I don’t do well in carnival haunted houses. If you want to test my loyalty and devotion as a friend or loved one, do not accompany me into a house of horrors. You could be the most important person in the world to me and I will throw you under the spooky-ass bus if it means I can escape.
Imagine my horror then when I discovered that Resident Evil 7 is basically one long trip through a carnival haunted house.
The Resident Evil series has never been afraid to completely reinvent itself as tastes and hardware evolved. After more or less birthing the Survival Horror genre, Resident Evil 4 made a significant push into horror-heavy third-person shooter territory. Resident Evil 5 leant into the third-person action curve and the less said about Resident Evil 6‘s misguided experimentation the better.
Set in the present day, the game revolves around a man named Ethan Winters. Ethan’s wife Mia is the subject of a missing persons case, having vanished without a trace three years prior. Out of the blue, Ethan receives a bizarre, panicked video message from a woman who appears to be his missing wife. With nothing to lose, Ethan heads directly to Dulvey, Louisiana to chase down this fresh lead. He begins to explore a derelict house, finding evidence of some truly strange and disturbing activity by its former tenants. He discovers Mia trapped in the basement, but not before some demonic force overtakes his lost wife, forcing him to bury an axe in her throat in self-defense. This is the game’s first hint at the horrors to come, throwing the supernatural at you from the jump. It’s at this point that the Baker Family make themselves known to Ethan and the game plays its second hand, delighting in its newfound Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe.
Resident Evil 7‘s mission statement is two-fold: strip away the bloat that has crept into the series over the last few iterations but also move the franchise forward in a meaningful way. Capcom have done this by embracing virtual reality as key to the game’s experience, and I’ll address this first.
Resident Evil 7 marks the first time a mainline entry in the series has been in first-person. Using the PlayStation VR unit if you’re playing on PS4, or using your headset of choice if you’re on PC is the way the game was clearly designed to be played. However if, like me, you’re running it on the Xbox One then chances are you’ll have no access to virtual reality hardware. So what’s it like without the VR headset?
The first thing I noticed when I fired the game up was that while it looked rather grainy and low res for an Xbox One title, it was in the way that most VR games are designed in order to get them running at 60 frames per second. There are, sadly, no options for improving the visuals on the Xbox One version but it didn’t take me long to get used them. I actually came to appreciate them as the story went on, without the addition of VR they furnish the game with a certain low-fi quality befitting its murky, off-the-grid setting.
The second thing I noticed was another hold-over from its VR-centric design, that being the minuscule field of view. Resident Evil 7 puts blinkers on you from the jump, very deliberately keeping what you can see within the frame cropped to maximise the dread payload of every 180 degree turn you make.
When I mentioned earlier that the game strips away the bloat, I really meant it. Resident Evil 7 shares a lot of common ground with the first game in the series — a creepy, dilapidated house built for exploration and backtracking, an incredibly restrictive inventory system, scant resources and punishing item economy, location-based saves, key hunting and weapon aiming that is optimistic at best. Indeed, it almost feels like the game’s first-person viewpoint was pulled from the loading screens of old, where doors would open slowly and stairs would be tackled at a glacial pace.
It’s also nice to have a Resident Evil game that’s capable of scaring you again. The set design, the music, the way the game plays out its jump scares and sets its mood are all better than any entry in the series since Resident Evil 4. This isn’t an action game that ‘s trying to be scary, it’s an out-and-out horror game. Every part of it is designed to scare, unnerve or revolt you and I couldn’t approve of this shift in focus more.
As I mentioned, the controls recall the days of Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill 2 — functional but just clunky enough that it adds to the horror and frequent panic. It makes the whole experience feel more jangly as a whole. Your character’s nerves are frayed and this is translated into controls that are not 100% optimal. Rather than a simple hardware limitation like it used to be in the PSOne era, here it stands as equal parts smart design and loving tribute to the series’ roots.
Resident Evil 7 feels like a wonderful return to form for the series. It’s exactly the kind of radical reconsideration of design that I’d like to see in other aging franchises. It wears its lineage proudly on its sleeve but it isn’t content to coast on its name either. It works hard to do things its own way and do them well.
It’s good to have Resident Evil back at last.
NB: We’re currently taking the PSVR version of the game for a spin and will report our experience with it in the coming days!
Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Genuinely scary; Filled with smart design choices
Lowlights: Graphics may disappoint those expecting lush visuals
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on Xbox One.