I recently purchased Resident Evil 7 for the PS4. So far, it’s been a mainstay in my rotation and I am completely in love with it. It’s a throwback to Resident Evil’s tense, claustrophobic, and isolated roots. It hearkens back to tropes that seem to have diminished in recent years of survival horror gaming. The atmosphere invoked so many memories, it had me thinking about why I fell in love with the first game 20 years ago.
Growing up, I was a huge horror nerd. I loved scary movies. I’m not talking gore fests or anything like that. I’m talking about films permeated with tension and dread. To me, nothing was scarier than knowing that there was nothing you could do to stop the thing that’s after you. One of my absolute favorites was Night of the Living Dead. This was where my adoration of anything zombies was born. So naturally, when I finally got my Playstation on my 14th birthday, I went straight to the game store to pick up Resident Evil. This game was everything I loved about the zombie films of my childhood. When I popped it in for the first time, I had no idea how much I would love this game. Sure, I knew I would dig it, I just didn’t know how into it I would get.
Let’s just start with the atmosphere, it’s just you alone in this giant mansion. You play as a member of S.T.A.R.S., an elite special forces unit (you have a choice of two characters), and you’re investigating to find a second team that went missing in the area. Upon poking around, you find SURPRISE zombies. They’re slow, they moan, they soak up a lot of your ammo, and they’re not super terrifying… Until you have five bullets left and know that’s not going to kill the two shambling towards you. Eventually, the types of enemies go completely off the rails from zombie dogs to giant spiders to plant monsters, but they all go along with the story. None of them really change the general mood and tone of the setting.
This is only one-half of the gameplay of Resident Evil, though; the other half involves standard puzzle solving. It requires you to remember suspicious objects you stumble across, like that gnarly looking clock you passed 5 rooms ago. Not only that, you need to be on point with your item management. You only have so much room in your inventory, so making sure you have enough bullets, health, and spaces for special items keeps your brain on its toes while trying to navigate the sea of the dead that could be just behind that next door. Do you ditch those extra handgun rounds or health items to make room for a key you might need? Never knowing what you’ll need simply adds to the tension the atmosphere provides.
Another thing that struck me was the music. Often, you’re playing in silence, which makes the tension even thicker. When something crazy happens, the music kicks in. It’s usually during boss fights or when a surprise zombie confronts you. It almost turns into a Pavlov’s dog type situation. When the chords start to rise, your pulse quickens. You hope you can survive what’s about to be thrown in your way.
Whether it’s the music, or not knowing if you’re well prepared when the world around you is falling into chaos, or simply knowing you have little help in the house, every element in Resident Evil just adds to the suspense. It’s all a slow burn carefully designed to keep you holding your breath through every loading screen and every dark hallway. OK, the dialogue might be a little cheesy. For the most part, though, everything is perfectly engineered keeping you on the edge of your seat and wondering if you’re going to survive the next wave of baddies.
It truly is everything that made me fall in love with zombie movies as a kid. Eventually, these games moved further and further away from the suspense and headed more and more into an action genre. The very first in the series, though, just oozes with tension and terror to this day. All these years later, it remains one of my most favorite survival horror games in my library.
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