Resident Evil VII Biohazard review
[Reviewed on PS4]
The best scares should leave a scar. A permanent mark that follows you. It should serve to remind you of dangers that lurk in the night, that force you to fear the shadows of your soul and turn from flickering lights that dance in the dark. The best scares should leave a scar, because anything less is but a cheap parlour trick; in this respect, Resident Evil VII cuts deep. It brands itself into your very being, playing on the fallacy of your basic instincts and the predictability of your fears. It does this to create an atmosphere of unwavering terror; the kind that stirs you from your sleep, the kind that makes your skin crawl when you’re searching for the light, the kind that makes you believe that somebody – or something – is always there. Resident Evil VII’s scares leave a scar, and they aren’t necessarily physical, although we suppose with PlayStation VR anything is possible.
Resident Evil VII is a technical masterpiece. A true return to the roots of survival-horror, cut from the same cloth as the original Resident Evil and the archetypal Sweet Home. That isn’t to say, however, that VII’s ambitions are defined merely by what has come before it, and that’s because Capcom has been able to leverage what made its earliest ventures into horror so effective and modernised them, evolving the entire experience to feel fresh and – most integrally – dangerous.
Can you recall the last time you felt physically threatened by a videogame? Perhaps it was within PT’s oppressive chamber of terror; maybe it was within the combat-less constructs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, or even the haunting shopping centres of Condemned: Criminal Origins. While these are all fine examples – games effective at manipulating the emotions of the player – few leave their mark in quite the same way as Resident Evil VII.
This perceived sense of danger is born from the simplest shift: Resident Evil VII is the first numbered game in the series to be played from a first-person camera perspective. While this has been the source of some amount of controversy, Resident Evil has been no stranger to perspective shifts in the past. From the static third-person cameras of decades gone bye, to the over-the-shoulder angles designed to enhance action and emphasise speed in the more recent releases, Resident Evil has (to varying degrees of success) always found a way to shift its basic design pillars in service of advancing its various gameplay ambitions.
In many respects, Resident Evil VII can be considered a success to the same extent of Resident Evil 4, then. It has set a new standard, taking the relatively limited, quieter independent experiences found within Amnesia and Outlast and given them the triple-A treatment; expanding the claustrophobic corridors of the former out into a sprawling, interconnected gameplay space and expanded expertly on the latter’s found-footage theme into a central, dizzying twist on core narrative convention.
The genius of the first-person camera is that it limits the perspective. There’s a reason Capcom left the static camera behind at the turn of the century, and that’s because it ultimately limited what the studio would be able to achieve in an age of ever-advancing game engines, evolving art principles and design techniques. In practice, the switch to first-person achieves the same effect and purpose of the original camera without immediately dating the experience.
It’s a different flavour, but it works to build fear and loathing in Dulvey, Louisiana. Turning speed is purposefully slow, working to close down your capabilities and turn up the tension as you methodically stalk through the Baker Estate’s many claustrophobic corridors and crawlspaces. In VII, so effective is the unwavering, uncomfortable, sense of dread that you are never certain that an enemy hasn’t crawled into the room behind you. Never are you 100 per cent certain that a shambling terror isn’t about to claw at you from the shadows or begin to stalk you from around a grimly lit corner.
Remember back to the original Resi, and how it bred caution by obscuring sections of any given room – ensuring that you were never certain that something horrible wasn’t lurking just out of sight – and then consider how VII echoes this expertly. Capcom may have gone first person, but it has done so in a way that ultimately pays respects to its heritage, building a theme of tension all throughout its basic design, and in a way that we thought Resident Evil had long left behind.
We mentioned the idea of Resident Evil VII closing down your capabilities before, and that’s integral to the overall feel and pace of this 12 or so hour game. Despite being set after Resident Evil 6, you don’t inhabit the body of a former STARS agent, undercover operative or, seemingly, anybody of any note. By putting you into the shoes of everyman Ethan Winters, Resident Evil is able to start afresh.
While we could quite easily spend a few more hours trying to work out how tenuously (or perfectly, depending on the quality and content of the upcoming DLC) VII ties in to the overall Resident Evil timeline, this is (for all intents and purposes) a clean slate. You don’t need to have any investment in the 20 years of twisting idiocy that is the Resident Evil backstory; there are plenty of fan-service environmental nods, a handful of purposefully (classically) obtuse puzzles, hidden notes and dated references that tie it all together, but the insanity of Resident Evil’s continuity, by and large, exists on the periphery.
And yet, still it is able to feel like a quintessential Resident Evil experience. Tone and pacing play as much of a part in fostering that feeling as combat and cameras, something VII achieves almost effortlessly. Winters is a dry and often sarcastic protagonist, bringing an air of awkward humour to the terrible events unfolding around him in an effort to break some of the tension – a breath of fresh air, as fleeting as it may be. The pace of the gameplay – whether you are creeping to avoid detection from stalking antagonists or pumping screeching creatures full of a dwindling supply of ammunition – is often slow and tense, and there is rarely any escape from the monsters that reside in this mansion in the dark. Running is as good a tactic as any in your desperate attempt to survive.
As pretentious as it may be to claim, the mansion is perhaps the best character in VII. The Baker Estate doesn’t just feel lived in, but it feels alive. Within its walls you will be made to feel helpless, it will manipulate your actions and your movements, with subtle environmental cues willing you deeper into its depths. It is, in essence, the Spencer Mansion reborn, albeit on a smaller scale. You’ll spend much of the game here, exploring the Baker family’s residence, becoming intimate with its twisting corridors and web of shortcuts. Enemies, from the Bakers themselves to a limited array of other mutating antagonists, take residence here, alongside an ever-lingering evil that’s far scarier than any immediate threat you may encounter.
Outside the mansion’s walls, you’ll be able to explore the surrounding area – a SAW-inspired torture room, a creepy greenhouse and a decaying house on the edge of the Louisiana Bayou and, later… you know what, we wouldn’t dare ruin the surprise. But you’ll always return to the house, either by design or intuition. It’s full of lore to consume, secret puzzles to uncover hidden deeply in its labyrinth, and only by scouring every corner of the house, will you find the necessary items to keep your backpack stocked and uncover new weapons, items and upgrades.
In true Resident Evil style, resources are limited. Your backpack has limited space to store items, saving is limited to infrequent safe rooms. Healing items and ammunition are also limited. So too are your capabilities in combat. Every single weapon you acquire in Resident Evil VII feels different. As we mentioned before, Ethan is no STARS agent, and that means his proficiency with firearms is reduced, reflecting his position as a citizen that has stumbled unknowingly into a warped hellscape. There’s a deliberate wobble to the way in which he handles himself when wielding a weapon. Again, in a nod to classic Resi, the best tactic and flow to combat is to gain some distance on your assailant, swivel 180 degrees, plant your feet and hope you don’t miss those all-important headshots.
While VII does suffer from a critical lack of enemy variation, pitting you against the same family members – often in the form of ridiculous, lovingly-crafted boss battles – and just a handful of Molded enemy types time and time again, the aggressive AI systems more than make up for it. Game difficulty scales reactively in a similar fashion to that of Resident Evil 4, ensuring that you are rarely able to slip into a position of comfort or feel over-encumbered with items and ammunition – finding yourself forever on the back heel, hoping you can make every shot count, is exhaustingly exhilarating.
That’s due, in large part, to the weapons feeling so damned liberating. After hours of being relentlessly pursued, blasting an enemy with a shotgun tends to be relatively cathartic. The monsters recoil and twist in pain when your shots connect – it has a clear and visible impact – and if headshots aren’t working for you in a blind panic, you could always try dismemberment, which always has a way of achieving the intended results.
In many respects, VII feels like a microcosm of everything Capcom has attempted to do with the franchise over the last two decades, distilling down the series’ core elements into one frightfully engaging package. The game morphs around you as you move deeper into its web, exchanging fragility for fleeting moments of empowerment, bewilderment and confusion with colour-coded keycards, and puzzle-solving, and it does it all within one perfectly designed and brilliantly executed interwoven game space. Resident Evil VII plays with a tenuous balance, shifting between power and fragility, action and stealth effortlessly, achieving its ambitions almost flawlessly – never outstaying its welcome, relentlessly pushing you forward while still giving you enough agency to backtrack and breathe.
Resident Evil VII is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. It’s a brave and bold move for Capcom, feeling quintessentially classic while still feeling fresh and adventurous in its ambitions. Ultimately, Resident Evil VII is a breathtaking return to form for a series we long thought had abandoned any hope of redemption.