Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 24 January
Do you remember the slow creak of an opening door in Resident Evil's Spencer Mansion? These cleverly dressed-up loading screens were created in an attempt to make room transitions feel seamless. Each door cracked open ominously, and you never quite knew what to expect on the other side.
It was tense, but then this was the '90s – a time when people were scared of a man who could squeeze through small gaps in an episode of The X-Files.
21 years later we're all desensitised to gore, dog-based jump scares, and zombies, so Capcom has been forced to reinvent its iconic survival horror series, and not for the first time either. Resident Evil 4 shifted the viewpoint to an over-the-shoulder camera, foregoing the fixed angles of the original trilogy and upping the action – but Resident Evil 7 Biohazard is the most drastic deviation from the norm, changing the perspective to first-person, introducing a new protagonist, Ethan Winters, and relocating the horror to a plantation on the bayou.
Despite these changes, this is the most like classic Resident Evil the series has been for over a decade, cheesy B-movie-style acting and all. The hallmarks of the series' lineage are ever-present, with Capcom carefully dissecting the cadavers of the past, casting away the rot and repurposing the flesh that remains.
Like the first game, you move through this environment collecting crests, statuettes, and other absurd 'keys' to unlock arcane, nonsensical contraptions. You become intimately familiar with the house, the grounds, and beyond, backtracking and learning all the shortcuts as the maps loop around, intertwine, and join back up again unexpectedly.
It also takes cues from Resident Evil 3, with a seemingly unkillable threat stalking you through a good portion of the game, making even revisiting old locations sometimes risky. Then, during the final third, the action ramps up and it all goes a bit Resi 4.
The series motifs are present, too. While forgiving with its checkpointing, the only time you feel truly safe is when standing in one of the save rooms as relaxing music drifts through your headphones. Even Resident Evil 7's doors evoke those early PlayStation memories. Here, you physically push them open, slowly inching forward as the room ahead reveals itself.
Elsewhere, inventory management returns, though you don't have to faff around playing item Tetris here because stuff will just slot in if there's space. You still have to stow non-essential items in chests to get around, however, so foresight is essential.
Herbs return as healing items, but there's only the green variant. One item, a chemical solution, is combined with everything: mixed with a green herb it creates healing medicine that can be splashed on your hands with a button tap; use it with some gunpowder and you get bullets; and if you combine it with some pills, you get a concoction that allows you to see items more easily. It's Resident Evil as you remember it, but streamlined, and it works wonderfully.
Even the shift to first-person feels like a natural fit, doubling down on the immersion and atmosphere while upping the scares. Gunplay uses a slow, deliberate, Resi 4-style aiming system that forces you to line up each shot with care. You can move and shoot, but movement is slowed considerably while aiming, so you need to run and create distance if you don't want to end up cornered, trapped, and dead.
There's also a block button, which allows you to negate some damage from incoming attacks, creating a window to escape. Like in classic Resi, sometimes it's a better idea to run away and conserve ammo and healing items, even if you can win. The thing is, not being able to see what's chasing you – thanks to this new perspective – makes running from enemies often more terrifying than taking them on.
You won't come across any of the series' iconic monsters, however. These are instead replaced by a new threat: the Baker family, a redneck outfit with regenerative abilities and homicidal tendencies, and the Molded – gloopy, blackened creatures that materialise from congealed gunk that drips from the walls and oozes up from the floor. The Bakers are your boss fights, while the Molded replace zombies as your regular enemies.
Family is a core theme of Resi 7, and you become familiar with the stab-happy Baker unit as the story progresses. Each has an environment dedicated to them, all with a different mood. It's perfectly paced. Capcom has done an incredible job of switching things up as the story progresses, moving from tense cat and mouse encounters one minute to claustrophobic basements crammed with monsters the next, while brilliant boss encounters bookend each act. Video tapes can also be discovered, transporting you into the perspective of another character who encountered the Bakers before you turned up, letting you live their short stories through the fuzzy static of VHS and a CRT screen.
The game's final section is a bit underwhelming as an environment, but that's only in contrast to the rest of the game, which is filled with memorable locations packed with detail. In virtual reality, you can put your face right up to post-it notes, stick your head out of windows, ogle at the grotesque contents of the Bakers' refrigerator, and peer through cracks in the walls. When you close a door behind you in an unlit room, the darkness is all-enveloping.
As a VR experience, it's one of the most intense, terrifying games I've ever played, though I wouldn't recommend playing it all this way your first time. Not because it isn't comfortable – it is – but Capcom has been forced to make concessions. For example, Ethan's body doesn't exist in VR – he's just a pair of disembodied arms. You can also only turn in intervals, to stop you feeling sick. Likewise, when you're thrown around by an enemy, the screen fades to black for a second, coming back up when you're in position – again, to stop you vomiting all over yourself like that time on the park bench in your teens with that bottle of White Lightning.
For a 'proper game' in VR though, it really works, it's impressive, and you don't feel at a disadvantage.
Despite some small niggles – such as stealth being so rudimentary it feels redundant, and the aforementioned uninspired late-game location – this is the best horror game since Creative Assembly's wonderful Alien Isolation. It's best if players slowly creak open the game's doors themselves, discovering the story and set-pieces on their own, as this is an experience that works best when it's free to surprise you, like a rotting doberman crashing through a window.