Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch (Japan Only)
Release Date: Out Now
Jumping from prequel to most recent sequel, this time around I am reviewing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, continuing my comprehensive but not-very-chronological reviews of the horror franchise. Now, this is a scary one. Yes, I know, it is Resident Evil – but all the others I played before this have a different, more cinematic horror; they are in third-person and offer you a bit more perspective. However, for this entry there is a switch to first-person and an intense, heart-pumping terror akin to hits such as Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It is a departure for the series in many ways, yet also maintains a distinct Resident Evil-ness as it experiments with the new approach. So, how do the results of said experiment turn out?
No Turning Back
Along with such a change in gameplay, Resident Evil 7 also brings with it a very different story predominantly focusing on brand new characters. You play as Ethan Winters (Todd Soley/Hidenobu Kiuchi) who has suffered for years due to his wife Mia (Katie O’Hagan/Akari Higuchi) being missing and thought dead. However, he then receives a message – supposedly from Mia – beckoning him to a rural location in Louisiana, southern USA. Even with any suspicions this may incite, it makes sense that Ethan would go – I mean, there is the possibility his wife is alive! How is he to know this is the world of Resident Evil, and he is walking into a literal house of horrors… We join Ethan in first-person as he drives up to the address, and immediately there is an uneasy atmosphere present. The history of this part of the USA, combined with the foreboding too-quiet rural countryside, creates an anxious feeling that strengthens as you begin to enter the house.
Transitioning from sunny outdoors to shadowy and disturbingly unkempt interior has a tone of inevitable descent; you can feel the opportunity to turn back quickly falling away as you pass by dirty kitchen utensils and empty rooms. This opening section definitely has the sort of impending dread that games such as Outlast have permeated so well – you just know that you are walking into something awful, but it has not arrived yet. At multiple points in the story of Resident Evil 7, videotapes are a means to view and literally play through prior events, and the first of these is found during these early explorations; you witness a small crew filming for a haunted house-style series getting much more than they bargained for in the very same space you are watching the videotape. It is a very effective way to suggest to the player how unsafe they are, but with Mia still not found, Ethan presses on…
As you may be able to guess, doing that lands Ethan into a world of trouble. These initial struggles effectively teach us how certain Resident Evil mainstays have been adapted to first-person. You still have familiar weapons, from melee attacks to firearms, but the feel is markedly different in first-person. The viewpoint involves you into the moment in a very immediate way, viscerally putting across each hit (and much worse… ) that Ethan suffers, and similarly your efforts to retaliate can feel more erratic as you desperately try to get your weapon or hands up to defend. Running away is often a very viable option, particularly early on! Amongst all this, those familiar aspects I mentioned act as a slight comfort blanket; healing is still done via herbs and first aid, and the inventory remains familiar, with examining and combining items still a key element of puzzle solving.
Your efforts to escape are cut short when you finally meet the reason why the film crew disappeared – the Baker family. Upon being captured, you wake up at a disturbed version of a family meal (featuring rotten food and dismembering), but before you are fatally harmed they are distracted and Ethan gets an opportunity to slip away. It is not long until father figure of the family Jack Baker (Jack Brand/Kazuhiro Yamaji) is trying to track you down; with a lack of weapons, you are depending on stealth to escape. On the scariness scale, this is where the game was at its peak; picking the right moment to make your dash past Jack and bolt for the door is heart-racing stuff, and when you are spotted, his chase of you is terrifying. Jack moves at a similar speed to you, and your limited means of defense leave you scrambling for safety – which could be in the form of a save room or the next progression point.
Again, familiarity arises in the actual puzzles themselves – finding pieces of an emblem to open a door, gathering keys that grant access to new areas, and discovering new firearms are classic Resident Evil activities. I appreciated this; it meant that even with all the changes in 7, it never felt as though it had split off too far to the point of not being a Resident Evil game. On the other hand, as the story progresses, the balance of this goes off-kilter. You see, the anxiety and uneasiness of avoiding Jack – and other enemies – fades as you start to get more and more firepower at your disposal. Now, you would expect this to a degree, but at a point this see-saw of tone tips over too far. Particularly towards the latter stages, the tension felt so strongly early on largely disappears – in my opinion, this does not match up well with the game they were trying to make, even if I am personally sort of grateful for the reprieve (I did not handle Jack chasing me well, haha!).
Keeping It In the Family
Of course, it is not just Jack you go up against. The whole Baker family are out to maim and kill you in their own specific fashions, and you run into them one by one as you open up each new section of the estate. To be honest, a bit more creativity in how you go up against each of them would have been welcome, as the sequential one-after-the-other way the majority of the game is structured breeds predictability and, in this case, predictability is not scary. It does not help that none of them get anywhere near to being as intimidating as Jack, partly due to the power creep I mentioned before, but also the way they act is not as direct and gives you more urgency in how you respond. Wild-haired mother Marguerite (Sara Coates/Maki Izawa) throws a few jump scares at you, but otherwise her swarm of insects are more annoying than downright scary; and whilst the Saw-esque vibe of the traps hooded son Lucas (Jesse Pimentel/Setsuji Sato) puts you into had the potential to give you trouble sleeping, they are either too straightforward or illogical to the point of stagnation.
Sadly, it does not get better with the Molded, who act as frequent, wandering enemies in similar style to the zombies in other Resident Evil titles. The black, gleaming aesthetic of them and surrounding surfaces is disconcerting and certainly creepy – that is not the issue. No, it is how prevalent they are and how few other creatures are mixed in; there are variations of Molded, generally getting bigger and hitting harder, but they all have the same visual style and, as with other elements of the game, get progressively less scary over time as a result. Set piece fights against Jack, for example, are so much more engaging, with the cat-and-mouse elements sidelined for improvisational and gruesome fights featuring cars, chainsaws, and more. It is disappointing to me that 7 becomes much more of a shooting gallery in the climactic stages – this could be satisfying to some, but is not really where I think the strengths of the game lie.
For all the flaws, though, there are plenty of those strengths, and environment design is one standout. The shadowy, twisted take on a family residence is excellent at providing blind spots and hidden alcoves for either you or unfriendly adversaries, and any concerns of it getting repetitious are quashed as you move through a greenhouse, docks, and more. It all has a high production value sheen that a Resident Evil can bring where perhaps, say, another such as Outlast cannot – for example, character models are detailed and expressive, immersing you into exchanges with them. Furthermore, it is not only the actual design of the world, but how you can explore it too, with those aforementioned videotapes pre-empting Ethan entering multiple sections. Seeing and playing through how others have suffered in those same spaces constructs an immediate ominous atmosphere. In addition, as you backtrack out of necessity, there are slight but striking changes peppered through that can frighten when you least expect and stop you ever being fully comfortable.
I have so far mentioned quite a bit how the gameplay escalates as you get deeper in, but how about the narrative? Well, there are mixed feelings for me. In my experience playing through the Resident Evil series this year, a significant part of my enjoyment has been getting to know the likeable characters, from personal favourite Jill Valentine to other series mainstays such as Ada Wong and Chris Redfield. With 7 making the bold decision to almost entirely avoid continuity connections, there is the risk of low player investment into the transpiring events. It is testament to the story of 7, then, that I was quite engrossed by the fun revelations and reveals into why this was all happening – though I admittedly was missing those friendly faces and hoping they would appear. Ethan Winters, perhaps due to how the first-person perspective puts you in his shoes, was someone I was rooting for as he earnestly tried to get Mia and himself out of this awful situation. Mind you, the attempt at multiple endings does not really work very well.
Did You Hear That?
Sound design has always been an area where the Resident Evil series excels, whether it be the corridor moans of the original, the animalistic roars of Nemesis in 3, or the creaking and shuffling in the ship of Revelations. The first-person approach brings with it a sort of first-person sound as well; as you can see less of your surroundings at any one time, there is this heightened sensory aspect where you are listening for audio cues on approaching threats, all mixed in with the ambient sounds all around – the whistling of the wind, the glistening of Molded discharge, the buzz of insects… It all goes together to leave you unsettled. Communications devices are either analogue or in disrepair, leaving you feeling disconnected and vulnerable, and even the choice of licensed music track to open the game – a new cover of Go Tell Aunt Rhody – has an air of conspiracy and deception.
Everything is just so grimy and dirty in this game. It is the details that emphasise this, such as how you messily throw first aid medicine over your wounds, or the way blood splatters over the screen to impair your vision when hurt. Ethan does a lot of sickening things out of a lack of alternatives, the sort of stuff that makes you physically recoil when playing, and it is evident Resident Evil 7 knows what it is doing in that regard – walking through these disturbing sequences can end with catharsis when you find your way out. If anything, 7 could have leaned into this more. More face-offs with the family and less Molded time-padding would have gone a long way, as would less means with which to defend ourselves.
Speaking of which, I shall also mention that I find gunplay in Resident Evil 7 unique in the weight and feedback sent to the player. Guns are held very high on the screen and are quite clumsily jostled as you move, as though Ethan is not used to handling them (which I would guess he is not). It is not bad, but is a bit uncanny and unwieldy. This could be down to the switch from third-person to first-person and a lack of development experience. Considering that this is not a full-on first-person shooter, it is okay to work around – some of the time you are picking up items, collectibles, or otherwise, so you do not have a gun equipped one hundred percent of the time.
Another area Resident Evil 7 feels noteably different – and not in a positive way – is the extra content packaged in with the campaign. Which is a means of saying that there is arguably not any of it before any DLC downloads. This is in contrast to, say, Resident Evil 5 and 6, which have an impressive amount of side modes for either solo or multiplayer. As well as this, with much of the approximately 8-10 hour core campaign dependent on the surprise of unexpected obstacles and reveals, it does not encourage repeat playthroughs in the vein of Resident Evil 3. There is one free DLC pack that is over all-too-quickly, and a handful of other content too which I have not played and will not be factoring in here. Similarly, I have not played the VR version of 7, so do not take this as a review on that version. Whew, playing this game in VR would be, um… Very frightening, I imagine!
After the mixed reception to previous games, a large-scale revamp for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard makes sense. The new perspective and a focus on ground-level, rustic horror is very effective at supplying chilling conflicts, but as the game naturally shifts back towards the slightly more action-oriented gameplay the series has always had, it exposes a few mismatches where all does not come together as cohesively as hoped. Really, 7 needed to commit fully to either the early intense stealth horror or the louder gunplay it veers into, so that there was more time to develop the ideas of each. Instead, it does have the vibe of a very high budget extended demo or experiment, which it essentially is as Capcom sees where this franchise might go into the future. Taken that way, it proves two things to me: one, that Capcom can create a very proficient first-person Resident Evil game; two, that I personally prefer the previous third-person entries…