Resident Evil 7

Thursday 30 March 2017

There has been so much debate about Resident Evil 7 being a "real" Resident Evil or not, due to the complete change of pace and the introduction of new characters in its cast. We already saw the differences from the demo already, and in fact the first person perspective was the less important one. Just think that both The Darkside Chronicles and the Umbrella Chronicles were not only first person, but moreover on rails.

As for the new character part, it's not the first time that this happens in a game series; when a new installment is released, it is likely to introduce one or more new characters. Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, for instance, are now fan favorites and are taken for granted in the Resident Evil universe, but when Resident Evil 2 came out, both of them were totally new to the series. And not to mention the two Outbreaks with the array of unknown and irrelevant characters that starred in them.

The plot of Resident Evil 7 doesn't drift much away from the Resident Evil spirit, although you are supposed to be unaware of it at the start. Ethan Winters travels to the swampy outskirts of a town in Louisiana looking for his wife Mia who had been missing for three years and all of a sudden sent a desperate message to him asking for help.

Upon arriving at the Baker property farm, where he expects his wife to be, he encounters a series of nasty surprises before he finds Mia locked in the basement of the family's guest house. Moments later, a ghoulish version of Mia attacks Ethan viciously, and a bit later she shows up again yielding a chainsaw with which she manages to chop off his left hand. Soon after, he is taken by surprise by a twisted-looking man who punches him in the face, and loses his senses.

He wakes up tied on a chair, with his hand sewn back into place. He realises he is at a dinner table, with three people opposite him. They are all members of the Baker family and they seem totally and hopelessly deranged. Jack Baker (the father) is the twisted guy from before, who identifies himself as "Daddy", Marguerite (the mother) has an even more deranged look on her face and Medusa-like hair on her head, and Lucas (the son) is an annoying lunatic who acts and talks like a spoiled evil kid. When the three Bakers leave to solve their own issues, Ethan manages to free himself and starts wandering around the house. Soon "Daddy" finds out he is not where he left him and goes looking for him. From that point, it's a twisted hide-and seek with "Daddy" stalking our hero, calling him 'little Ethan' in various tones and moods, taunting him in a morbid way and beating the hell out of him whenever they cross paths.

And all this while Ethan is looking for special items and keys that he needs in order to escape from that place and naturally these things are hiding in the most impossible places. Thankfully he receives help over the phone by Zoe, a woman who seems to know many things about the Bakers and their house and who gives useful instructions to Ethan. At some point, she reveals that she is a Baker too and that she and her family are all infected from a virus that totally controls people's minds making them go berserk, act like crazy and have hallucinations. She is not affected that much yet as she has been exposed to the virus for less time than the others. Mia, who had been living with them, has been infected too, which explains her crazy attacks earlier. Zoe needs Ethan to search the family's old house for a special ingredient that she needs so as to make a serum to cure herself and Mia. It is implied that she has at least some basic medical knowledge as she knows how to make the serum and also it was her who sewed Ethan's hand back.

Once in the old house, Ethan comes face to face with Marguerite, who is more violent and creepy than her hubby. She can be seen investigating the place with her oil lamp with which she summons giant flies that she then sends off to attack Ethan. After an unexpected attack, she runs off and Ethan has to chase her as he needs the lamp to complete a task. While looking for Marguerite, he arrives at a greenhouse just beyond where a grossly mutated Mrs Baker begins a series of attacks that are like no other.

Eventually Ethan defeats her and takes her lamp, completing his mission in the old house. As he is about to meet Zoe, he receives a call from Lucas who claims that he has taken Zoe and Mia as prisoners and is now waiting for Ethan as well. Before being able to reach the girls, Ethan must go through the Testing Area which is full of traps set by Lucas, while the young Baker keeps taunting him sadistically over the speakers. Obviously Lucas is a coward, and he never shows his face again except via a monitor, spitting out threats at Ethan from the safety of his lair which turns out to be the poor sound mixer's cabin. After passing successfully all the trials that Lucas has prepared, Ethan manages to find Zoe and Mia in a small boathouse on the pier. Zoe makes the serum and it's enough for two dosis, one for her and one for Mia. In perfect timing, a horribly mutated Jack Baker makes his dramatic appearance and of course Ethan has to fight him on his own. When they all think he's been defeated, he resurrects and the only thing that Ethan can do to get rid of him is to inject him with one of the serums, following Zoe's instructions.

Being left with just one dosis, Ethan has to choose which one of the girls he will cure. This will affect the conclusion of the next part, as well as the ending of the game. Either way, you get to play as Mia in the following section and you're on the ship that brought her there. It is revealed that Mia has been secretly working for a mysterious organization that produced a massive and devastating bioweapon called Eveline. Taking the form of a little girl, this bioweapon was able to control everything around it, taking over people's minds and eventually mutating them. Mia was escorting Eveline as a caretaker together with Alan, another agent who was also Eveline's guard. Alan was loose on his duty and Eveline managed to escape, causing a mayhem on the big ship which ended up wrecked in the swamps. Jack Baker, who lived nearby, found Eveline and Mia near the wrecked ship and brought them home to offer them first aid. Eveline however infected everyone in the house, including Mia who was also there. When we take control of Ethan again, it's the beginning of the final act, where his task is to go back to the guest house and kill Eveline.

This is just a basic outline of the plot which has more twists and turns that can be included in a synopsis. Overall the story is promising and the development is good, maintaining your interest and keeping you on your toes from beginning to end. There is enough gore to make you cringe, but the beautiful settings somehow make up for it. The Old House in particular has to be my favourite part scenery-wise: the gloomy light produced by oil lamps and candles, the swarms of insects buzzing here and there, the half-destroyed wooden floor with water underneath, the secret passages, make the whole place look like it came straight out of a dark and twisted fairy tale. Unlike all the latest installments of the series, Resident Evil 7 is rather adventure-oriented, resembling more the first games up to Code Veronica, which all focused mainly on searching for items and keys and solving puzzles. Action is here too, of course, and it is quite strong (especially on higher difficulties) but there are intervals where there is mainly exploration going on.

Making this new start for the series, it wasn't exactly necessary to abandon the popular characters for the sake of a new one, but since all the known characters were highly trained and experienced enough to simply breeze through any demanding mission, it would be much more challenging to have someone who had total ignorance about such tough situations. I would also guess that another reason for this choice from the part of the developers was the fact that a big part of the gaming community bashed Resident Evil 6, a tragically underrated game which brought together several of the saga's stars. It's as if the Capcom personnel thought: "So you didn't like Resident Evil 6 which had Leon and Chris and Ada and Sherry and an evil Ada clone and zombies and action and bromance and more zombies and family drama and highly trained agents and skilled soldiers and lush model design? Take a first-person shooter starring a guy next door you have never seen before, who is totally clueless about weapon use and whom you are never going to see in-game except in a couple of occasions when you will just spot his chin or the half of his body in the darkness and see how you like that."

This of course does not mean that Ethan is a bad choice for the protagonist part - I would say it's quite the contrary. Ethan may seem boring and unoriginal on first look, and he may not be even close to the average Resident Evil hero - in fact, given his total lack of awareness concerning weapon usage and dealing with hostiles, he is just a bit stronger than Resident Evil 4's Ashley. However as the plot unfolds, he demonstrates admirable instict and insight, and although he is completely unprepared for such extreme situations, he remains collected and in one piece (well, sort of) even when he is attacked by his possessed wife with a chainsaw or when "Daddy" Baker burns to death and then comes back to life in front of his eyes. In fact Ethan is so badass that at some point he grabs a chainsaw himself and temporarily defeats his stalker with unexpected skill and agility.

What is also interesting about Ethan is that he gives us the chance to view a bioterror threat from the eyes of an everyday man, instead of agents and soldiers that are aware of such things and know (or at least can think of) how to handle them. Something similar happened with the two Outbreaks, where most of the characters were civilians, but in those two games the heroes would act in groups aiding each other if necessary. Resident Evil 7's Ethan is on his own, relying only on himself, and moreso since he finds out that even his wife has been lying to him, albeit she did it to protect him. It is notable that this is the first game of the series in a while where the main protagonist doesn't have a partner while in action.

Although we know very little about Ethan when the game begins, we get to learn sides of his character that are revealed to us through his actions and from the way he manages to surpass the incredibly insane trials in the mad house of the Bakers. He is clearly scared, but he never lets his fear blur his thinking and as he moves on, he becomes more and more aware and conscious of his situation. His survival instinct proves to be pretty high; too high, in fact, given that he is an ordinary civilian.

The three Bakers are great baddies; they are so evil and vicious that they end up looking like a circus team. Jack Baker is even more creepy when you spot him slowly walking around the corridors of the house or when he almost sits on your lap when you try to drive the car in the garage, driving along with you, than when he storms towards you yielding a shovel. "Daddy" is a creepy madman with no limits in his lunacy and he is stalking Ethan around the house so persistently, that he runs the risk of looking and sounding like he has a crush on him in his own deranged and twisted way. Marguerite is even more vicious, nightmarish and terrifying, moreso since she mutates much sooner than Jack, and the way she attacks Ethan is gruesome and disgusting.

Lucas is a completely deranged guy, who shares the sadistic and degenerate psyche of his father and demonstrates it in even more obvious ways. He has a relatively normal look (except for the obvious ugliness and the schizophrenia in his eye) as the infection has not altered his physical appearance; this, together with the fact that, unlike his parents, he never actually mutates, possibly implies that he has more control over the infection than he shows, taking advantage of his situation so as to satisfy his sadistic and perverted instincts.

Eveline is just as annoying as a game boss should be, although this is hard to define in her case as she comes in more than one forms. As a little girl, she is programmed to repeat stereotypical melodrama about wanting to have a family, in an attempt to make her victims feel sympathy for her and eventually manipulate them, before gaining total control over them. When she sees that they can't serve her purposes any more or that they have betrayed her, she kills them just like that. After Ethan injects her with the E-Necrotoxine, her current form is revealed, and it's someone you have seen on more than one occasions in the most possible and impossible places in the Baker house. This however seems to be just a temporary stage as soon after she mutates into a grotesque, gigantic monster, threatening to devour anything that gets in its way. Of course our fearless hero puts an end to this.

The two girls, Zoe and Mia, are a bit undeveloped as characters on first look; we don't have the chance to know them a bit deeper (in the main game, at least, because there's significantly more stuff about them in the DLC) and this leaves us a bit neutral towards them. When you reach the point where you have to cure one of them, it is supposed to be a tough choice but neither of them is strong enough as a character to make this dilemma a dramatic one at that point. 

Having the chance to play as Mia later, however, we get to know another side of her, and this helps somehow to let us understand her better. Still, there is essential info missing about her; she had so much potential thanks to her secret profession, and the fact that a woman like her, a trained secret agent, ended up a helpless puppet in the hands of sadistic murderers because of a malicious infection that altered her brain and filled it with hallucinations, but all this serves more like extra information that supports the main plot and much less like her own personal drama.

In comparison, Zoe is given more depth, since she is a member of the infected family and the only one who has managed to maintain most of her sanity and clarity. Besides, she has been guiding and helping Ethan all along, albeit her main motive was to save her own ass. Most importantly, if you play the extra episode 'Daughters', you get to play as her and witness, through her eyes, the dramatic events that took place in the Baker house the night that Jack Baker brought Eveline home from the wrecked ship. This gives more background to her character, and you view her differently once you play the game again.

The game is split in two parts, in the first we play as Ethan in the Baker family property, in the second as Mia on the ship and in the finale we take control of Ethan again for the boss fight. The exploration in the main house and the surrounding areas is fascinating, creating a feeling of isolation, stillness and anxiety that gradually builds up as you get closer to your goal. A piano here, a pendulum there, a speechless and motionless old woman on a wheelchair on top of the staircase or behind a glass window, a stuffed deer standing in a room, a wooden bridge decorated with doll corpses, giant flies jumping at you, all these and many more elements contribute to a unique atmosphere, making you feel agony for your stranded hero who is being stalked by everything and everyone in that cursed place.

Mia's part on the ship, albeit brief, can get a bit confusing because all the corridors look identical and you may end up running around in circles for hours until you realise that you are actually on the wrong floor. This section feels somehow loose compared the rest of the game, as if it was added in to make the story longer. Of course it serves its purpose, but this doesn't make it feel less like a chore at times. But it doesn't lack anything in atmosphere and suspense, although it's quite different from the rest of the game, with its claustrophobic settings and gloomy sceneries.

Admittedly this game is the goriest in the Resident Evil universe, and there are scenes that will make you want to turn away from the screen, which is the best case scenario. The game designers are particularly generous when showing a murder you never expected to witness or an even more unexpected grotesque attack. The place where the Snake Key is hidden, however, and what Ethan has to do to get it, was what had me cringing in disgust the most, and made the chainsaw-chopping scene look like a clip from 'The Little House on the Prairie'.

The gameplay is generally classic first-person; once you get a defense weapon or a gun, you can use it against your enemy, and you can do a couple nice moves with the knife. But say goodbye to the cool dodge moves and melee attacks; these belong to the past. Apart from the three Bakers, the other enemies are the Molded, some extremely strong and violent creatures that come in several forms that are all equally creepy (although the fat ones probably take the cake). They resemble the Regenerador kind from Resident Evil 4, only these here are faster and go berserk when you shoot them. The greenhouse mini boss Marguerite is quite tough, mainly because she can attack in a variety of ways and surprise you when you least expect it, and takes a while to be defeated, even on Normal. "Daddy" Baker looks intimidating as a mini boss at the boathouse, but what you have to do to kill him is pretty clear and he can be killed relatively fast. In the tradition of all Resident Evil boss fights so far, the final fight with Eveline is not a tough one in its essence, but can get difficult depending on the difficulty in which you play. The fight is split in three parts, the first being just Ethan against Eveline, trying to approach her so as to inject her with a special necrotoxine. All Eveline does at that point is release a shockwave that pushes Ethan back so as to keep him away. On Easy, that shockwave hurt Ethan but never killed him, while on Normal it was a matter of minutes before he was dead. So it's more about the amount of damage the boss deals and less about what strategy you have to use to fight.

Although the game is mainly pure exploration, there are some nice puzzles based on shadow play to spice things up. What you are called to do in these puzzles is to take an abstract-shaped statuette, place it in front of a spotlight and turn it around so that its shadow on a painting on the wall ahead takes a specific shape, unlocking a secret passage. These puzzles are brilliant, in that it's very interesting to see these irrelevant objects gradually taking the desired shape in their shadow versions when turned to the right angles.

The characters are well-designed, their models are very expressive and their moves are natural and flowing. The audio and screen effects are also very good, adding to the overal realistic depiction of what is happening (ie, when Ethan is hurt, there is blood on the screen and if you don't heal him enough, there are still random blood drops here and there). The sublte music is very atmospheric and fitting, as is the ambience. When you enter a safe room, there is calm and soothing music playing, like in the older games.

And of course the game brings back the legendary item box, which automatically means that your inventory is limited, even when you get all the available expansions for it. Although this is a nice tribute to the classics, I admit that I prefer a decent-sized inventory space to stack my ammo, with all the other items not getting placed there instead of having to backtrack several times to take stuff in or out of an item box at the end of the world. Getting to know your inventory and what you should collect and when helps a lot though, and with a little organization you are able to keep a slot or two empty just in case an important item shows up.

The game creates its own checkpoints at various points, and you can also save as many times as you want at cassette players that are found in certain rooms. There are two default difficulty settings, Easy and Normal. Once you beat Normal, the hardest difficulty level, Madhouse, is unlocked. The Easy difficulty, though definitely not piece of cake, is quite player friendly, and is recommended for a first playthrough, so as to get to know the game, figure out strategies, discover helpful shortcuts and memorize the locations of important items. Normal is significantly harder, but you only get to feel this when you have to face a tough enemy or a boss. Madhouse is a very hard mode, where you may die with two hits - sometimes even one is enough to exterminate you. Moreover, you cannot save freely at the cassette players anymore, you must have cassette tapes so as to be able to use them. You get to find less ammo, items and enemies may be in different places and there are extra enemies in unexpected spots. Like with all tough modes, this requires more strategy, as wasting your ammo on the insanely tough and vicious enemies is not exactly an option. Thankfully, when this mode unlocks, you should already have vital items to back you up (with the exception of the fight with Mia in the attic, where it's just you and your gun).

By completing some challenges (ie, beating the game in under 4 hours) you unlock special items that you can use from that point and on, and which can be found in your item box even if you reload a previous save. These items remain in your inventory and you can use them even in a New Game, however you have the option to just leave them there if you want to make a completely fresh start.

There are several collectibles to find: files connected to the story, vintage coins with the pelican, State Bird of Louisiana, depicted on them, and there are small statuettes hidden in various places that you can shoot as an extra fun challenge. On two occasions you can exchange your collected coins with a powerful gun or an upgrade, which may prove quite useful on the harder modes.

When Resident Evil 4 was released, many people said it was nothing like a Resident Evil game because, among other things, it didn't have zombies and much of its action took place in plain daylight. However this game is now a classic, one of the best of the series, with a gameplay system that is exemplary and from many aspects, it stands out among the rest. I guess that if Resident Evil 7 had introduced a new element in an overall familiar package, it wouldn't have seemed so different; if for example it was first-person, but starring a popular character, or if it had a new character in a familiar setting.

It is worth mentioning however how the story of Resident Evil 7 connects to the series' world. The first version of Resident Evil 4 (now known as Resident Evil 3.5, which never saw the light of day) had an infected Leon Kennedy wandering around an abandoned farm house, hallucinating (or was it real?) about dolls coming to life and hookmen attacking him. Apart from the general idea in Resident Evil 7 about Eveline invading people's minds and causing them hallucinations, there is one section in the game that brings Resident Evil 3.5 to mind: very close to the end, Ethan returns to the guest house to find Eveline, and as he proceeds in the rooms and corridors to fight her, he is having flashbacks of his first visit there, when Mia constantly attacked him in her ghost version. These flashbacks are experienced as hallucinations, during which he sees the scenes happening in front of his eyes, while he is also able to see Mia being controlled by Eveline, who was the one who made her attack him.

This whole sequence is strangely dramatic, wonderfully set, and builds up the feeling of despair that all the involving characters are having - even Eveline, for her own reasons. And looks like it's a reminiscent of Resident Evil 3.5, as here too the hero is having hallucinations in an abandoned farm house, while ghostly inhabitants are attacking him and there are also creepy dolls popping up out of the blue: the giant doll that unexpectedly showed up in the kitchen made me almost jump in my chair.

As a side note, the game is greatly influenced by Sam Raimi's movie The Evil Dead (1981) and its sequels, and there are tons of references to those films, like the "Join Us" note that Ethan finds in the Sewer Gators van, the trout trophy that can be seen in a few places, the chopped-off hand, the chainsaw, and lots more. There is also a great tribute to the macabre dinner scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974), seen in the Baker family table scene. The game has references to another classic film of the '80ties, which is David Lynch's Blue Velvet. The scene where Ethan is hiding in the house and Jack Baker is looking for him so as to kill him reminds of the scene in Lynch's film where Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) is hiding in the closet while Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is searching around to find him in rage. Some of the lines that Jack says during that scene are the same as Frank's and he even says them in the same note ("Here I come!", while the "Here piggy piggy piggy" line echoes Frank's "Hey pretty pretty"). The garage scene where Jack 'takes Ethan for a ride' by getting in the car with him and driving it onto a pile of iron bars directly references the scene in the film where Frank takes Jeffrey 'for a ride' as well and a terrifying drive in the highway ensues. Jack Baker identifies himself as "Daddy" just like Frank in the movie. The games in Lucas Baker's "Paradise" which involve installations with corpses nod to the grotesque setup with the corpse and the half-dead policeman, arranged by Frank in Dorothy's apartment close to the end.

It's not easy to say if Resident Evil 7 is actually a game that can find its own place in the series, as it is still very new and we don't know how much it will affect the possible upcoming installments. I can see it more as a side game, just like the two Revelations, that deals with causes and side effects and less as a main title. Still, with the much awaited remake of Resident Evil 2 still in the works, it was interesting to experience this different approach by Capcom. Resident Evil 7 may not bring something groundbreaking in the gaming world, and maybe it's a bit overhyped to some degree, but it's well-made and solid on its own merit, a captivating and memorable game with great replay value and many more things to discover in and about it.

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