Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – Terror On The Bayou

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was released by Capcom on January 24.

In my very first piece for Critics At Large, I bemoaned the state of the survival-horror genre, and the Resident Evil series of games in particular. Japanese developer Shinji Mikami, who helped to define the genre with the first Resident Evil game in 1996, had grown stagnant, straying in his design and philosophy from the core tenets that made that landmark game so popular. In short, his contributions to the series just weren’t scary anymore, and though his next (non-Resident Evil) effort The Evil Within was critically well received upon release, it too was lacking in imagination and innovation and is remembered now as a mostly forgettable mashup of earlier RE titles and other popular horror properties like Silent Hill. A shake-up was long past due – and apparently all it took for that to happen was Mikami's retiring from publisher Capcom so that others could take up the mantle, and achieve what he couldn’t.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a complete reimagining of the series, rebuilt from the ground up with the intent of returning the RE series to its roots. For director Koshi Nakanishi and the rest of the Capcom staff, this meant carefully balancing the now-archaic elements of the original game – clunky combat, scarce ammo, restricted saving, slow-moving enemies, etc. – with modern gameplay design that helped enhance its famously creepy atmosphere and aesthetic. The focus was clearly on delivering an experience that would, first and foremost, be terrifying to play – and, as such, would restore the legacy of a series which had forgotten its true nature by straying too far into chest-thumping action. Using a first-person perspective and set almost entirely in one complex of residential buildings nestled deep in the heart of the Louisiana bayou – where protagonist Ethan Winters has come to retrieve his kidnapped wife from the clutches of the psychotic family called the Bakers – RE7 pulls the scope drastically down, focusing on the moment-to-moment, room-by-room “survival in a creepy house” gameplay that has been so long missing from the franchise. It is such a departure for the series, in fact, that at first I was prepared to accept it as just another creepy haunted house simulator, albeit a highly polished one – but slowly and surely, to my delight, it became an actual Resident Evil game, full of the clever puzzles and satisfying gameplay loops that I had been craving. It’s a marvelously paced, constantly surprising, genuinely frightening experience – nothing less than a true return to form.

The original Resident Evil earned a notorious reputation for its fixed-camera perspective and unwieldy “tank” controls, which made steering your character through the rooms of the zombie-infested Spencer Mansion a laborious and unintuitive process. This design choice, seen as a frustrating limitation at the time, is now viewed favourably thanks to the way it intrinsically (if perhaps unintentionally) enhanced the frightening atmosphere of the game. You were not able to move the camera to peek around corners and see what was waiting for you on the other side – you had to simply walk over and come face to face with it, like it or not, if you wanted to progress. RE7 understands this phenomenon extremely well, which is the reason Capcom decided on the first-person POV, unprecedented in RE games until now: its limited field of view, just as in the original game, cripples your ability to scan your surroundings comprehensively and forces you to directly confront the (many) scary things in the environment directly. This engagement of the imagination – the ever-present anxiety about what could and will happen in the dark beyond the borders of what you can see – is key in the tapping into the primal fear of the unknown that typifies the best horror properties. RE7 takes the power out of your hands in other ways, too: combat is slow, ponderous, and unresponsive, and ammo for the game’s limited supply of weapons is scarce, making encounters with the members of the Baker family and their mutated kin extremely tense. Every shot you miss comes with a high cost, and running away rather than staying to fight is often the smarter choice – even if your pride is shouting at you to stand your ground.

The Baker family, from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.

As you proceed through the sprawling Baker compound, the gameplay is often split up among exploration, stealth, and combat. These shifts in play style are supported by some very strong level design and a sense of environmental immersion that’s unmatched in the series, making different sections of the property feel suffocating, dangerous, or safe, depending on the situation. Exquisitely paced stretches of tension and relief will take you from one closed-off portion of the compound to another as you are pursued by Jack, the cackling Baker scion, Marguerite, his unhinged wife, and other assailants who prowl the corridors while you’re busy trying to find items, ammo, and weapons. For such an ugly place, the Baker estate is quite beautifully constructed – vibrant in its rotting, mildewy splendour – and full of thoughtful environmental detail. The game’s textures are somewhat jagged, perhaps due to the downscaling required in order to play the game with a virtual reality headset, but strong, evocative lighting helps immerse and guide you through the game’s muddy locales. Brilliant sound design ties the experience together, signaling danger with creaking floorboards and keeping you constantly on edge with strange, unidentifiable sounds that permeate the house no matter where you go. They’re the same sorts of sounds you’d hear in any creaky old house – the bumps in the night that are always benign in real life – but here, with the Bakers wandering around, they take on a sinister edge that never lets you relax.

Right from the jump, RE7 makes sure to inform you of the threat that you face. This is a game that starts with the protagonist’s arm being lopped off with a chainsaw, and the gory shocks only escalate from there. But the lion’s share of the dread most players will feel is thanks to the game’s surprisingly engaging characters and plot, rather than the ever-looming risk of mutilation or death. The Bakers are terrifying characters, who stalk you slowly and inexorably and lob nasty taunts to try and draw you out of hiding. When I was playing, my trepidation about entering new areas (or revisiting old ones) was based almost entirely upon how sure I was that a Baker would be standing there grinning at me when I opened a door. Their AI is limited and not terribly complex, but it doesn’t need to be. They’re still some of the scariest game villains in recent memory. RE7 takes many cues from classic horror films – Texas Chainsaw Massacre chief among them – but it’s more Evil Dead than The Night of the Living Dead, with liberal amounts of ghastly humour thrown in with the scares. This material is supported by excellent localization work, which helps Capcom (a Japanese developer) convincingly sell the Deep South setting through its English-language script, casting, and performance.

Other characters, far less interesting than the Bakers but still supported by solid writing, are introduced using an ingenious “flashback” system, whereby players can find VHS tapes and play them on TVs scattered throughout the compound. The tapes are almost all records of the grisly ends that other unfortunates have met at the Bakers’ hands, and they’re often set in areas the player does not yet have access to, functioning like playable hint reels about upcoming puzzles and challenges. They achieve a lot of narrative work too, detailing the backstories of the Bakers and the people who become instrumental in Ethan’s quest – but they’re entirely optional, so that a player can ignore them and still understand the basic plotline through the gameplay flow alone. That’s smart design.

I’d be remiss not to report that RE7 does fall prey to one of the main annoyances of its predecessors, which is its unnecessary self-indulgence. There are several hard turns into the cartoonish and the absurd, which robs the game of its tonal consistency and undercuts the hard work it does to frighten and unsettle players. Previous RE games were similarly inclined, especially in the late-game stages, to dip into schlock when the stakes needed to be raised. I can only contextualize these as tonal shifts intended for Japanese audiences, which unfortunately leans pretty far into eye-rolling territory on this side of the pond. Still, it’s been a part of the RE experience from the beginning, so it’s nothing new, and to me it’s a familiar (and admittedly welcome) addition that helps anchor the very unique RE7 to its kin.

I haven’t touched on any of the specific design choices that cement RE7 as a wonderfully realized game overall – like the orderly inventory system, the collectibles and upgrades, or the lack of an on-screen HUD – but these are secondary to the real reason I think the game succeeds. It demonstrates a clarity of intent that is rare in the industry and even rarer in a series almost thirty games strong, as well as a willingness to scale back its scope from its triple-A competition and re-examine its own raison d'être. To my immense satisfaction, we’re seeing this more and more often from developers who have pushed their franchises to the breaking point, and it’s always refreshing to be reminded, with a brilliant reimagining like this, why a series like Resident Evil became so enduring in the first place.

 – Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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