Adopting a first person view, a completely new setting, and being one of the first AAA games playable in virtual reality, there’s so much about Resident Evil 7 that feels fresh as Capcom have taken us back to the series’ roots. This comes after years of ambling between sequels and spin-offs, ranging from miserably mediocre to downright dreadful.
Fans will be happy to hear those dark days are over. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a genuine return to form for what was once considered the granddaddy of survival horror. For Capcom to wipe the slate clean in such a way is as bold as it was necessary. As important as they were to the ongoing saga, returning characters like Jill, Leon, and Wesker had long outstayed their welcome, drawing attention away from the things that made those original games so tense and terrifying.
Meanwhile, the past few years have seen somewhat of a horror renaissance, championed by games such as Amnesia, Outlast, and Slender. Hell, even Konami had a punt with P.T – it’s since trashed concept for a Silent Hill sequel. Resident Evil 7 is proof of Capcom finally stepping out of the echo chamber and listening, not only to fans but to the wealth of talented creators that have helped shape the genre. It’s clear to see where the development team have taken ideas from, yet there’s a sense of familiarity that has been knowingly created at the same time.
Ethan Winters is built up to be your regular sort of guy. Like the original Resident Evil there’s no elaborate lead-in; all we know is that his wife, Mia, has been missing for the past three years. His desperate search for answers leads him to the sweltering swamplands of Dulvey, Louisiana. Those who have watched HBO’s True Detective will spot plenty of similarities, the bogs, marshes, and bayous helping to hide a great many misdeeds.
In the middle of it all we have the Baker mansion – a rundown complex barely clinging to the pile of mud it’s built upon. The moment Ethan steps out of his car, alarm bells start ringing. It doesn’t take him long to stumble across the homeowners who are all too happy to bring him under their roof.
As the opening scenes play out, you’ll get hints of classic horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. It’s a decidedly nuanced setting compared to previous games and one that works well. In true Resident Evil style, there’s a deeper, more conspiratorial level that gradually unspools the more you progress.
What really works here are the Bakers themselves. There’s something clearly not right with them – something made all the more disturbing by otherwise normal personal effects found strewn about their home. As for the mansion, the way it’s structured is a clear throwback to the original Resident Evil. You’ll continue to explore its many wings and exterior areas, with keys and other items allowing you to access previously inaccessible rooms.
Thanks to the puzzles, it can sometimes feel as though you’re playing an adventure game. There are enemies to deal with as well, forcing you to sparingly use the limited supplies at your disposal. Picking up a Green Herb for the first time felt bizarrely nostalgic given how modernised other parts of the game feel.
The shooting, for one, is snappy, responsive, and doesn’t root players to the ground when aiming down the sights of their weapon. Aside from the occasional boss fight, you can opt to skip most battles by simply outrunning the horrors that lurk within the Baker mansion. In truth, they’re probably the weakest part of the game, and they each sport the same look with only the tiniest bit of variation.
Thankfully the bosses are there to pick up the slack. They’re good, even if a little vague. However, there’s a deliberate uneasiness that comes from not knowing whether you have the upper hand in a fight. With no health bars to gauge your progress, this creates a genuine sense of tension, especially as you grope around for the last fistful of bullets.
Either way, Resident Evil 7 handles its survival mechanics incredibly well. While having to manage limited inventory space can be a drag, simple features like item recipes and auto arranging weapons help to alleviate some of these niggling issues. The scarcity of items and ammunition is just enough to create tension without being unfair. Almost every room you walk into has at least one or two hiding spots where you’ll find bullets and other useful materials.
It’s the atmosphere that really sells the package as a whole. Everything has a decayed albeit menacing look to it while, at the same time, capturing that stereotypical southern swampland aesthetic. Although the voice acting and script can be hit and miss in places, the environmental sound work will keep you on edge as you tiptoe around every corner.
One alluring aspect of the sequel is Capcom’s commitment to virtual reality. Resi 7’s VR Mode isn’t just a throwaway extra or bolted-on side mission. By enabling this option, you can play the entire game using a PlayStation VR and DualShock 4 set up, ramping the tension up whenever tiptoeing through the Baker mansion, with the positional audio making you cringe every time you hear a creaky floorboard or open window shutter. It works incredibly well without dropping any features, also presenting players with a variety of aspects they can adjust to improve their comfort.
By default you can use the right analogue stick to turn the camera in 30º increments, though this angle can be tweaked. If you prefer a smoother motion, more akin to playing a non-VR first person game, you can do that too. It works well during more intense action moments, not really limiting your ability to run away and hide, while deciding to fight back uses head tracking to help you aim your gun.
For some, however, the dark colours, dim lighting, and limited range of vision may cause a bit of bother. As someone who scans every meticulous detail, looking at certain objects while moving would often cause headaches over time. It’s a problem I have with VR in general, though Resi 7’s grimy, shadowy aesthetic didn’t help.
It has to be said that there’s a discernible shift in tone upon reaching the final act and as Resident Evil 7 began filling in the blanks, I started caring less and less about the story. It falls into that all too common trap of wanting to put an explanation on everything instead of letting players run free in this nightmarish world it has created. Instead, Capcom’s writers pop this bubble for story reasons – something that will no doubt prove divisive among newcomers and returning fans.
For them to successfully steer one of their flagships back on track, Capcom has done what many thought was unthinkable. It was less than twelve months ago that the publisher released Umbrella Corps, at which point I – and no doubt many others – were ready to call time on the series. Resident Evil 7 definitely has a handful of weak points, but it’s by far the best AAA survival horror game we’ve seen in quite some time.
Version Tested: PS4, PSVR