[Reviewer’s Note: This review for Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is based on a playthrough on an original PS4 unit, and was not played using PlayStation VR.]
In the years since players were first introduced to the Spencer Mansion, the Umbrella Corporation, and all sorts of horrifying, nightmarish creatures, the Resident Evil series had lost sight of itself. When the original game debuted in 1996, Resident Evil almost single-handedly brought along with it the birth of the survival horror genre, and to this day, marks one of the genre’s landmark titles.
Nearly a decade later, the 2005 release of Resident Evil 4 reinvented what we would come to know and love about the series by switching perspectives and revolutionizing its combat and controls. However, RE4 also marked the series’ shift toward an increased focus on action, with Resident Evil 5 and (especially) Resident Evil 6 escalating the series’ slipping away from the horror that defined it for so many years, and instead towards the bombastic action of other third-person shooters around their time of release. By the time Resident Evil 6 arrived, the series was, more or less, an unrecognizable husk of what it once represented: horror that was atmospheric, filled with dread, and made you afraid of what was around every corner.
That brings us to Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, the series’ next main installment and, arguably, the franchise’s biggest reinvention yet. After its reveal at last year’s E3 2016 and the terrifying Beginning Hour demo that set the stage for what’s to come, Resident Evil VII‘s debut left fans with as many questions as it did answer. Why the shift to a first-person perspective? Would this be a new start for the franchise, or retain some connections to the games before it? Would this game still feel like Resident Evil?
So, to frontload those expectations in the review and get this out of the way now – yes, Resident Evil VII is a very good Resident Evil game. But, more importantly, Resident Evil VII is not only an incredibly scary experience, but marks a huge return to form that, finally, brings the series back to the scares and thrills it was known for over 20 years ago. Despite losing its way in the last few installments, Resident Evil has finally returned home to its horror roots, and the series couldn’t be better off for it.
Straddling the line between a standalone installment and a sequel, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard takes players into the bayous of Dulvey, Louisiana as Ethan Winters, a man brought to a mysterious, decrepit mansion while on the trail of his missing wife, Mia. Having disappeared three years before, Ethan’s trek unknowingly takes him into the home of the crazed Baker family, where the search for his missing wife turns into a game of cat and mouse with the depraved family and a journey through dark, terrible secrets.
If it didn’t have “Resident Evil“ in the title, it would be easy at first to mistake RE7 for one of the many horror games that have come to reinvent the genre since Resident Evil first arrived: games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, Alien: Isolation, and others have clearly had an influence in shaping what RE7: Biohazard turned out to be. Though RE7 definitely shares a lot in common with those games, what’s more remarkable isn’t necessarily how RE7 has set itself apart from the previous titles in gameplay, tone, and setting, but how it manages to evoke the feel of the original Resident Evil titles while still implementing so many new and refreshing ideas for the series – ones that it has desperately needed for some time.
Where the classic Resident Evil games tonally leaned towards traditional zombie flicks from the likes of George A. Romero, Resident Evil VII feels closer in tone to seminal, American horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and many others — complete with its own psychotic, cannibalistic family to call its own. As players explore the game’s decrepit mansion, they’ll inevitably come to meet the entire Baker clan and know them all too well over the course of the game, with the Bakers becoming the game’s main antagonists and one of its absolute highlights.
Each of the Bakers gets their time in the spotlight in Resident Evil VII and not only show off their weird and off-kilter personalities, but also challenge the players in unique and intense ways. The father of the clan, Jack, uses brute force and the element of surprise to keep players on their toes as they explore the Baker’s mansion, evoking the feel of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis where Jack can pop up at (almost) any moment and catch players off-guard. Later on, the Baker matriarch Marguerite uses her waving lantern and swarms of bugs to provide another lethal challenge, while their demented son Lucas makes exploration and progression tricky thanks to his love of Saw-esque bombs and traps.
Though radically different from Resident Evil foes faced in the past, the Bakers and each of their unique personalities and challenges form the bloody, beating heart of the Resident Evil VII experience. Despite spending the majority of the game fleeing in terror from Jack, Marguerite, and Lucas, I still wanted to know more about them: thankfully, the game gives ample opportunities to learn more about their backstory and deeper connections to the story, even as Jack is chasing the player mercilessly or Lucas is devising twisted ways to torture the player. While there’s more to the Bakers’ hillbilly horror appearance than meets the eye, the family is nonetheless an incredibly creepy presence throughout the journey and one of Resident Evil VII‘s best elements.
Aside from the Bakers, players will also encounter a variety of other creatures and horrors to fight (or flee from), with the majority of these being the blackened, tar-like monsters known as “the Molded.” Though not necessarily “zombie-like,” the Molded still offer a creepy presence that players must lookout for throughout the game. However, aside from a few variations of the Molded that players will encounter later on, the Molded become a bit repetitive and predictable after fighting off a few of them, making Resident Evil VII suffer a bit when it comes to enemy variety and strategy — especially when compared to the unpredictability and tension that come from fighting off the Bakers.
Even if the enemies and creatures you’ll face grow a bit repetitive, the plantation that players explore throughout Resident Evil VII is a force of its own. Much like the iconic Spencer Mansion of the original game, the Bakers’ plantation property is small, yet dense with detail and areas to explore throughout the journey. As much as turning around corners and opening doors was terrifying, the mansion’s dingy, grimy appearance always made it captivating to explore thanks to the game’s stellar art direction and its design. While not quite matching the near photo-realism of something like the terrifying hallways of P.T., Resident Evil VII‘s mansion still brims with dread, thanks to its beautifully dirty appearance and sound design that makes you fearful of every creaky floorboard or door slammed shut.
Resident Evil VII nails the horror experience when it comes to tone, aesthetic, and atmosphere, but the game unfortunately suffers when it comes to its boss battles and puzzles, which feel lacking compared to what has been offered by past Resident Evil games. Where puzzles and fights from the previous games often required creativity and some unorthodox thinking to complete, Resident Evil VII‘s puzzles usually offering little in the way of challenge or having their solutions easily available or telegraphed right away.
The one sole example of great puzzle design comes later on in the game that — while not giving away too much — is essentially Resident Evil: Escape the Room, offering the game’s best-designed puzzle and a situation where observant players can utilize its solution later on the game. Unfortunately, none of the game’s other puzzles utilize this smart design and are way too easily solvable, where the game could have easily benefited from more puzzles being included for a break between the action and to encourage exploring the game’s dense and detailed environments.
Faring even worse are the game’s boss battles, which often toe the line between feeling unnecessary and repetitive. While players will battle against the Bakers and other evil forces throughout the game, the boss encounters all largely revolve around pumping the enemies full of bullets until they drop dead. Compared to the cat-and-mouse game of escaping the Bakers and other enemies that make the experience so tense, the boss battles feel underdeveloped and lacking in challenge or ingenuity. The few times that I did die during a boss battle in Resident Evil VII was, largely, due to not knowing a specific way or action needed to take the boss, which wasn’t revealed until the loading screen tips told me while I waited for another chance to take them down – making for frustration at the game not making it clear how to complete these challenges.
Compared to the bombastic action of Resident Evil 6 — a game that suffered from a bloated 20-25 hour campaign — Resident Evil VII is a lean, focused experience that removes much of the excess that has weighed down the series in recent years. Coming in around 10-15 hours, Resident Evil VII manages to hit just the right balance between offering a meaty experience, yet not overstaying its welcome thanks to its excellent pacing that urges players to keep moving forward; more than any Resident Evil game in recent memory, I couldn’t wait to move forward and see what would lie ahead, even in the face of a terrifying encounter or creature that I knew would be waiting for me.
Instead of the b-movie cheesiness we’ve come to know and love from previous games (sorry fans — no boulder-punching this time around), Resident Evil VII reaches levels of dread and fear we haven’t seen since the days of the original, and that (mostly) works to the game’s advantage when it comes to reinvigorating the franchise. Though it appears like a complete reinvention from the outside looking in, Resident Evil VII is very much made from the same DNA that made the original games the revered horror classics that they are today. Like the game’s intro that has players sitting down for supper with the Bakers, Resident Evil VII has welcomed players back not just to the series’ horror roots, but to a grim, disgusting feast that you just can’t turn away from.