The fun thing about a first-person perspective is it’s great at making you feel trapped and vulnerable. No swinging the camera for a cheeky peek around the corner while our hero sits in safety. No crouching in cover but getting a full view of the immediate environment anyway. If you can see someone in first-person, they can sure see you.
Case in point, Jack Baker, violent, axe-wielding new Resident Evil antagonist, is standing at the end of the corridor. I know this, because I’m halfway down said corridor and it’s suddenly a long walk back to relative safety. Jack’s peering out of the window right now, but all he has to do is turn 90 degrees to his immediate left, and I’ll have nowhere to hide. He does exactly that, because of course he does.
Jack grins, stomping towards me and raising his axe. I turn and run, my panicked footsteps barely audible over his laughter. Panic makes me shove open the wrong door, so I miss the safe room and find myself back in the Baker’s disgusting kitchen. There’s a sickening view of the dinner table where I started this nightmare, waking up as Ethan Winters and immediately being force fed rotten grub by the insane Baker family.
Now, with Jack on my tail, every potential hiding place in the dining room looks comically useless. Jack is a murderer, kidnapper and near-invincible threat, but sadly not an idiot. He’s almost certainly going to find a grown man cowering under a dinner table. He’ll probably laugh some more at my ineptitude, before hacking me into bits. So I dash into the living room instead, just as I hear the kitchen door being booted open. “Boy!” Jack roars, suddenly angry, such are the emotional swings of a murderer who doesn’t care for rude dinner guests.
I learned that earlier, when I failed to eat his wife’s cooking and he stabbed me in the face.
I bring up the map, something I haven’t done this regularly in a Resident Evil for years. Backtracking, collecting keys and solving contrived door puzzles used to be as much series’ staples as the zombies, and I was surprised to see them back. When I chugged through the re-release of 2002’s Resident Evil Zero earlier this year, with its seemingly endless trips across the map to fetch more bloody keys, I certainly wasn’t hoping this idea would make a comeback. Even more unexpected is how much I’m enjoying it. Backtracking across old Resi games has lost its power to scare me over the years, but the Baker household is a modern masterpiece in tension. A creaking Louisiana estate that has you constantly questioning if that noise was your footsteps, the house settling, or a member of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired Baker clan creeping up behind you to rip out your spine. Maybe it was just the wind.
Limited inventory space still feels like a frustrating holdover, but backtracking doesn’t feel like padding when fresh scares keep jumping out at you or oozing from the walls. That’s how The Moulded, 7’s new footsoldiers, like to introduce themselves. It’s intentionally hard to make out just what they are. Oozing, writhing shadow men with sharp claws who fight like faster versions of 4’s Regenerators. They drink handgun bullets and you’ll need to master the block move quickly if you’re forced to resort to knives. Combining items in your inventory lets you make more powerful ammo. Learn to do that fast, or you’re not going to survive multiple Moulded blocking the exit.
This might be the series debut in first person but it’s already showing clever workarounds for clichés that are becoming tiresome to the genre. Take Layers of Fear, a somewhat effective horror title that loved using the old ‘the room changes when your back is turned’ trick. So much so that it never stopped using it. This sort of hallucinatory nonsense is getting really tired, with everyone from Batman to Lara Croft tripping their tits off just to allow developers to throw logic out the window for the videogame equivalent of a lazy dream sequence.
Resi 7’s ways of changing how you view the environment is far more effective. I find a VHS tape and decide to watch it, despite a family of deranged killers being on my tail. Suddenly the action cuts to the terrified woman in the tape, Mia, and I start playing from her perspective. It’s high stakes hide-and-seek in a different house, with all the skills I’ve learnt with guns and knives now useless, because Mia is completely unarmed. All I can do is cower in the shadows as Marguerite Baker, Jack’s charming wife, stalks each room, the light from her lantern gradually sucking the darkness from each corner as she screams at me to show myself. The voice acting is excellent throughout, with no tin-eared “Jill Sandwich” quips breaking the tension.
Later I revisit the house I saw in the tape as Ethan, but since an undisclosed amount of time has passed, the level designers can make nasty changes and fill the place with killer bugs, playing on my expectations. It’s a Metroidvania that doesn’t indulge in the padding that early Resis lived on. A series of borderline photorealistic rooms are excruciatingly tense to explore no matter how many times the game makes you return to them, using backtracking to lull you into a false sense of security. It’s impressive to see a trick from 1996 modernised and just as effective 20 years later. A new item, however, should be immediately patched into every old-school Resident Evil. It lets you temporarily see all the hidden items in your environment. You’ll be amazed how much is tucked just out of sight in nearly every room you visit. It rewards you for paying attention.
When it’s not punishing curiosity. You can’t keep making progress without eventually triggering a Baker confrontation. A visit to the garage is spiked with a brief glimpse of escape, but soon I’m running rings around Ethan’s car as Jack closes in on me. Both my knife and handgun feel hopeless against him and Jack’s smart enough to keep doubling back, punishing you if you don’t constantly shift the camera to keep him in your line of sight. I find Ethan’s car keys and, confident in what I need to do next, hop behind the wheel. Jack snarls and grabs me before I can even get my seatbelt on, dragging me out of the car and throwing me painfully to the floor. I had the right idea, but I didn’t leave enough space between us. Jack isn’t a zombie, or even a Las Plagas. He’s more human, smarter, stronger and far more terrifying for it. This is the jump in enemy AI that earns this Resident Evil that 7 on the end. The Bakers have successfully restored the scares into a franchise I’d written off to dumb action years ago. If the atrocious and bloated Resident Evil 6 was your first Resi game, you’re in for one hell of a shock.
I get in the car again, this time managing to start it while Jack is still staring daggers at me through the windshield. I waste no time in running him down, smashing the car and my would be killer into the wall. I reverse, wait for him to start getting back up, then run him down again. I repeat this pattern three times, desperate. The cuts and deep wounds on Ethan’s arms (all I ever see of the protagonist) are gruesome reminders of how close Jack had me to death. I reverse as far back as this tiny garage will allow. The music has cut out. From this angle, I can’t see beyond the bonnet, so I can’t see the spot of floor where Jack’s corpse should be. Oh come on. Nuh-uh. I wasn’t born yesterday. I am not getting out of this car.
I never get a chance to. Suddenly Jack is on top of the vehicle. He rips the roof off with ease. Somehow I manage to escape just before it bursts into flames. An enflamed Jack casually gets out and grabs me by the throat, lifting me high into the air. Only the car exploding knocks him off his feet and me free from his grip. This is Resi 7’s first boss fight and it’s fantastic. The series is finally done playing catchup to 4. This is the confident re-imagining we should’ve got two sequels ago. All that matters is that it’s here now and it’s terrifying. If the remaining hours are as consistent as the five I got to play, few games in 2017 will come close to touching it, horror or otherwise.