Much like the franchise’s monsters, Resident Evil has always proven to be an ever-changing beast. We’ve seen the series grow from survival horror at its inception, mutate into action packed co-op with the release of Resident Evil 5, and even sprout strange appendages in the forms of Outbreak (an online party based survival horror offering) and The Umbrella Chronicles (an alternate realty squad based, third person shooter). In the series’ 21 year tenure since the original release in 1996, it has tried much and served too many masters to struggle to stay relevant in an age where intentionally awkward controls and gross polygons aren’t enough to scare anymore. Make no mistake, it pains me to call the series out for trying something different with each game and various spin offs. Taking risks and not letting your series stagnate in one style is a blessing in an age of yearly releases for shooters and survival/exploration game after survival/exploration game; but developer Capcom felt like they hit a point where they were not longer trying to make me fall in love all over again for different reasons with each title; and instead were just throwing out something, anything, hoping it stuck. It all seemed to culminate in Resident Evil 6 where fans were sold the idea of bringing all the “strengths” of the series together. All your favorite characters in one place? Check. A campaign for horror and a campaign for action? Check. But perhaps Capcom checked too many boxes, because the end product was mess that wasn’t scary and didn’t play smoothly enough to be considered great action; and though the game sold well it was panned by fans and critics alike. In a gambit to outdo itself, Resident Evil seemed to have undone itself.
This brief history lesson of the series is important to establish because it serves to underscore just how hard of a break Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is from the previous entries. No Co-op, no upgrading weapons, no breaks between levels with a score. Biohazard is atmosphere from the beginning as it depicts Ethan Winters driving through a long stretch of country road in dappled late afternoon sunlight to pick up his wife (who has been missing for 3 years) from the Baker family estate. Of course upon arriving nothing is right as not only is his wife Mia not around but no one seems to have been around for decades. Astute readers and fans of the series will know that Ethan and the player are in for a long night as the game unfolds as you explore the old, broken, and at times down right grotesque surprises the game has in store. That is one of the greatest strengths of the game: knowing how to scare the player. Not with pure jump scares (though there is an appropriate but not irritating amount of those) , but with the build and release (or lack there of) of tension. I don’t want to spoil much, but there is one particular moment that I love this game for because it demands that the player look at the screen to solve a small puzzle after a lengthy build of tension. As I went to about the dark room this puzzle was in trying to solve it, I held my breath, waiting for the scare to come. And when I had my solution, I hesitated for a long while; all to certain that something on the other side of the door was waiting for me.
And that is the beautiful choreography of the game, a harrowing balance between building tension with enemy encounters then scaring you with story beats and scripted moments. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how solid the gunplay felt. Each landed shot created a satisfying reaction from the enemy I was fending off, and each missed shot made me curse to myself for not being more patient and lining up a better shot. The shooting is certainly not snappy and smooth like Destiny, but rather than make me feel cheated out of a successful hit like older Resident Evils or Metal Gear Solid might due to awkward controls; I felt like my missed shots were my fault. And the rare occasion I got a new weapon was a powerful feeling. Not powerful in making me feel like a badass, but powerful in the relief that I might not be as screwed in that situation as I thought I was. Even keeping yourself stock becomes part of the tension, as rather than constantly pass out handgun bullets or healing green herbs, Biohazard has crafting materials littered about the mansion. Often I found myself huddled in a corner or behind an obstacle staring at my inventory screen unsure of what I wanted to craft most. If I have one green herb, one explosive powder, and one chemical reagent, I can either make a healing item or more bullets. But that chemical reagent is only good for use with one other item. Do I feel confident in my ability to dodge and get a few more rounds off? Or do I want to double down on health because the next situation I get into is bound to go sideways? Even though the game lets me block enemy attacks for reduced damage (a motion that can feel a little silly as your character holds their arms up to block what is sometimes a pretty hefty attack from a power tool), the second the player lets up from that defense they are face to face with the enemy and better have something planned.
I found myself fascinated with the world (house?) around me as I explored. Wondering what happened to these people and what their lives were like before, I got glimpses of what that may have been. Toys from one child’s youth, trophies from a science fair, a picture of one of the Baker family in military uniform; though the main story isn’t as strong as say Silent Hill 2 and can be downright predictable at times; I was still pulled in hard enough to really care about seeing how things wrapped up and not just staying long enough to get my next scare. Capcom has learned a lot from other titans in the genre like Outlast, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, in that sometimes the most terrifying way to get at someone is to let their imagination assume what happened in this room; not to toss a zombie into a closet and have them pop out when you walk by. Biohazard has a look that is hard for me to put my finger on. The rooms look good, and the grossness is appropriately uncomfortable, but all the people look just a little off. That works really well when faced with the Baker family or something that is supposed to scare you, but can feel a little distracting at times when someone is just trying to talk to you. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the first fully-fledged AAA titles playable fully in VR, and while I did not have the opportunity to do so, I would like to and appreciate that at no point did I feel like I was missing something for not having VR. The most I ever noticed was when being grabbed from behind a giant palm and fingers would cover my screen, simulating someone grabbing my head. It didn’t look bad per se, but I have to imagine the effect is better in VR.
It’s difficult to gush too much about a horror game with spoiling things that you want to be stunning for people to discover or experience on their own. I don’t want to ruin the puzzles because while there are some genuinely interesting ones that are satisfying to solve. I don’t want to ruin the boss fights because they feel harrowing, frantic, and are more than just running around a square room shooting something until it dies. The sound design is one of this games biggest strengths as the house creaks and pops around you and you whip around to face the noise praying it isn’t something coming up on you. Ambient noise with good headphones makes the game come alive and makes it feel like there are things moving around on their own accord, not just waiting to scare you. But for my money things like that should be natural and expected in excellent horror games, not a pleasant surprise. Realizing this as I finished Biohazard and reflected on it, put into perspective that this game shouldn’t just make fans of the series feel good because it’s an excellent Resident Evil game. This game should be viewed as the new high bar for horror to hit and exceed, a feat that is doubly worth noting because one of the series creators Shinji Mikami left Capcom some years ago and made The Evil Within, a game that I thought was fine enough but didn’t hit nearly enough of the highs I wanted it to. This game isn’t a reminder that Resident Evil is still alive in the shell of some zombie corpse. This game (much like Final Fantasy XV) is a new breath of life for a series that is had been long in the tooth and too beholden to some old sense of nostalgia for too long. Sure, the writing and dialogue is still a little silly. And some people might not be sure how to feel about paying $60.00 for a 10 to 12 hour game. But in a time when I feel like I’m being begged to care about this fiction or that, this game creaks the door open and I opted to take a (trembling) step through. I fully believe that when people look back on the greats of the horror genre, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard will be among them not just for burning away the rotted corpse of its past; but for making a new monster.
If numbers are your thing, I wholeheartedly give this game 4 out of 5 stars. Well worth your $60, even if you’re gaming on a budget.
Played on PlayStation 4.