RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD Review
Since it was unveiled just over six months ago at E3 2016, RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD has been my most hotly anticipated game of this year. I’m admittedly a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Resident Evil, enjoying the more recent iterations despite their faults. And faults they did have! Though mechanically superb, titles like RE5 and RE6 lack the horror elements that originally defined the series, and it could be argued that ever since RE4 (or even CODE VERONICA,) Resident Evil has been gradually turning into what is best described as Metal Gear Solid with zombies. With RE7, Capcom is returning to the roots of the series, tossing out the undead espionage and giving us raw, unfiltered horror.
In a first for the series, RE7 hands us the controls of not one of the main four characters of Chris, Jill, Leon, or Claire, but rather newcomer Ethan Winters. After receiving a lead on his missing wife Mia, Ethan travels to the Baker farm in Louisiana, quickly discovering that Mia and everyone else in the area is infected with a virus making them nigh invincible and homicidally angry. Trapped in the bayou, you must risk life and limb (and oh boy, are your limbs at risk) to escape with a cure for the contagion.
As a faceless man of few words, we sadly don’t get to know Ethan too well over the ten hour story. Ethan’s most defining characteristic is that, in stark contrast to the military-trained operatives and special agents of Resident Evils past, he is just a regular schmuck having a really, really bad day. Likewise, the villains stand out with the distinction of being the real stars of an RE title. Aside from Mia, the Baker clan are an absolutely terrifying bunch of psychos, presiding over their mutated flock with a brand of ultraviolence and Southern hospitality right out of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Each chapter of the adventure takes you through a different wing, and owner, of the dilapidated Baker estate, and figuring out how things got the way they are makes for a riveting, emotionally-charged mystery.
Cool it, Jack!
The most shocking change, of course, is the adoption of the first-person view. Much like RE4’s shift to the over-the-shoulder camera, RE7’s new POV dramatically changes the way the game is played. But where RE4’s camera merely made that game more manageable from an action perspective, RE7’s new look not only augments the mechanics, but makes the game suitably scarier. Much like the fixed camera of early Resident Evils, the direct POV creates a claustrophobic feel. The oddly pulled-in field of view gels perfectly with the tight corridors, limiting vision so that players must always stay on their toes, but never to the point where it becomes unbearable. I can only hope this is a change that sticks, because it’s as effective as it is fresh.
Despite the unprecedented change of perspective, RE7 plays like the original RESIDENT EVIL, and those who worried from the impressions of the BEGINNING HOUR demo that the game felt like SILENT HILL or OUTLAST will have nothing to fear. Ethan has access to a variety of conventional and improvised firearms, blades, and explosives to ward off mutants, and blowing off a monster’s head with a carefully aimed shot is exceedingly satisfying. However, the limited supply of ammunition, curatives, and inventory space to hold them all means that running and hiding are often preferable strategies to fighting, especially when some of the tougher monsters begin to make an appearance. Backtracking across the plantation to solve puzzles and unlock pathways, avoiding the constant additions of things that go bump in the night along the way, is still the primary gameplay cycle, making RE7 as much a game reliant on long-term planning and economization as it is on player skill.
Remembering to exfoliate is important, too
In fact, RE7 is as much a remake of RESIDENT EVIL as it is a reboot, playing out like THE FORCE AWAKENS of survival horror. The game is so structurally identical to the first game that, like that other seventh episode, I was able to accurately predict many major plot beats well before they happened. In addition, the best content is frontloaded. It’s not that the rest of the game is bad, but rather that the first two hours embody unparalleled excellence, featuring tense escapes, a brilliant environment, and a trio of the best boss fights I’ve played in years. The middle act stumbles in visual variety of locales and enemies, but picks up for a linear, but nontheless exciting, conclusion.
That being said, RE7 is thematically like no Resident Evil before. With no exceptions, every game in the series has sported a Mature rating, but never has it felt more appropriate than here. RE7 embodies its grindhouse aesthetic with full gusto, frequently displaying absolutely wild spectacles of gore and brutality. Unlike the zombies and oversized animals of earlier games, RE7’s monsters truly boggle the mind, growing increasingly grotesque in design. All of this is helped by the fact that RE7 boasts absolutely stunning graphics, approaching the uncanny valley at times in terms of photorealism. This is hands down the best looking game on consoles, more so than even BATTLEFIELD 1, and I look forward to what the brand new RE Engine will bring us moving forward.
Hopefully more chainsaw duels
Unfortunately, much of what it will bring us is story DLC for this game. RE7’s plot, though engrossing, leaves many loose ends by the time the credits roll, including a very strange endgame cameo that ties it into the rest of the series. The game teases upcoming, downloadable expansions to the story in a post-credits sequence, and even though some of this is listed as free, is it too much to ask for a plot that can resolve itself in one ten-hour run? It’s a sour note that doesn’t fully register until about an hour after you put the controller down, but also one that only exists because this is arguably the first compelling Resident Evil story ever.
The silver lining in this particular narrative shortcoming is that RE7 gives plenty of reasons to be replayed. Side missions, optional puzzles, and the return of branching paths guarantee that you won’t be able to witness all content in just one playthrough. Unlockable items for subsequent playthroughs make speedrun challenges and harder difficulty modes more palatable, but you’re still more than welcome to go for that knife-only run if you’re feeling particularly masochistic.
In a genre where “horror” predominantly means either glorified bouts of hide-and-seek or a shooting gallery with jump scares, it’s something akin to the resurrection of Christ to experience the messianic return of the original survival horror. RESIDENT EVIL 7 is not a perfect game, but it’s pretty damn exceptional, and it beats the hell out of any other horror game on the market. This is a reboot done right, nostalgic in moderation, but revolutionary where it needs to be. It’s been too long, but the champ is back on top.
Reviewed on Playstation 4, also available on Xbox One and PC