Resident Evil VII: Biohazard Review (SPOILER-FREE)

Resident Evil’s been on a strange path the last couple decades. After debuting in 1996 and pioneering survival horror, it digressed to eventually become an action shooter franchise, abandoning its horror roots. Capcom’s been silent about mainline series entries since Resident Evil 6 in 2012, the peak of this non-horror all-action phase for RE. But then came the surprising reveal at Sony’s E3 2016 press conference of “Resident Evil VII: Biohazard”. From that announcement it was clear that this new installment in the iconic series was meant to be a return to form for the franchise. After completing RE7’s main story I’m very glad to say: the survival is back. The horror, the sweet relief of reaching a safe room again…thank Spencer, Resident Evil is really back.

I’ve been a big follower of Resident Evil from back when I first received the game with my PlayStation in 1998 (see my RE Retrospective here for more insight into my personal history with the franchise). I’ve been there through the highest-highs of the Nemesis days to the lowest-lows of the Ustanak days. I’ve desperately wanted Capcom to return RE to the harrowing tension that it had when it debuted. For so long it seemed like those days were gone for RE, but RE7 is a triumphant return to what makes RE great.

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While RE1 took certain tonal and design inspirations from George Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies, RE7 pays tribute to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and even ‘Evil Dead’. The game also follows a similar storytelling pattern that RE1 did, with an isolated situation slowly giving way to a bigger conspiracy of terror and intrigue. RE7 never reaches the scale that RE1, but the plot begins similarly as basic. You play as Ethan, a man looking for his wife Mia, whom he thought was dead. A supposedly posthumous message sent to him leads him to Dulvey, Louisiana. Specifically, the residential grounds of the Baker family. You begin your exploration and things get messy fairly quickly. Ethan must fight his way through a world of terror, slowly uncovering the truth to what’s happened at the Baker estate.

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This plot discovery comes through traditional exposition like in most games, files you can read through like in previous RE games, but also through the occasional VHS tape. With these, you can play through the disturbing ordeals previous parties have endured in this place, revealing tidbits of the plot but also hinting at game mechanics or enemies you’ll be encountering eventually as Ethan. The game captures the same undercurrent of human misery that permeated RE1, when you read files scattered throughout the game to discover how the mansion ended up in this state through the eyes of the innocent employees who suffered the consequences. RE7 is quite similar, learning what the Bakers have done through the eyes of abducted victims.

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Altogether, while RE7 has a great and compelling tale to tell, it’s much less plot-heavy than the convoluted storylines that have made up the most recent RE titles. The situation opens up beyond the initial setup to explain how things ended up the way they did at the Baker house, completing its own arc and even loosely tying in with the series as a whole. But the weight of the plot never becomes too great, successfully balancing increasing scale with character-driven intimacy.

The game maintains itself as a fresh and innovative direction for the series, and this includes its approach to story and character. We’re introduced to a new cast in RE7, all performed wonderfully through animation and performance capture. The protagonist Ethan often voices out loud what I as the player tend to be thinking, since he’s just about as lost in this wild situation as we are, turning into a great lense to be introduced to this world with.

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The antagonists of the game, the Baker family, are an incredible diverse set of wacky manias that help make this game really special. This small family are each set up with their own distinct set of scares and challenges,within their own sections of the spread out grounds of the Baker estate. They’re all major villains, and the way you have to either run, hide or desperately fight against them to survive reminds me quite a bit of previous RE monsters. So the Bakers are like a family a backwoods, personality-filled, darkly-funny Nemeses from RE3. A terrifying proposition, but one that really makes this journey great.

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Besides the Bakers, the other type of enemy you encounter throughout the game are known as The Molded, victims of gruesome experiments who’ve become oozing monsters you have to overcome. These enemies are less impactful and interesting than the Bakers, but they serve their purpose in the game well. They come in several different sizes, speeds and strengths. They keep you on your toes, and add to the game’s tension.

The boss fights are amazingly-done, ranging from creepy and alarming to exciting and thrillingly-raw. Overall the enemy types could be more varied, but they’re also integrated very well with the aesthetic of the world; they’re like a product of the dirt, grime and moisture you’re steeped in on these wretched, swampy Louisiana killing grounds.

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The world itself is one of the most remarkable aspects about the game. The environment itself, as well as the tone it exhibits, makes this game special, scary and peculiar. This is one of the ways that Capcom have successfully recaptured the spirit of classic RE. First off, rather than starting your quest with witty banter or explosive bombast like in recent entries, you instead start the game with a thick and creeping dread, along with sort of an eerie calm. The game maintains this tension throughout, punctuated occasionally by some dark humor or the sweet salvation of classic RE: the safe room where you can explore your resources, collect items and save your game while remaining free from harm.

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Some of my favorite games in recent memories are those that pack detail and character into every square inch of the game’s environment. The ‘Arkham’ games from Rocksteady do this, as does Rockstar with the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ games. Every section you encounter feels lived-in, and you can imagine what disturbing events may have occurred in any given corner of the Baker grounds. One small example I noticed which frightened me every time was in the main hall of the primary Baker house. A small electric fan runs, casting an eerie moving shadow on the wall. Every damn time I passed through this area I was caught off guard and thought I was being stalked when I saw the slow rotating shadow of the fan.

The entire game carries this subtle terror across its diverse range of settings. Whether it’s the creaking and knocking you hear around you while exploring a house, the dripping and oozing of areas infected by The Molded, or the cavernous resonance of certain late-game areas, the environment is constantly unnerving in different ways. It’s nuance like this that develop a tangible and affecting atmosphere that RE games have lost since the classic installments from years before.

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Classic RE is also recaptured through the gameplay. This game wisely utilizes modern mechanics and horror game innovations to chart a new direction for the series, but its based on what made RE work in the first place. You’re ill-equipped and scared in a bizarre and horrifying setting, and you must explore the hellish map, carefully manage your items and strategically fight and/or avoid powerful monstrosities in order to survive. There’s an inherent helplessness, but along with that is the hope of being able to fight back. Then, even when you’re given the power to resist, you’re still barely scraping by (at least until near the end of the game).

These are hallmarks of Resident Evil, and despite this game’s flaws and certain new ground it ventures into, this game gloriously returns to what made Resident Evil an outstanding, compelling and terrifying series in the first place. Old fans need to play it and appreciate it, but new fans have a great jumping-on point that doesn’t rely much of series lore. With great replay value through unlockable items and multiple endings, as well as awesome and free DLC already being released and planned throughout the next several months, altogether RE7 is a package everyone with the stones to brave it shouldn’t miss.

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FINAL SCORE

9.0/10

Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is a fantastic horror refresh, bringing the combat, exploration, tense survival and creeping dread of older games into an interesting setting with newer game mechanics. A perfect mix of classic Resident Evil and modern horror games, capturing the spirit of what RE1 did in a fresh way that compels the series forward.

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+ Consistently dark and fear-inducing

+ Innovative new gameplay mechanics married with classic RE tropes

+ Organic new story that moves the series into uncharted territory

+ Painstaking nuance and thoughtful design create a unique and terrifying world

– Lack of enemy variety

Seth Zielinski is a lifelong lover of VHS, horror, VHS horror, and lunchtime Jill sandwiches. Follow his endeavors on Twitter @CapAmericanski.

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