The hallowed Resident Evil franchise has been around for over two decades now, and in that time we’ve seen dozens of entries and spinoffs revolving around zombie and monster outbreaks. But numbered entries in the series have an odd sort of power in the franchise, generating far more hype and interest from not only RE fans but gamers in general. It’s safe to say the last two numbered instalments didn’t exactly impress anyone in particular, and while I played and enjoyed them, it was easy to see that Capcom had transitioned from survival horror to something more akin to generic third-person shooters. So here we have Resident Evil 7 biohazard (little b?), a game that Capcom promises will see the series return to its roots. But have they succeeded in this endeavour? Thankfully the answer to that question is a resounding yes. With RE7, the progenitors of the survival horror genre have shown that they’ve still got more than a few tricks up their sleeve, delivering a brilliant RE experience that recalls the legacy of its forebears while trying something much bolder moving forward with the series.
RE7 puts you in the shoes of Ethan Winters, whose search for his missing wife Mia brings him to the Baker family house situated on a remote and seemingly abandoned plantation in Louisiana. Turning up to the house it’s quite clear that something isn’t quite right with the place, and there’s a sinister and foul vibe that sets in immediately. Ethan must find Mia and attempt to rescue her, all while solving the mystery of her disappearance and trying to survive the untold horrors of the house and its psychotic inhabitants.
A quiet night on the bayou
It was Barry’s turn to clean out the sharehouse fridge
I’m keeping story details deliberately vague, as it’s really something you want to discover on your own. The central mystery is extremely compelling, and while it does tie into the greater Resident Evil universe, don’t expect it to be advancing the greater lore too much. I think this is one of the game’s main strengths, as RE’s lore tends to be a bit of a convoluted mess at the best of times. The developers have cleverly used the RE universe to give a context to the events, while still managing to have a lot of fun with the setting in ways we haven’t seen before in the franchise. It’s no coincidence that the main setting in RE7 is a mansion of sorts, which of course is similar to the setting of the first Resident Evil game. RE7 takes us back to that feeling of a simpler time in the franchise’s history, where it’s more about exploring a new and alien space and uncovering its horrors rather than wondering what that pesky Wesker is up to this time.
Playing through RE7 has an odd sort of spellbinding effect to it, and this is primarily due to the brilliant realisation of the setting. As you wander the house and its surrounds there’s a persistent sense of apprehension, and many of the game’s sections thrive on providing an almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Running on the new RE Engine the graphics are positively stunning, with prodigious use of light and dark and fine environmental detailing and texturing really bringing the various spaces to life. As I traversed dilapidated hallways, trawled putrid basements and squeezed through tight spaces I could almost physically feel the grime and filth of the world rubbing off on me and forming a thin layer on my skin. The first-person perspective helps bring an intense sense of claustrophobia, and actions like slowly opening a door and stepping over the threshold into an inky blackness are that much more unnerving because of it. The soundscape also amplifies the tension, with a sparse, minimalist soundtrack punctuated by sudden sounds that will have you straining your ears in the darkness and stopping every once in a while to make sure it’s the echo of your own footsteps you can hear and not somebody else’s.
As I traversed dilapidated hallways, trawled putrid basements and squeezed through tight spaces I could almost physically feel the grime and filth of the world rubbing off on me and forming a thin layer on my skin
Many aspects of the game draw heavy inspiration from crazy family horror films (so called redneck horror) like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and really RE7 is a masterclass in how to craft a compelling and unnerving survival horror setting in a video game; it’s gruesome, gory and unsettling in all the right ways. In the later stages of the game there is a slight tonal shift which doesn’t quite inspire the same level of primal fear as the previous sections, but it is nonetheless guaranteed that the game will leave an indelible impression with its setting. There are of course several jump scares that are bound to make your pants browner than a classic Marc Jacobs autumn collection, but really it’s the pervasive malevolent tone that is the real source of terror. There are moments of reprieve where you’ll feel free to explore and scavenge at your leisure, but whenever you encounter a new section you’ll never feel safe.
I don’t know if I’m safer down here or up there
Gameplay-wise, if you’ve played the Beginning Hour demo then you’ll have a good idea of how the game generally plays. You’ll explore your surroundings from a fist-person perspective, looking for supplies and solving environmental puzzles to progress. These puzzles are RE through and through, with some being rather simple and others requiring a bit of lateral thinking to solve. There’s a VHS tape mechanic that’s put to good use in this department as well, whereby you can use tapes to play through sections of the game from another person’s perspective. This not only reveals vital clues for progression but also provides that Blair Witch-style found footage flavour of fear.
Normal people don’t craft mobiles from deformed baby dolls
Being an RE game there are of course combat elements to the gameplay as well, and for the most part this is well handled. This is not a pure hide-and-seek first-person horror game in the vein of Outlast or Soma, and far from being weaponless you’ll gradually gain access to a varied arsenal with which to do battle against the game’s many foes. Especially at the beginning, ammo conservation, inventory management and diligent exploration to find more bullets and supplies are essential. This is at the core of a good survival horror game; you don’t feel completely disempowered (by grace of having a shotgun in your hand), but you’re nonetheless vulnerable because you’re constantly counting the rounds in the chamber.
The start of the game encourages a very frugal attitude to using your bullets which I absolutely loved. Combat has a slow pace, and headshots are the order of the day unless you want to be left with only a puny knife to ward off attackers. You’ll feel the pain of a missed shot, and resort to your less powerful handgun often in order to save your more powerful weaponry for more deadly encounters. However, if you play your cards right you can amass a fairly formidable arsenal and I found in the last half of the game I more or less had ammo to spare for a wide variety of weapons. It certainly doesn’t devolve into the action extravaganzas that were RE5 and 6, but I think making ammo a bit more sparse would have been preferable, as it does dull the tension that the game had previously worked so hard to generate.
Notably, the game features a handful of boss battles, but for the most part these are a little derivative. The look and design of these enemies are awesome, but the fact they are primarily bullet sponges is a little underwhelming. It doesn’t really detract from the overall experience, but over the 12-hour course of my playthrough there were definitely a few moments where the boss fights felt more obligatory than necessary.
There are of course several jump scares that are bound to make your pants browner than a classic Marc Jacobs autumn collection, but really it’s the pervasive malevolent tone that is the real source of terror
I played using a conventional setup but the whole experience is also fully compatible with PSVR, and the developers themselves have warned this mode is not for the faint of heart and should not to be entered into lightly. While I haven’t tried VR as of yet, there were many times that I was quite glad I didn’t have the screen strapped to my head.
In my opinion, RE7 is the current pinnacle of what survival horror can be. The masterful building of atmosphere and tension and the moments of transcendent fear are simply sublime, and no other game in my mind is its equal in this department. It’s a rare thing indeed to be legitimately afraid to push forward in a video game, but I have no shame in admitting there were several instances where I had to put my big boy pants on and step into the unknown even though I wanted to run in the other direction. It’s a pity that you become a little too powerful in terms of the weaponry you’ll eventually come to possess, but it can’t truly detract from the sheer enjoyment of discovering the horrifying wonders of the Baker house. RE fans rejoice, this is the game you have been asking for.
Reviewed on PS4