Game Reviewby Dustin Bailey,
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Capcom returns to the world of survival horror, once again rebuilding Resident Evil from the ground up. This time, the genre is true horror, returning to the concepts the spawned the franchise in the first place. But is it Resident Evil, or a "me too" take on modern horror?
It's easy to imagine a world where Resident Evil 7 was just called Biohazard, marketed as a spiritual successor to the venerable zombie-killing franchise. It leaves behind the complicated series lore with its intense network of corporate conspiracies and bio-terror incidents, and the absurd theatrics that define the latter-day instalments. But in taking away all that existing knowledge, and putting you in a new situation with new characters and new threats, it becomes something Resident Evil has maybe never been before: actually scary.
You're in the first-person perspective of Ethan Winters, who travels to a seemingly abandoned southern mansion in search of his missing wife. RE7 unfolds itself very slowly to you, and the opening hours feel very much like a response to the modern wave of horror games like Outlast or even PT.
But it's not that long before you pick up a gun and a map, and find yourself digging around the corners of empty rooms for seemingly innocuous objects which are actually the secret keys to an absurd collection of overly-complicated locks. Along the way you have to scrounge for ammo and carefully choose your shots against monsters so that you're not left without a way to fight back against bigger threats later.
It turns out that RE7 is the one thing few people expected it to be: a Resident Evil game. It's a reboot on the scale of RE4, but instead of taking the series in a completely new direction it returns to the “survival horror” idea that drove the original and reimagines it for a modern context.
The modernity is RE7's greatest strength, but it's also a facet that will prove disheartening for fans of the series. This game is grim, colorless, and without the campy fun and absurdity that's been synonymous with the series. There are no masters of unlocking here, no brain-hungering zombies, no underground labs filled with bio-engineered sharks, and certainly no monologue-loving villains clad in sunglasses.
Instead, there's an invincible hillbilly family armed with pitchforks and chainsaws, a scary little ghost girl, and monsters that are shambling piles of flesh and goo and teeth. You can certainly draw parallels—the hillbillies end up being stand-ins for RE3's Nemesis, the monsters aren't that dissimilar to RE4's Regenerators, and the seemingly supernatural elements end up being explained in a way that feels consistent with RE lore. But there's a fundamentally different feel here than with any previous game.
Freed from the expectations of the series, though? Resident Evil 7 is very good. In the right atmosphere—playing in a darkened room, alone, with the sound turned up—there are moments of legitimate, stomach-knotting fear. The first-person perspective does a great job of conveying feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia without the frustration that came alongside fixed camera angles and tank controls. Classic jump scares are rare, instead replaced by an unending tension about what's around the next corner. Sometimes you'll walk into a room and the horror you've been waiting minutes for the appearance of is just standing there, blending into a dark wall, waiting for you to notice it. The environments are put together in a way that reflects that. Every single time you see a coat rack it looks like a human figure, and gently-moving bits of light and shadow keep an unsettling appearance of motion in the game's dark corners.
With all the absurdity peeled away, RE7 feels much more grounded, and consequently much more frightening. The “crazy hillbilly” trope might be played out at this point, but coming face-to-face with a human monster in a normal living room who's increasingly deformed by horrors you don't yet understand is incredibly effective as a scares-making strategy.
Through the game's relatively brief, eight hour runtime, it's full of constant changes in tone and pacing. First you're running from an invincible force, then exploring a monster-filled basement with limited ammo. Then there's an exploration and key-hunting segment, then a boss fight, then heavily scripted terror, then straight action, and on and on throughout the game. It's full of little surprises, too, from the specific capabilities of the bad guys to the ways you can die and the ways you can put items together. All of the little moments are so special I'm reticent to talk in detail about any of them, only to say that the game never goes very long without presenting you something new and engaging.
It also has a tremendously cathartic power curve. As per Resident Evil tradition, the final third resets the story to start explaining the nature of the monsters, and it slowly doles out new bits of weaponry alongside new pieces of information. By the end, you're a monster-killing machine, having effectively earned mastery over all the creatures that previously hunted you, able to drive back the hordes as the situation becomes increasingly unhinged.
In excising the silliness, Capcom has lost part of what makes Resident Evil so endearing—but at the same time, that loss allowed RE7 to do something no previous game in the series ever had: frighten me. I spent most of the game checking over my shoulder, wondering if the footsteps I heard were my own, often startled by the appearance of my own character's shadow. All that while not just working through the scripted haunted house of indie horror games, but rather while effectively fighting enemies, managing ammo reserves, and carefully rationing healing items.
Taken as horror, there's no game in the series better, and the new direction presents a potential for new life that hasn't been around since RE4. The essence of a good scare is to build up the audience's expectations, then pull the rug out and surprise them with something completely different from what they were expecting. Resident Evil 7 does exactly that.
Overall : A-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : A
+ Excellent atmosphere and scares, modernized survival horror, constantly-changing scenarios
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