In the closing hours, 'Resident Evil 7' isn't content to go its own way, falling into the same traps as its predecessors.
It's been nearly a month since the release of Resident Evil 7, a largely excellent reinvention of a franchise that was in desperate need of new ideas. The passage of time means we can finally talk about how badly it falls apart in the final hours, falling victim to the same problems that got the series into such a deep hole in the first place. It doesn't ruin the game, but it left an awful taste in my mouth.
The vast majority of Resident Evil 7 takes place in tight, confined spaces, giving players little room to squirm away from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque family stalking you around their property. When someone—or some thing—does appear, it hits like a jackhammer, forcing you to panic. Resident Evil 7 wrings much of its tension from restraint, making the player think there's a scary creature around the corner when there's not. Your imagination does the heavy lifting.
That restraint breeds success in other places, too. It's a Resident Evil trope, one that got worse as the series mythology became more and more absurd, to find notes and emails littered about, providing convenient explanations for everything that's happening. Though you find some of that in Resident Evil 7, it's minimal—newspaper clippings alluding to missing people, subtle nods to events in the Resident Evil canon, insight into the relationships between the family members. It doesn't provide answers, and insight is different than answers.
For long periods of time, you're stretched thin on resources, too. Accidentally tapping the button to use a health item nearly gives you a heart attack. A handful of missed shots become reason to consider loading an old save. You might spend 10 minutes searching an otherwise benign room because the previous fight had you scraping the bottom of the item box. Running around an enemy and shutting a door becomes a smarter strategy than trying to fight them. Resident Evil 7 is scary for a lot of reasons, and resource constraints ratchets it up. It's a great example of design working hand-in-hand with other elements to enhance one another.
The confined spaces stick around for the whole game, but everything else? Mmm.
What follows are spoilers for the last third of Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 7 starts losing the plot immediately after you make a moral decision of no actual consequence, leave the swamp, and stumble upon a wrecked ship. (One could argue it actually happens a little earlier, when Jack returns as a massive, screen-filling boss with obnoxious and obvious weak points to point a shotgun towards. The enemies were scarier when they were rooted in humanity.)
Here's how Resident Evil 7 should have ended: you get on the tiny boat and leave. Game over. You never find out why everything was so messed up at the Baker house. It was a fucked up house with fucked up people, but how they came to be that way was left a mystery. You could speculate about what happened, and maybe even piece together a few ideas or theories, but the ambiguity would fall nicely in line with the rest of the game. The ending would sync with the premise: you came all the way out to this horrible swamp to save your wife.
Instead, just when the storytelling could be as bold as the design, you find this massive ship, the SS Exposition Dump. Over the next few hours, Resident Evil 7 forgets what made the rest of the game strong and compelling in favor of answers and empowerment. Through the most contrived means possible, a mixture of characters outright explaining every little detail and those damn notes, the mystery evaporates. That'd be fine if the answers were satisfying, but it's the stuff Resident Evil's been trotting out for too long now. Bad experiment goes awry!!!
Worse still, it drops any pretense of making you worry about resources. There's a point where you play as a different character, and when you swap back, the game hands over everything you collected—items, weapons, ammunition! It makes zero sense narratively, and completely breaks the carefully crafted resource strain that had me sweating just hours before. I went from experiencing deep anxiety over missed shots to using my grenade launcher because, shit, it'd been a few hours since I'd used the weapon! The fear was gone, and Resident Evil 7 had turned into a boring action game. The enemies would line up, and I'd mow 'em down.
And don't get me started on the final boss. Blargh.
Resident Evil 7's concluding arc takes little away from what comes before. It remains an incredible horror game, and the best demonstration of virtual reality yet, but I worry about where the series goes next. Upping the ante isn't the only route to surprise. Resist that urge. Set Resident Evil 8, or whatever it's called, somewhere equally remote. Ground the scares in the world around us. Resident Evil 7 worked best when it was reserved, keeping its cards close to the chest.