’t a member of S.T.A.R.S. or equipped with any kind of police or special forces training. He’s a civilian who is in way over his head, and this is evident in the way he moves and fights.
Combat in Resident Evil 7 is small-scale and close quarters. You’ll rarely face more than two opponents at any one time, but they’re extremely durable and deceptively fast, bobbing and weaving to throw off your aim as they scratch, bite and slash at your flesh. What’s more, ammo is scarce, and unless you’ve got steady hands, enemies eat bullets like bonbons. More than once, I had to defend myself with nothing but a knife, by which I mean I legged it toward the nearest door and slammed it behind me. Bravely running away is a viable and important tactic that saved me on multiple occasions.
The Bakers themselves are probably the most well-crafted villains of any Resident Evil. The notoriously terrible writing of the series has been consigned to history. The dialogue is far more natural and its characterisation more believable, although it relies pretty heavily on the crazed hillbilly cliché and is peppered with the odd duff line. That said, it’s still a massive improvement, and even when the plot begins to veer into typically weird Resi territory, it still kept me involved, and in one particularly emotive scene, actually made me feel sorry for one character in a way I didn’t expect.
But I was less impressed with how Resident Evil 7 utilises its central characters in a game context. I imagined the Bakers would be persistent threats within the game world, always haunting your footsteps in one location or another. But this isn’t the case at all. They appear from time to time but always in a fixed and limited context, hunting you through a few rooms or a couple of corridors. Much of the game involves battling against more traditional monsters, with the Bakers reserved for boss fights.
Yep, there are boss fights, and frankly I didn’t get on with them at all. The game simply doesn’t feel well suited to them. The sluggish movement and low-key gunfights are great for sustaining the atmosphere, but they don’t make for compelling battles with enemies who are vastly more powerful than you are. I know boss fights are a staple of the series, but I reckon the game would be improved without them. It’s telling that the best boss “fight” in the entire game is the one where there’s no physical encounter, and the battle is more of wits than of strength.
This is the main problem I have with Resi 7. I think the decision to emphasise horror over action is the correct one, and I love the puzzling and exploration elements of the game. But I don’t think it does quite enough to push the series forward. At its core, Resident Evil 7 relies heavily on its traditional structure, while the more modern elements it exhibits have been thoroughly tested by other games and aren’t allowed the room they deserve to breathe. It isn't as scary as Alien: Isolation, and it isn't as interesting as Frictional's SOMA. That said, if you've played both those games and are looking to test your heart-muscles further, then Resident Evil 7 is definitely worth a look.