Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 is tight, claustrophobic, and terrifying. It’s an early contender for game of the year, a fact that is all the more remarkable given how much of a tonal shift it is from its immediate predecessors. Resident Evil had been steadily sneaking towards the action genre since the release of Resident Evil 4, culminating with a fast-paced, international shooter in Resident Evil 6 that received some of the worst reviews in franchise history.
Resident Evil 7 deliberately moves in the opposite direction, getting smaller and focusing on a streamlined core experience. There are no bells and whistles, no superfluous features or upgrade systems that you need to study before crafting the perfect weapon. It uses simple mechanics and clever level design to create an oppressive atmosphere, making a big impression with a relatively small number of components. Clocking in at only ten to twelve hours, Capcom has literally delivered less, but the overall experience feels like so much more. Phrased differently, Resident Evil 7 takes an indie approach to Resident Evil, and the fact that the game is already a success demonstrates why that’s a healthy development for the games industry moving forward.
In Resident Evil 7, you play as Ethan Winters, a man traveling to Louisiana to search for his wife Mia. When he arrives, he finds Mia only to fall into the clutches of the Bakers, a murderous backwater family with strange powers that seems to be responsible for a string of disappearances in the area. Ethan manages to free himself from his bindings and then tries to escape the mansion where he is held prisoner.
What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse that plays out across a handful of buildings on the Baker estate. There aren’t as many enemies as there were in previous Resident Evil games – even the original Resident Evil has a higher body count – but those enemies are far more menacing. Family patriarch Jack Baker stalks the halls with a variety of sharp garden implements, and while you can put him down temporarily, he’ll be back up and prowling as soon as you turn around. Running (and hiding) is often far more effective than fighting, which makes every drop of water and every creaking floorboard that much more dramatic.
What’s striking is how little there is to the game beyond the horror atmosphere. In terms of scale, Resident Evil 7 is the least ambitious installment in the series. The locations are smaller. The puzzles are simpler and more straightforward. Even the narrative is less complex, with only a handful of references to the Umbrella Corporation. There’s less to do, less to kill, and generally less to discover. If the best game is the one with the most stuff, Resident Evil 7 would not measure up well against its predecessors.
The point, of course, is that more does not always equal better. The new game is scarier and more compelling precisely because of its limited scope. The surgical area in the basement is a stretch, but aside from that, the Baker mansion has a kitchen, a rec room, a garage, and some bedrooms, which is to say that it’s what you’d expect to find in a decently sized rural domicile. Unlike the medieval Spencer mansion in the first Resident Evil – a ‘home’ stuffed with extra rooms and random suits of armor – the Baker mansion feels like a genuine residence. People lived here, even before they were turned into monsters, which keeps the game grounded with a more tangible sense of place.
Ethan, meanwhile, is a regular dude. He can’t defend himself nearly as well as a professional badass like Chris Redfield. The narrow hallways of the Baker house do not offer much room to maneuver. It’s easy to get cornered. It’s also easy to run out of ammo, which forces you to make good use of the environment and the few resources that are available. From the combat to the level design to the first person perspective, every system is designed to make the player feel more vulnerable and the Baker mansion feel more threatening. The end result is superior because all of the parts are cohesive and share a purpose.
That feels appropriate in 2017. Fifteen years ago, Resident Evil 7 might not have been a hit because it’s the kind of game that you can clear in a weekend. You’d take it home on Friday and return it on Monday once the credits had rolled. Now, the rental market is all but dead, and there’s more acceptance for single player experiences with limited replay value. Indie studios have been at the forefront of that movement. Hits like Firewatch, Outlast, Oxenfree, and Amnesia have demonstrated that there’s a market for standalone games and that people are willing to pay for narratives that can be completed in a single sitting.
Resident Evil 7 is the best example yet that that kind of thinking has started to trickle up to triple-A developers. It’s a short but memorable grindhouse thriller that thrives on its own self-contained merits. Sure, the combat mechanics are more refined than its indie forerunners, but the Baker mansion isn’t nearly as intricate as the Spencer Mansion. At the very least, I’d guess that Resident Evil 7 was a lot cheaper to produce than Resident Evil 6, if only because Capcom saved money on bonus content that it decided not to make.
That’s a sharp departure from the state of the industry (and Capcom’s own development practices) as recently as five years ago. For most of the last console generation, seemingly every game needed to have multiplayer. Every game needed to have a robust campaign. Every game needed to distract you with hours and hours of content, regardless of whether or not the game in question could support that level of investment. Quantity was considered more important than quality, a point that was reiterated on the back of every box and in every review that advertised game length as a primary feature. The overstuffed Resident Evil 6 was a logical extension of that trend.
The fact that Capcom now feels comfortable releasing a game like Resident Evil 7 into the marketplace suggests that triple-A studios are finally starting to reconsider that line of thought. In that regard, the strong sales are even more encouraging than the rave reviews. The reception indicates that fans want games to get better, not longer, and that they’re willing to support studios that make a commitment to those kinds of experiences.
In a way, Resident Evil 7 is emblematic of the state of the games industry in 2017. Capcom did away with the feature creep and stripped the franchise down to its essentials and is now being rewarded with a commercial and critical hit that has fans once again buzzing about Resident Evil. It’s proof that even in game design, less is often more, and that’s a lesson that studios should have learned long ago.