You’re about to see something wonderful
Resident Evil‘s been a roller coaster of quality for twenty years now. The first handful of games terrified players by making them exceedingly vulnerable in a world where a biological weapon turned living beings into various nasties that wanted nothing more than to kill you in horrendous ways. Stagnancy raised its head eventually, and Capcom knew that it needed to inject the series’ ol’ corpse with some much-needed life, and we received Resident Evil 4. Depending on your perspective, that game was either a great reboot that transmuted the series into something more akin to an action horror shooter, or the death knell of the fear that Resident Evil was once associated with.
Though 5 and 6 had a few redeeming qualities, stagnancy was flooding in once again. These games were Resident Evil 4 but bigger, less focused on horror, and you could play them with a friend. The spirit of creativity that Capcom had shown in the past was fading. With the surprise announcement and subsequent demo release for Resident Evil 7, Capcom has been coy about what we should expect. Slower, fearful encounters would make a return, as would a more intimate setting, but it would be seen from a new first-person perspective, and PlayStation VR would be a major component.
I was hesitant to see if Capcom could make Resident Evil a series worth anticipating again. At best, I expected an enjoyable horror shooter with small references to past, fondly-remembered games, and at worst, a slog through a cliché-ridden hillbilly cannibal story. Instead, we have the best Resident Evil game in ten years.
Resident Evil 7 biohazard (PS4 [Reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Released: January 24, 2017
Resident Evil 7, above all else, has masterful pacing. The setup is lightning-fast: a short intro shows protagonist Ethan Winters, a man who hasn’t heard from his wife in three years, driving down to Dulvey, Louisiana after receiving a message from her. Within the next thirty minutes, Ethan’s captured by the cannibalistic Baker family, and he has to find a way out.
I was initially apprehensive that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence would be all that this game would draw from, but that is definitely unfounded. There’s more to this story (that I obviously won’t spoil here) that subverted my expectations in multiple ways. If you’re worried that Resident Evil has just become a hillbilly murder simulator, fear not. In fact, if I had to draw any comparisons to the themes and atmosphere of a movie, I’d equate this to the mercurial mix of fear and levity found in the Evil Dead films. This isn’t to say that there’s slapstick comedy in the game, but it knows when to freak you the fuck out and when to step off the gas for a second.
Though Capcom obviously drew from Western horror for this entry into the series and it is a first-person game, that doesn’t mean it plays like Outlast or Amnesia like some folks have feared. Jack, the patriarch of the Baker family, will stalk you and hiding is encouraged, but very early in the game you have the means to fight back. You may not be able to kill him, but similar to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, you can take him down to temporarily have some breathing room.
Combat in this game is about small, tense encounters. Not once will you encounter a horde of monsters (here called Molded, looking like tar-covered humanoids with gruesome teeth), waiting to test your action game prowess. Instead, running into just one of them is usually cause for caution, and any more than that and you’d better be prepared. Aiming is a bit slow even on the highest sensitivity setting, so rushing into the fray was never a smart option for me. Resident Evil 4-6, this is not. This isn’t to say that fighting isn’t enjoyable; because each battle has a chance of being your last, there’s a delicious stress in each room. You can blow off limbs, run, and even block to defend yourself if there’s not time to get away, so there are enough options to keep confrontations fresh.
But fighting is blessedly not the only priority in this survival horror game. Though the first hour or so may seem a little straightforward, it’s not long until the pace changes and Ethan is locked in a house with obtuse puzzles, locked doors, and item boxes (those inexplicably-linked portals that hold all of your items across space and time). Scavenging for bullets and other items and managing your inventory is back in a big way that’s simple to navigate. You can only hold a certain number of healing items, bullets, keys, or mixing reagents at any given time, so you always have to be smart about what you’re taking with you. This does lead to a few classic annoyances — being near-death but carrying too many things and therefore not able to heal with the herb right in front of me comes to mind — but what a Resident Evil-ass complaint that is.
Combining items is done in a clever way that kept me on my toes for the first three-quarters of the 10-12 hour story. Chemical fluid can be found and mixed with either gunpowder for bullets, or herbs for a stronger first-aid medicine. This led to precarious scenarios where I’d be worried about what would be around the corner and if I needed to be more offensive or defensive. There are other combinations, like stronger ammo and psychostimulants, which highlight all items on the map (holy crap there are so many things that are easy to miss; observation is really encouraged here), so I never felt comfortable being profligate with my chemical fluid.
Boss fights are particularly harrowing, and about half of them feel inspired by Metal Gear Solid, oddly enough. There are multiple ways to take these ones out, and throughout my playthroughs I found different quirks each time. The only issue I have with these fights is that those not used to the weird boss fights in Resident Evil may be unclear as to when they’re doing the right thing. A word of advice: if you’re not sure if you have to fight or flee, check to see if you’re locked in with your opponent. If you are, it’s boss fight time. If you’re not, it’s up to you! The last boss fight (and last thirty minutes of the game as a whole) is slightly disappointing, tying up a little too quickly, but the others are such a joy to encounter that I wasn’t too bothered.
While this series has never been one to win awards for storytelling, 7 probably has the most consistently intriguing story arc. The Bakers are more than just backwoods murderers, and there is a reason this is Resident Evil and not a new IP. Since so many people played this game in their younger years, it’s easy to forget that there’s always been a weird, campy tone throughout, and to my relief, that’s not completely gone here. Overall, I’d say it’s more straight-faced then past games, but there’s a surreality throughout that is entirely welcome. This is a game where hidden coins unlock bird cages with health upgrades and guns, where healing juice can be poured on grievous wounds that would require months of surgery. It’s slightly silly, but the quirkiness makes for a more entertaining world.
On my first time through, I played half in PlayStation VR and half on a 4K television with a PS4 Pro. I didn’t want to play entirely in VR since the majority of players would be playing without it, but as soon as I strapped in, I had a hard time leaving. My heart has become stone because of all of the horror media I’ve consumed, and I can usually predict scares. Something about being in VR threw that all out the window, and I was jumping and uneasy almost the entire time I played. There are issues with the PSVR: the beautiful RE Engine takes a hit and the resolution leaves much to be desired, menus sometimes flicker too close to your face, and the game often fades to black for a second to re-orient you with Ethan’s perspective. Those first two I’d say are more issues with the tracking and horsepower of the PSVR itself, and the second one was Capcom’s attempt at mitigating nausea. I personally adapted quickly to the fades and didn’t mind them much, but I imagine this will frustrate some players. Being able to lean around corners while being stalked by abominations is so cool in VR that I’m a little surprised there isn’t a lean button when playing without it.
So if you have the PSVR, you’re left with a trade-off. Play normally with smooth, sharp graphics (and more death animations, I believe, as I noticed some more grisly deaths on the TV) with more consistency, or play in VR and sacrifice graphics for a huge boost in immersion and better aiming. Aiming with VR is a joy, as you shoot by aiming with your face, and it made me look forward to boss fights and skirmishes with regular enemies since it’s so much fun. I’m glad Capcom didn’t try to use the PlayStation move as a gun, because this is more enjoyable and feels more intuitive.
There are a ton of secrets to unlock here. Aside from the aforementioned coins to find, which are deviously hidden at times, there are secret weapons, shootable bobbleheads that grant you a reward for finding them all, and an extra difficulty after beating it once called Madhouse difficulty. This mode is also a pre-order bonus, but I recommend not starting on it. Not only is it brutal, but it also changes the locations of some items and enemies, similar to the Arrange mode from Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. It’s tempting to start on this difficulty since it limits your saves like classic games, requiring cassette tapes to save instead of allowing an infinite amount, monsters are tougher, and you die faster, leading to a more old-school experience. But you do miss out on some enemy intro cutscenes, and the impact of sequences being found out of order is lessened.
I’ve now played through three times to do various trophies, such as finishing under four hours or only opening item boxes three times or less. I say this not to brag, but to suggest that if 10-12 hours seems too short for some reason, the various unlockables and challenges provide a tantalizing carrot to chase. Even on my third playthrough, I was finding new secrets and insane death animations that I never came across the first time through. A choice later in the game also leads to two endings, though they’re not hugely different. The endings end on a note that makes me intensely curious as to the future of the Resident Evil universe (never thought I’d say that ever), but it’s almost frustrating how it’s done. There’s also free DLC coming this spring that will mostly likely explain this, as well as other paid modes, so there will be some longevity here.
I had hoped to enjoy Resident Evil 7 for what it appeared to be: a strange, Western approach to the series. I didn’t expect it to hark so close to the series’ roots while managing to still bring some action and more intuitive controls. Production-wise, this is the best Capcom’s ever done, with believable performances (wait ’til you see the Baker’s son. Something about him is so freakishly real to me) and wonderfully creepy audio design. With or without VR, Capcom nailed the pulse-pounding atmosphere and I am finally legitimately excited to see what it’s going to do next. Though the enemy design could have been more varied, the bosses more than make up for that. The last hour and boss is slightly underwhelming, but everything up to that is consistently amazing. Resident Evil 7 went beyond my expectations, and I feel we have an instant classic here. I want to jump back in right now, and I have a feeling I’ll be doing so for years to come.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]