Enter the survival horror. A new chapter in Capcom’s well-loved and highly successful horror series Resident Evil is here in the form of its seventh numbered title, ingeniously named Resident Evil VII.
This is a pivotal moment for the series, having started by effectively founding the survival horror genre, with similarly successful sequels, then reaching what many consider top-form in 2005’s Resident Evil 4, and since having endured mixed reviews on subsequent titles, citing a pull away from tense, atmospheric horror in favour of Hollywood-style action gameplay. Fans have been calling for a return to the series’ roots for years, and now is the time to deliver on promises of more horror, and less of the explosions and warfare. Can the series really turn back the clocks 15 years and revive the days of tight, overbearing corridors, menacing monsters, chilling atmosphere and true survival horror? Absolutely. This return-to-form isn’t perfect, but thanks to a haunting new location, some of the best sound design ever seen in the genre and an entirely revamped gameplay setup it’s certainly not far off it.
Resident Evil VII: Biohazard follows the story of Ethan Winters, an ordinary civilian who has come to the seemingly abandoned Baker plantation mansion in search of his wife Mia, who has sent him a mysterious email out of the blue, having been missing for 3 years. Set in the fictional town of Dulvey, Louisiana, the game’s run-down country environment tugs strongly on the influences and tropes of its rural American location – a very different look and feel from previous titles, predominantly set in urban locations or elaborate, well-kept mansions. The Baker farm isn’t simply the one house falling apart at the seams, it’s more of an estate featuring multiple buildings, outhouses and outdoor areas, something the game takes full advantage of, using each new area to tell a different story, change up the tone and introduce new things to be terrified of. Much like in “classic” RE titles, this whole estate benefits from allowing the player to explore freely, to revisit areas they may not have fully explored and perhaps find unpleasant surprises waiting for them when they return.
Whilst the cast of characters is an extremely small list, Resident Evil 7 is in no way limited by it, in fact taking the opportunity to prove that the series doesn’t need to rely on a cast of all-star special forces operatives to tell a story of seemingly insurmountable odds. Ethan is about as “average Joe” as it gets, just an ordinary guy with seemingly little experience with weapons, so when he gets plunged face-first into this nightmare, the gameplay wholly reflects that background. Combat isn’t uncommon but much like the early titles in the series it’s deliberately awkward, adding an additional layer of frantic fumbling to the experience.
Movement is significantly slowed when aiming with a weapon and it’s difficult to shoot accurately due to the erratic movement of enemies and the slow, almost clunky aiming system. Whilst in any other game this would sound like a criticism, it absolutely adds to the fear in Resident Evil 7, much like how the fixed cameras of the early games would scare the pants off you as you clumsily attempt to flee an enemy, only to run the wrong way. Speaking of cameras – the series’ first proper foray into first-person perspective was as smooth as it could get. After the minutes players have forgotten that third-person was even a thing and there’s nothing lost in the transition. This new breed of in-your-face Resident Evil feels fresh and more personal and totally delivers the immersive experience it promised.
The remaining characters are all very unique in their own ways, especially the Bakers, with Jack’s slow, menacing pursuit of Ethan making a stark contrast to Marguerite’s furious cackles as she skulks around the hallways of their estate. Above all, though, the strongest character is the Baker estate itself, or rather the incredible sound design that brings it to life in a whole new way. Loose objects like chairs and cans will make loud, realistic noises as you bump into them, often causing more of a fright than an enemy attack due to the immediate proximity of the crash. The real star of the show is the incredible suite of ambient sounds that are cued at perfect moments as players explore the dilapidated buildings, truly selling the idea that at any moment there could be a member of the Baker family in an adjacent room.
It’s not all about the Bakers, however, as the farm has another surprise tucked away within its walls – the Molded. These guys are terrifying humanoid formations of black tar-like “Mold”, with long teeth and a taste for human flesh. The Molded are best described as the lovechild between RE4’s Regenerators and the t-Abyss Oozes from Revelations, slow but intimidating and fond of sudden movements and showing up where least expected. They come in a select number of forms, each with their own twist, but can be dispatched relatively easily with a steady aim and a couple of headshots, or can often be avoided if you’re careful. A welcome change from run-of-the-mill zombies or Ganados, but can seem a little plain when compared with the complex and diverse Baker family.
Making a very pleasant comeback are some of the beloved elements of classic RE including the “safe room” and its usual contents – a few supplies, a save device (this time the standard typewriter is replaced with a tape recorder) and the item boxes which pull from a central storage, regardless of which one you go to. Also making an obvious return are the doors with over-complicated locks requiring crests or special keys, and a number of puzzles granting access to new areas or key items. Whilst it’s great to see these core elements of Resident Evil‘s DNA returning, it’s a shame that many of the puzzles are some of the easiest ones to date. Ranging from simple riddles to basic shadow puppetry, none of these brainteasers really posed much of a challenge, something RE veterans will pick up on very quickly, having experienced the tense Crow Room puzzle in RE1, or RE3’s damnable water sample torment.
Plot-wise we won’t be giving much away because spoilers are no-bueno, but it’s safe to say it’s a solid effort. The roughly 10-hour story hinges heavily on the mystery of the Baker residence and how things went so badly wrong for the family, and it’s a delicious mystery to unravel as players find clues and files which tell a story of a once-ordinary family brought to ruin and madness. It’s hard to understand initially how the game fits into such a huge RE-verse but as the game goes on more and more clues point to a very familiar world of viruses, disaster, boulder-punching and bioterror. Unfortunately, most of the exposition can be found in the last hour or two of the game which can leave things feeling a little bit packed towards the end, but it’s not the worst storytelling ever. As the exposition ramps up players will enjoy a slew of moments where the game calls back to something found early on which seemingly made no sense, resulting in that super-satisfying “ohhhhhhhh THAT’s what that was” realisation which mostly makes up for the imbalance of knowledge drops.
Resident Evil 7 has a great amount of replay value owed mostly to some great endgame rewards, multiple endings and a higher difficulty unlocked after the first playthrough named “Madhouse”. This truly brutal mode removes health regen, reduces supplies, toughens and multiplies enemies, and limits the amount of times players can save with the introduction of consumable cassette tapes, much like the Ink Ribbons of earlier titles. If this wasn’t enough, the designers have done an excellent job of freshening the experience in Madhouse by moving everything around – weapons are located in different places, the specific locks on doors have been changed around and enemy spawns are completely different. If you want a challenge, you’ll find it here. For reference, my first run of Resident Evil 7 was on Normal, took 10 hours and I died 4 times – I’m currently around 50-60% through my Madhouse run, it’s taken me over 7 hours and nearly 50 deaths…
One small complaint here is the lack of a New Game Plus mode, something that has been seen in most titles to date, the upshot of this being that endgame rewards (including weaponry) is available in every new run, including Madhouse. Now, whilst it’s easy to just leave these special bits of kit in the item box, it takes an element of challenge away to know that these items could be pulled out at any moment if necessary. There’s something more desperate about the feeling that you have to take on all these enemies and there really is nothing left that you can use. It’s the little things that count.
Future support for the game looks solid also, with a free content drop coming in the Spring which I won’t go into for spoilery reasons, relating to a revelation that occurs in the final moments of the game, plus two paid DLC packs which can also be obtained through the season pass. Both due to drop in the next month (first on Playstation), each DLC expansion features a new mode plus two videotapes similar to those of the main game. “Banned Footage Vol. 1” features a “tough-as-nails” mode called Ethan Must Die, plus videotapes Bedroom and Nightmare, whilst “Banned Footage Vol. 2” has tapes named Daughter and 21, said to focus on the Baker family before they became the horrors players meet in the main game. The new mode in this expansion “Jack’s 55th Birthday” is said to be more comical – a mode where players are tasked with feeding Jack as much food as possible in an allotted time.
In short, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is a true return-to-form for the series, a genuine delivery on the long overdue promise of tense, atmospheric survival horror. Though the game trips up on its simplistic puzzles, late plot exposition and a minor identity crisis when it comes to enemy types, it’s easy to see this was in attempt to bring the series back to its roots and is very easy to look past in the face of everything Capcom got so very right.
Both veterans and newbies can expect a terrifying experience from start to finish, with a constantly intriguing story that eventually sits perfectly within the rest of the RE-verse. Possibly the most accessible title in the series to date, newbies will easily follow what’s going on whilst series regulars will spot cool little nods to other titles throughout. With the plot left with enough resolution to feel complete but just enough questions to make players want more, the series is in an excellent place to move forward. Resident Evil VII is exactly what the series should be – it knows its roots and does just enough to keep the experience fresh and push it forward into next-gen gaming. “Welcome to the family, son.”