When Resident Evil came out in 1996, it took the relatively unknown survival horror genre and turned it into a worldwide phenomenon. In the two decades since, we’ve seen the series evolve and subsequently lose its way as it attempted to woo far too many audiences at once. What was once the quintessential horror franchise became relegated to the sideline as it shifted to a more action oriented tone in both gameplay and plot. Thanks to a resurgence in the horror genre with first-person titles such as Outlast, Amnesia and P.T, Capcom is back with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, a game that strips away the bloated backstory for a more intimate, and ultimately terrifying entry in the series.
A quick note before we go on: I don’t have PlayStation VR, so I can’t give my verdict on what the game is like when played in VR. I have played the Kitchen demo and the Beginning Hour demo in VR, and whilst the experience is certainly memorable, playing in VR for extended periods of time is exhausting and occasionally nauseating for me. I can’t imagine many people would be comfortable playing the full game – which for me lasted close to ten hours – entirely in VR.
Set four years after the events of Resident Evil 6, you play as Ethan, an altogether ordinary citizen looking for his missing wife, Mia. He follows a lead which brings him to the creepy Baker estate, where unimaginable horrors await him. Make no mistake, there are no beefed up, boulder-punching protagonists to be found here – Ethan is constantly vulnerable, and whilst you soon find weapons with which to defend yourself, ammo is very scarce, and your enemies are relentless. Simply running and hiding is more often than not the most viable choice, and no one will think less of you for doing it.
First glimpsed in the Beginning Hour demo, the Baker family are the main enemies in the game. Jack is a walking powerhouse reminiscent of the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. He stalks the corridors of the main house, breaking down walls and batting chairs out of the way in his constant hunt for Ethan. You are never safe from Jack’s presence, and if he spots you, be preparing to run for dear life. Bullets may slow him down somewhat, but he soon makes it very clear that guns are no match for him in a scene that will make you grimace with horror and disgust.
For fans of Resident Evil who are concerned that the series had lost its edge in recent years, rest assured, Resident Evil 7; Biohazard features some of the most vile scenes and enemy designs ever featured in the franchise. Other than the Baker family, you’ll come across creatures known as The Molded. The name alone invokes feelings of disgust, but the enemies themselves are simply horrific. They bare a startling resemblance to the Regenerators from Resident Evil 4 and the Ooze from Resident Evil Revelations, but The Molded are faster and in far greater numbers. I won’t spoil anymore of the creature designs, but I’ve a feeling that those with an aversion to insects will be in for a hell of a ride.
In addition to the scaled back combat, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard harks back to the series’ roots with game mechanics that fans will be very familiar with. Herbs are back again, and rather than the convoluted tablet form they took in Resident Evil 6, they can either be used on their own for a slight boost in health, or combined with Chemical Fluid to create a bottle of First Aid Med. The Chemical Fluid is a universal item; it can be combined with either herbs to aid with health, or gun powder to create bullets. How you use them is a game of chance; do you sacrifice bullets to recover from a recent attack, or risk being killed to boost your chance in combat? Your health and ammunition can always be checked in the item menu; much like the earlier entries in the series, health is displayed via a coloured heart rate display on a handy smart watch that Ethan is gifted with early on. And yes, you’ll also find the beloved crank in this game.
Safe rooms also make a welcome return. You’ll find a save station (which is an electronic recording device; no ink ribbons needed here), a storage box to manage your inventory, and various items, some of which may be locked away until you find a lock pick. As you explore the environments and grow more familiar with the layout, you’ll often find yourself sprinting to the nearest safe room to recuperate after a deadly encounter. They’re the only rooms in the game that provide a chance to draw breath, and the soothing yet mysterious music adds an effective atmosphere.
Puzzles from the Resident Evil games of old return for the new entry. As you explore the dilapidated house, you’ll have to find specific keys to unlock doors, or examine items in a certain way to find out what they conceal. A particular favourite puzzle of mine featured a painting with a silhouette of an eagle, with a powerful light pointing directly towards the painting. Picking up a seemingly useless item would prompt you to turn the item around until the shadow it casts on the painting would take the shape on an eagle. It’s not particularly difficult, but it’s nice to see clever puzzle designs like this make a return to the series. And don’t worry, there’s nothing quite so abstract as the dummy finger puzzle seen in the Beginning Hour demo. It successfully created a significant buzz around the game, but actually solving the puzzle required a lot of trial and error with many people seeking help from the internet. It frustrated me, and I was glad not to have to endure anything similar in the main game.
Finishing the game once unlocks an additional difficulty setting known as Madhouse Mode, though those of you who purchased the steelbook version of the game or the digital deluxe edition will unlock this from the outset. Madhouse Mode is the classic Resident Evil experience through and through; the enemies are far more dangerous, pursuing you with the speed of a Crimson Head zombie and the brutality of a Tyrant. Hiding quickly becomes the only option here, and every encounter will bring out a cold sweat on your brow. Additionally, save points in Madhouse Mode require the use of cassette tapes, much like the ink ribbons of old. If you don’t have any, you’ll have to rely on the auto save points, which on this particular difficulty setting are few and far between. It’s a mode not for the faint of heart, trust me.
I have little to complain about with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. There could have been a bit more variety in the enemies you face – there are the Bakers and a number of The Molded to encounter, but aside from a few surprises, that’s pretty much it. Plus I would have enjoyed a few more puzzles to break up the nerve-wracking tension. But I’m nitpicking here – after stumbling hard with Resident Evil 6, and more recently Umbrella Corps, Capcom have successfully reinvigorated a series in dire need of redirection. This is a soft reboot, and is the perfect entry point for newcomers to the series, whilst veterans will find plenty of nostalgic elements and surprises to keep them satisfied. It feels so good to have a Resident Evil game actually feel scary again, which I haven’t really experienced since Resident Evil 4. I hope the game does well, because Capcom are onto a winner here. The godfather of survival horror is back. Welcome to the family.