Prior to release, Resident Evil 7 looked like an entirely different game. The demo was a clunky slice of domestic horror that nonetheless absorbed enough goodwill left over from Hideo Kojima’s PT to seem promising. The switch to first-person seemed like a gesture of good faith: the Michael Bayisms of the past few Resident Evils would be tossed out in favor of claustrophobic Amnesia-style horror. And then there was the game’s seeming inspiration: a horror story set in the Southern US with a family of psychopathic hicks welcomes the comparison to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
And indeed, Resident Evil 7 starts by aping rural horror like Evil Dead; the berserk Mia is a Deadite, her face contorted with rage, screaming taunts and smashing through walls. It then takes a turn into goofball Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 territory; our antagonists the Bakers are introduced in a family dinner tableau that’s staged like the first film but played like the slapstick grotesque of the second. The game’s extremity is a welcome touch. Its aim, for a while, is to repulse you, and it does.
Jack “Daddy” Baker, in particular, is cranked so far over the top that encounters with him ride a rail of tense hilarity; his voice actor squeaks out one-liners in a cartoonish Louisiana accent, while Daddy mortifies his flesh, enthusiastically blows his own head off, steers the front end of a car into his chest, and does just about anything to fuck with bland protagonist Ethan. In these sequences the game approaches a heightened, abject grotesque that feels perfect for the milieu: the domain of Joe Lansdale or Jack Ketchum, hyperviolent Southern sleaze in awful taste. It exceeds the promise of the demo; it instead feels like some lurching hybrid, with Clock Tower-style run-and-hide gameplay right beside gory gags lifted from all stripes of horror. At one point, Ethan places his own severed hand into his inventory.
Despite the nagging feeling that the Baker house is a bland recontextualization of the Spencer Mansion—a recursive space reduced to the most basic fundamentals of “crow key goes in crow lock”—its grimy, feathers-and-gristle rural horror vibe keeps things interesting. This was Resident Evil 7’s raison d’etre, after all: to return to the series’ roots. It appears to be doing so in a fresh way, at first. But as the game wears on, it loses this identity and squeezes itself into the well-worn mold of a Resident Evil game—with all the problems that implies.
After a hugely stupid and meaningless “moral choice,” the game funnels the player onto a boat. What the game feels like in this section, more than anything else, is one of the dismal remakes churned out by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production house in the mid-to-late ’00s. If, finally, it resembles any Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, it is the lugubrious 2003 remake by relentless failure artist Marcus Nispel.
The boat itself is not the problem. Resident Evil Revelations took place on a boat, and that game was okay. That boat sported the delightfully dumb name “Queen Zenobia,” and was filled with all sorts of gilded ballrooms and puzzles involving casino machines. It was ornate in the way that Resident Evil Zero’s Ecliptic Express was ornate: not up to the level of the series’ best environments, but not without its charms either. Certainly the change of locale from Baker house to abandoned ship did not necessitate an utter gutting of the game’s personality. Survival horror games excel at warping mundane spaces into illogical excess: Resident Evil 2 even managed to make a police station, a site of societal order, into an absurd maze of architectural madness.
Resident Evil 7’s boat is nothing but an endless series of cramped gunmetal corridors and dead-obvious lore dumps. Compare this to the game’s opening, which takes its time to ease you into the situation. You crawl through a swamp, poke around a grue-covered kitchen, and rattle every locked door in sight for a way forward. Whatever interest the Baker house as a space, and the absurdity of its inhabitants, held is jettisoned for this final stretch of the game. The videotape conceit, which is used most notably to orchestrate a Saw-derived escape-the-room puzzle, effectively doubles the length of the boat section. You trudge through the boat, weaponless, to find a videotape, then play through the videotape flashback, then return to the present. At no point is it even gross. It’s predictable.
A hunt for a bio-organic weapon developed by a “mysterious” corporation (who could it be?) is exactly what you’d expect a Resident Evil to entail. The grotesquerie on display elsewhere in the game is new even for a series founded on gut-munching zombies. But the way each new Resident Evil winds its way back to the shenanigans of the Umbrella Corporation is akin to the way each new Silent Hill inevitably returns to the Lovecraftian cult junk. These series have never been consistent; the further they get from their thuddingly literal narrative fixations, the more unnerving and eerie they become.
So it is that Resident Evil 7 does not go far enough. The early Daddy encounters are where it finds its rhythm, as the game hands you weapon after weapon that fails to put Daddy to bed. Pistols, combat knives, shotguns, even chainsaws: Daddy muscles through them all, his flesh falling to pieces under the assault as corrupted, cancerous meat metastasizes in roiling masses to repair him. It is not, as Patrick Klepek and Cameron Kunzelman argue at Waypoint, restrained in the slightest: it is pure camp, and better for it. The bones of its new approach are familiar (from Alien: Isolation on down), but Resident Evil 7 brings its own attitude; all it has going for it is attitude. Grime, grue, gore: for a while it messily strikes back at the axiom that good horror trades in minimalism. But when it straightens up and starts following the series’ formula, that proves fatal.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.