Why It Worked | ‘Resident Evil 7: Biohazard’

Luke Hinton
Games Horror
Games Horror

Walking into the Baker household for the first time is one of the most terrifying steps you’ll take in a video game. After walking through the misty undergrowth of assorted brambles in the front yard to this ominous townhouse, it’s that first step into a building laced with unknown terror that truly gets under your skin in a magnificent way. In fact, if you were to watch this first-person gameplay without knowing the title, you might be shocked to learn that you’re watching Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, the 2017 iteration of the beloved survival horror franchise.

The game, which released five years after Resident Evil 6 all but tanked the franchise, knew it had to divert from the formula to succeed, returning to its survival horror roots for the next generation of games. The next ten or so hours after that first step into the Baker house are violent, atmospheric, and emotionally exhausting—everything Resident Evil should be. While RE7 didn’t strictly reboot the franchise, it purposefully went off the beaten path to return Resident Evil to the horror pedestal it belongs upon—and there are no soft reboot games quite as masterful as it.

Back from the dead

If, prior to its 2017 release, someone had mentioned to you that a new installment in the Resident Evil franchise was on the way, chances are you wouldn’t have been excited. By the mid-2010s, the series had become something of an ugly duckling, so far removed from its roots that fans of the originals had all but given up on Capcom’s enduring franchise. Long gone were the days of Raccoon City in the 1990s, or the cultish atmosphere of Leon S. Kennedy’s adventures in Resident Evil 4. No, the series was now bona fide action, and while some didn’t mind the more bombastic approach, the never-ending quest to up the adrenaline left even more with franchise fatigue.

2012’s Resident Evil 6 was the final nail in this genetically-modified coffin. Resident Evil 5, which had released three years earlier, was certainly a step towards more action, with zombies now brandishing guns for cover-based firefights. 6 ramped that up even further, with its post-apocalyptic setting leaving room for exploding buildings, AAA set pieces, and the sort of full-throttle action you’d expect from Call of Duty. Combine that with Paul W. S. Anderson’s movie franchise, which upped the ante with each of its six action-packed entries, and you had a Resident Evil that had totally forgotten its roots.

The first three Resident Evil games were all about spookily familiar locations, and an unceasing feeling that you’re on your last legs. The 1996 original positioned you as one of several elite task force members stranded in the ominous Spencer Mansion. Broadly, it left you to your own devices: there weren’t any objective markers, you mostly went around alone, and had to figure out how to progress by yourself. Its two sequels continued this, but moved locations to a zombie-ravaged Raccoon City, exploring familiar locations with an undead twist. Ammo was always at a premium, you never quite had enough health, and the tank controls meant you had to rely on luck often—but that was what made it special. Playing Resident Evil 6 with hundreds of bullets in your inventory, plenty of AI allies to fight with you, and enemies that posed no threat—it just wasn’t right.

A blank slate

Of course, making Resident Evil 7 was astoundingly, and inexplicably, risky from Capcom. While it wasn’t a hit with fans, Resident Evil 6 was by no means a commercial failure. It underperformed based on Capcom’s expectations, but has sold over 10 million copies in the decade since its release, marking its place as Capcom’s fourth best-selling game in its history. Clearly, it wasn’t poor sales that motivated Capcom to return to the franchise’s roots. Instead, they listened loud and clear to the grievances that fans had with 6, and actually took it on board. Following 6’s release, executive producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi said that Capcom listens to fans “but [they] can’t be beholden to them at every turn,” acknowledging that a core group of Resident Evil fans felt disconnected with the franchise’s new direction. Masachika Kawata, a developer at Capcom since Resident Evil 3, assured fans after 6’s release that any future sequels could revert back to survival horror.

That’s where Resident Evil 7: Biohazard steps in. First announced at E3 2016, it was clear from the go that this entry was set to take the franchise back to where it all started. The early stages of development in 2013 had the game as an action-horror like Resident Evil 6, but narrative director Richard Pearsey had other ideas. By 2014, the game started to take shape as we know it now, with a single-location townhouse inspired by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies. It was at this point where a first-person camera was decided upon, in order to immerse players in the horror even more. This was followed by a demo at E3 2015 called KITCHEN, showing off the graphical fidelity and VR capability of Capcom’s brand-new RE Engine.

And from there, a new era of Resident Evil was born. Throughout the twenty years since the original, the series had become increasingly entwined in continuity and callbacks to previous games. 6 was the culmination of that, with four playable characters from previous games returning once more in an Avengers-style crossover, where they all collided for the first time. 7 very purposefully moved away from that, with pre-release marketing barely touching upon previous games or beloved characters. Simply put, that’s because they’re barely in the game. This is as standalone as Resident Evil gets, which made it the perfect entry point for a new generation of players.

Since you didn’t have to be clued up on two decades of Biohazard-based history to play Resident Evil 7, it was a lot easier for newcomers to dip their toes into the franchise. We play as Ethan Winters, a blank-faced first-person protagonist on the hunt for his missing wife Mia. He was brand-new to the franchise with 7, and writers Morimasa Sato and Richard Pearsey very purposefully made him as indistinct as possible: it’s the fresh hell Ethan faces that takes center stage here, not the character himself.

The house of horrors

Speaking of fresh hell, that’s exactly where Resident Evil 7 takes its protagonist. Horror fans delighted in the opening hours of the game, which take heavy inspiration from classic movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Evil Dead to create an atmosphere so close and claustrophobic—and a family dinner you’ll be desperate to avoid. On its surface, the Baker farm seems like any dilapidated house in the abandoned parts of southern America: creaking with age, dimly lit, and desperately in need of a new coat of paint. But the secrets that linger inside, and the horrors you’ll encounter, are matched only by the Spencer Mansion in the first Resident Evil.

After that 1996 release, each game tried to increase its scope—even the entries that stuck to the survival horror mantra. 2 and 3 opened up Raccoon City, with alleys, neon-lit signs, and storefronts to explore. 4, 5, and 6 took this further, each with their own civilizations and communities to uncover as you played. 7 ripped this all back once more, and it might even be smaller than the original Resident Evil was. Confined to such a tight, dank location, you ended up taking every step with the utmost caution—unlike previous entries, where you knew that anything around the corner would be torn apart by your arsenal.

Same residence, new evil

Yet for everything the game does differently, Resident Evil 7 also succeeds in simplifying the existing Resident Evil formula, to make itself accessible to new players. A lot of the series tropes are here: a spooky isolated location that slowly unravels as you progress through the story, the blinding scarcity of ammo, and the ominous, haunting safe rooms where you save your progress via an old-fashioned typewriter.

Equally clever, but somewhat controversial among fans, is how the game vastly reduces the varieties of enemies you encounter in the game. 6, and its predecessor 5, where somewhat guilty of bioweapon overload: cramming in a dizzying number of unique enemies, to the point where they all felt like bullet sponges rather than distinct threats requiring careful, strategic planning. Resident Evil 7 pared this all back by giving Ethan just one foe to stave off: the grotesque Molded.

When you first peruse the Baker household, having acquainted yourself with the patriarch Jack, you find respite in the game’s first safe room. Already a few hours in, it’s the first point where you can finally breathe and take a moment—but Capcom never let you rest for too long. Swing a left out of that safe room and you’ll head down a staircase into a dank, dingy basement. Armed with a lowly handgun and a flashlight, Ethan traverses in, noticing walls increasingly caked in wet slime. A good way to build atmosphere, you might think—until something horrific starts slithering out of that gunge. Their slimy black goo may remind you of the Majini from 5, but the Molded are their own terrifying beast. What makes them even scarier than the virus-riddled zombies from other entries is their uncanny-valley levels of humanity. They’ve got a humanoid form, and a nightmare-inducing set of teeth, but everything else about the Molded is pure, unfiltered hell.

They don’t go down easily, either: you’ll sink plenty of handgun ammo into a Molded before they finally dissipate into a puddle on the floor, though the increasing firepower you accrue as the game progresses certainly helps this. Your relationships with them changes drastically as the story strides on: they go from a pause-worthy, break-requiring threat to cannon fodder as you make your way towards the more action-packed parts of Resident Evil 7’s campaign. In this sense, their blank-slate nature fits the game perfectly: as it veers towards more gun-based gameplay, lifting away the horror veneer at points, so too do the Molded become more numerous and virulent than in the earlier stages. It’s game design that complements the tone, and story, with astounding efficiency.

A new dawn for Resident Evil

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was truly make-or-break for the beloved horror franchise. Years of middling games and movies had greatly depleted the series’ credibility within the horror circle, and this entry needed to save it from that purgatory—or its failure would’ve finalized Resi’s move towards jumping the shark. With so much riding on it, 7 did what Resident Evil games do best, going back to the survival horror roots to pull out a game that’s just as playable four years on.

Its success breathed new life into the franchise, at a point where it was needed most. In the years since release, it’s sold over 9 million copies, making it the most fruitful game in the franchise’s history, and spawned a sequel, Village, that released earlier this year. That game took the formula from 7 and sprinkled in some of the old Resi we know and love: a full-fledged return of series protagonist Chris Redfield, as well as a setting and gameplay more reminiscent of Resident Evil 4.

Of course, Capcom haven’t abandoned the stories and characters that made Resident Evil a hit in the first place—Chris’ brief appearance in 7, and reappearance in Village, prove that. This past July, the Netflix anime series Infinite Darkness caught up with Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield following the events of Resident Evil 4, and later this year a live-action movie, Welcome to Raccoon City, will bring these characters to the big screen once more.

Would all have this been possible without the success of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard? It seems unlikely. At a point where the series was teetering on burning out, 7 brought Resident Evil back from the edge—and it’s the best example of a “soft reboot” game we’ve ever seen.

Luke Hinton
Luke Hinton is a freelance culture journalist living in Cardiff, Wales. He graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Journalism, Media and Communications, and currently balances his freelancing work with postgraduate studies. He specialises in film, TV and entertainment writing.