Resident Evil VII: Biohazard
Developed by: Capcom
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), PSVR, Xbox One, PC
Release date: January 24, 2017
Price: $59.99 MSRP
While Resident Evil 4 is often lauded as the best in the series, it’s hard to argue that it’s the game that sent the franchise in to a more action-focused direction. And while the fifth and sixth entries built upon that less-horror-more-action focus, at least we received stellar remakes of the GameCube’s Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0, along with the Revelations side-stories.
At first glance, Resident Evil VII is a far, far departure from what made the series a household name. It’s presented in first-person, supports VR, and tends to draw its inspiration from the likes of P.T. and Outlast. However, after spending nearly 11 hours trapped within the terrifying Baker plantation, I completely disagree with that notion. This entry truly embraces what made Resident Evil Resident Evil, doing so in such an effective manor that it not only dethroned Resident Evil 4 as my new series favorite, but ranks among the greatest horror gaming experiences of all time.
In short, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is fucking incredible.
Rather than picking up where the dreadfully dull sixth entry left off, Resident Evil VII is mostly a stand-alone story with very minimal connection to the previous games. Those with a keen eye will be able to put the timeline together better than others, but here we control series newcomer Ethan Winters who arrives at the derelict Baker plantation in search of his missing wife, Mia.
The fictional Louisiana town of Dulvey, particularly the Baker household, seems to be a hotbed for missing persons; among them the cast of Sewer Gators, a TV series following a ragtag group of paranormal investigators. If you’ve played any of the demos, you’re already familiar with the cast.
Capcom’s latest entry in the Resident Evil series is full of interesting and bizarre characters, weaving a terrifying (if still predictable) tale of biological monstrosities, a maniacal family, and the grounds they dwell upon.
Using the tried and true method of found footage discovery that acts as low hanging fruit in low-budget horror films, many of the events leading up to Resident Evil VII is told through interactive VHS tapes, guiding players along the unfortunate path of the Sewer Gators cast and offering a glimpse in to potential puzzle solutions or hidden pathways. It’s such an effective and interesting method of engaging the player without giving too much of the story away, instead leaving the juicier lore bits to be discovered on remnants of scattered documentation or within more paramount cut-scenes.
The story told is quite good, but it’s best I leave this section of the review as vague as possible. Resident Evil VII is at its best when it catches you off guard, be it in pure scares or drip-fed narrative elements, and the game continued to surprise me throughout my tense 11-hour experience.
On the gameplay front, Resident Evil’s shift to first-person works admirably. I’ve always felt that viewing events from a character’s perspective not only increases stress and tension by limiting our field of view, but drastically heightens the level of immersion. Where modern first-person horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, SOMA, Layers of Fear, and Kholat make effective use of the first-person perspective in tense, combat-less scenarios, Resident Evil VII fully embraces the scarce ammo-driven survival aspect of the titular survival horror genre they helped seed in 1996.
Outside of Biohazard’s lack of zombies, clunky tank controls, and third-person camera perspective, Resident Evil VII has more in common with the earlier games than one might think. You explore a handful of environments where progression is locked behind various types of keys or keycards, there’s magic storage boxes and the comforting safety of save rooms, cramped inventory space, a dash of puzzle solving, herb combining, smart enemy placement, environmental storytelling, and fight-or-flight opportunities when your lack of ammo becomes a “plan B.”
One of the coolest features in Resident Evil: Code Veronica on the Dreamcast was the intimate use of its VMU storage display as a method of determining your current condition. Rather than entering a menu and checking your heart monitor in earlier games, you’d look down at your controller and find it pulsing away on the VMU screen instead. Resident Evil VII works similarly, using Ethan’s newly acquired (under rather unfortunate circumstances) smartwatch.
Classic weapons are present and accounted for as well, from pistols and magnums to grenade launchers and shotguns, but there’s never enough ammo to reach the fifth and sixth game’s run and gun feel. There’s a segment later in the game that overloads you with ammo and things to shoot at, but for the most part enemies are spread out and ammunition isn’t raining from the sky en masse. It truly feels like the survival horror games of yesteryear, where survival and fear fuel your desire to explore at a snail’s pace.
Every environment is meticulously crafted, rather than a lazy display of pasted assets in yet another linear hallway. The Baker plantation and its surrounding areas have been neglected for what seems like decades, and the artists at Capcom portrayed this phenomenally with peeling wallpaper, dirt and grime, overgrown foliage, and frequent clutter residing in every nook and cranny. If you or a friend ever had one of those creepy basements jam-packed with boxes, empty cans, and stacks of newspapers, imagine navigating that with a flashlight while being stalked. Scary, right?
I’ll reiterate that this game can feel downright terrifying, exploring dimly lit environments under the looming fear of the unknown. The expertly crafted sound design works in tandem here, where my own footsteps become concerning as I stumbled over cans in a blind panic–and, of course, the fucking swarms of bugs and clambering monsters didn’t help things.
There were a few aspects of the game I wasn’t too wild about, though. Whenever Ethan takes damage, it’s displayed on the screen in measures of blood splatter that remains a distraction until you recover lost health with restorative items. Not having the option to turn this off became frustrating, since it was akin to racing around a Mario Kart track after smothering your television in dog shit.
I also take issue with how awkward mouth movements are on every one of the characters, which is jarring and, again, distracts from Resident Evil VII’s otherwise stellar level of immersion. The game is beautifully designed in an uneasy, disgusting, Evil Dead-meets-Saw kind of way, and the characters themselves look just fine… but man, those mouth movements. What happened?
Aside from the aforementioned run-and-gun segment and the two issues listed above, I have nothing but positive things to say about the game as a whole and where the series is (hopefully) headed. Resident Evil VII is clearly inspired by the likes of P.T. and Outlast, and Capcom not only pays homage to the various horror games that kept the home fire burning when Resident Evil seemingly abandoned them in favor of greener pastures, but injects their own DNA in to the mix with favorable results.
After playing the Beginning Hour demo following last year’s E3 reveal, I knew then and there that I was happy with Resident Evil VII’s new direction. I was 100% sold and did everything I could to dodge spoilers, articles, interviews, and future demo updates to avoid contracting hype fatigue. What I didn’t anticipate was just how good the end result would be.
Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is not only my new favorite entry in the long running horror series, but one of the absolute best horror experiences I’ve had the pleasure of suffering through in recent memory.
So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PS4 copy of Resident Evil VII: Biohazard that I paid for myself. It’s worth noting that I did not experience any portion of the game in VR. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.