I’d like to begin with an apology for the lateness of this review. Normally I’d invest a good amount of time upon a major title’s release to play enough of a game to get a decent handle on its story, gameplay and all the other elements you’d expect from a review. However, I made the brave and somewhat foolhardy decision to play the latest installment of Capcom’s survival horror series in VR, which is an insanely intense experience; and as such it’s taken me a little longer than usual to be able to play through enough of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard to offer my thoughts.
As most of you will probably be aware, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is the seventh major installment in the franchise (not counting spin-off titles), with Capcom making a few bold decisions: switching to a first-person perspective and returning to its survival horror roots; with conservation of ammo, inventory management and puzzle solving very much the order of the day. The game also shifts the narrative’s tone from zombocalypse to hillbilly horror, with nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes.
Playing in VR, the game offers a brief tutorial on how to navigate, with the left thumbstick controlling movement, and the right one shifting perspective in 30° increments (or the twelve points of a clock face). The game itself begins with everyman Ethan Winters receiving a message from his missing wife Mia, urging him to travel to Dulvey, Louisiana and bring her home. Ethan travels to Dulvey, arriving just outside the grounds of a derelict plantation house in the middle of the bayous.
From the get-go, there’s a sense that all is not well, within locked gates, abandoned vehicles and rotting animal carcases littered around the outside of the estate. Eventually, Ethan finds a route into the plantation’s guesthouse, which will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played the Beginning Hour trailer demo. True to the franchise’s early days, there’s a sense of foreboding, with an over-riding fear of what lays around the corner or beyond the next door. Scares are magnified when experiencing the game in VR with earphones in – a thud as something heavy is dropped on the wooden floor above for instance – will make even the bravest survival horror aficionado jump out of their skin.
The interiors in VR are amazingly detailed, from the garbage scattered in heaps around the floor to the peeling wallpaper – everything about the environment screams decay. It’s apparent that the guest house, main house and the grounds were at one point a beautiful example of Louisianan architecture have been left to deteriorate by its owners. Whether inside or outside, it feels as if the world is being viewed through a nicotine stained glass window – yellows and brown hues in natural light, with starker colours when near an artificial light source.
Following a quick, if a little harrowing reunion with Mia, Ethan is introduced to the residents of the plantation house, a stereotypically backwater tribe called the Bakers – headed by patriarch Jack – it’s apparent that the rest of the family: Maguerite and Lucas are quite clearly insane (although there appears to be a source to their state that I’ve yet to uncover), and have a penchant for violence and human flesh. Ethan quickly comes to the decision that Mia is a lost cause, and his main priority shifts to escape and evasion. Unfortunately, the Baker homestead is easily as large and confusing as the Spencer mansion from the original game; with specific keys or cryptic puzzles hindering Ethan’s route to freedom.
In-game combat is a last resort, as ammo is scarce; however, there are times where it is an absolute necessity. Once armed, pressing L2 will bring Ethan’s weapon to bear, with R2 as the action button. In VR the centre of your vision acts as your crosshair movement, rather than having to move the right thumbstick. I found this to be an excellent substitute, as I often become uncoordinated in first person perspective shooters, and also found it easier to hit those all-important headshots. When unarmed the shoulder buttons act as a guard to incoming attacks.
With past instalments, the character would limp and hold their side to indicate that they’d sustained an injury. Obviously, this is impossible to show in first-person perspective, therefore Capcom has opted to phase blood into the outer edge of the screen instead. Handily, (and points to Capcom for ingenuity) Ethan also wears a smart watch showing the cardiograph normally found in the inventory screen of past Resident Evil games.
Apart from the Baker clan, the enemies largely consist of beings known as Molded – past victims that have become symbiotic hosts to a virus-infected bacteria that covers every surface. The molded can attack out of nowhere or can be found stood in a trance-like state obstructing Ethans path – attacking if provoked or when Ethan invades their personal space. The molded come in various forms, but tend to attack in the same manner and need a few rounds to the head or limbs dismembered to bring them down. These enemies, whilst obviously the rank and file, could easily become as iconic as Lickers, Crimson Heads and Bandersnatchs have become to the series.
Resident Evil 7’s save system harkens back to its ancestor, with a “safe room” area giving some respite from all the terror and carnage. Cassette recorders replace the old typewriters, and there’s usually a storage box close by to stow any unwanted or unnecessary items. Whilst I’m on the subject of inventory management, pressing triangle will bring up the inventory in-game and up to four items can be quick-assigned to the D-pad rather than having to fumble through the inventory for the item Ethan desperately needs in the midst of combat. As in the past, the inventory can also be used to combine items, such as herbs and chemical fluid to make first aid meds.
Puzzles play a major part in progressing through the Baker home. Again, the puzzles are reminiscent of the original games. Find a particular key or missing piece of a relief to unlock a door. Use instructions found in a document to open a closed drawer. Rotate a sculpture so that its silhouette aligns with a painting hanging from a wall. Classic Resident Evil conundrums – ones that any fans of the core series will find taxing yet familiar in equal measures.
The only gripe I have with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is mainly due to my decision to play the game in VR, which it’s entirely possible to do from start to finish. When totally immersed both visually and auditorily, I found that I spent a relatively short amount of time playing the game before I had to call it a day. This was due to a combination of the constant fear of the unknown and a slight sense of motion sickness, which left me feeling queasy for a while afterwards. Whilst I enjoy playing horror games, the terror feels more real when it’s all around you and there’s no safety net of playing the game on a TV screen.
In conclusion, Capcom has stripped the core gameplay to what made the original Resident Evil and its sequels so successful – simultaneously paying homage whilst injecting new life into the series. Whilst the franchise has always maintained a high standard, RE:6 was a bump in the road, with action over true survival horror. Luckily, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard erases the sour taste that its predecessor left in many fans’ mouths. Be warned, regardless of whether you play Resident Evil 7: Biohazard in VR or not, the game is not for the faint-hearted. Even for hardened survival horror fans, I’d recommend keeping a change of underwear handy, as the game does what the franchise has always done best – make grown men scream like little girls.