Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (RE7) is arguably one of the most eagerly anticipated games in recent memory, and it undoubtedly delivers on its promise of atmospheric, "isolated view"-style Horror. As a long-standing fan of the Resident Evil series, specifically the original Survival Horror roots that began in RE1 and RE2, I couldn't wait to experience this new addition to the story. As such, I experienced this exceptional title through the rose-colored lenses of someone craving a "return" to those original elements. Players who either disliked the earlier RE releases from Capcom or found them secondary to the action-packed, zombie slay-fest transition that RE4 and RE5 ushered in, might not devour Resident Evil 7: Biohazard with the same enthusiasm and nostalgia as I did.
Resident Evil: Reborn?
RE7 introduces us to a new protagonist – an ordinary but brave man named Ethan – whose wife, Mia, went missing three years ago. In a series of video clips, Mia warns him to stay away, but we quickly discover that Ethan later received word from her to pick her up in rural Louisiana. The setting is contemporary, and the RE7 story unfolds "after the dramatic events of Resident Evil 6," according to the Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Steam description. In the opening sequence, Ethan arrives at the bayou and wanders through thick, swampy lands towards a seemingly abandoned building; it’s a fantastic start, and paints a bleak, eerie backdrop that is certainly reminiscent of classic RE titles. Dense, overgrown brush sways on every side of the path, casting long shadows and inducing the sensation of something lurking nearby. A figure walks across the narrow path up ahead, only to vanish; crows gathered in a foreboding murder take flight in a rush of feathers and squawks, a sight that harks back to original RE roots.
Upon entering the house, which was the subject of the RE7 demo and trailers leading up to the game's release, players move through a deteriorating mess of a former home, complete with personal effects still in place. Paintings on the walls reflect ghastly visions, like a portrait of a person with a bag over his head. The kitchen is full of decaying food and trash. The walls have holes and torn wallpaper, exposing the skeleton of a building that is one rough storm away from collapse. Initial exploration here uncovers a tape recorder, which serves as the Save Point item in RE7, something gloriously akin to the typewriter in the original RE titles. Closed doors must be opened with the shove of an arm, recreating the moment of suspense the erstwhile "loading screen" doorways of RE1. These little details are delightful, and they certainly speak to Capcom's attempts to recover those lost Survival Horror themes. I imagine that, for newcomers to the series, these moments of suspense could either create vivid enhancements to the tension or brief seconds of frustration as they wait to see what lies beyond.
The discovery of an old VHS tape leads to a playable mini adventure, in which the player becomes a member of a TV show crew investigating the same decrepit house. These new characters poke around and speculate on the missing "Baker" family. The situation goes south very quickly, and a secret passage leads them to the basement. Alas, members of the crew meet their brutal demise in that lower level, at the hands of a nefarious resident. It's similar to what fans experienced in the first RE7 Demo, but it isn't an exact recreation. At this point, the ominous ambience begins to rapidly merge with nail-biting action; Ethan soon encounters his long-lost wife, Mia, but things aren't what they seem. She seems incoherent at times, or confused, at best - which, as veterans of the RE franchise may recall from scientist diaries, are signs of imminent danger as a host succumbs to... something. It is the first of many VHS tapes scattered around the RE7 landscape, and these first characters are part of a host of intriguing, exceptionally well-voiced personalities introduced along the way.
I love that Capcom brought back the traditional Resident Evil Safe Rooms. Located throughout the game, these havens of temporary safety and sanity include a chest stash for your items -- again, very similar to the original containers in the older titles – and the inventory is accessible from within any of the other stashes. The medical spray seems to have been reborn as a liquid ointment, and much to my relief, green medical herbs enjoy a reprise as well. These throwbacks are enormous for old school RE fans, and further contribute to a successful return to the roots of the franchise. As I explored the house, I became increasingly convinced that the Capcom team decided to recreate elements of the first RE1 mansion here in RE7. I half-expected to find a pair of gems to slide into the eyes of the animal head mounted on the wall in the room with the pool table. A long, shadowy terrace complete with lattice work and dark skies conjured haunting images of flocks of crows attacking and shrieking for blood.
A Stellar Experience, With a Few Issues
My biggest complaint about Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is that the storyline, which starts out as a compelling, gripping tale of terror and intrigue, falls off rather abruptly at times. Certain portions drag, losing precious momentum, and the ending left me a bit deflated. But there are twists and turns in the plot along the way, so I am eager to see where the writers go from here. Another issue with RE7, minor though it may be, is a few highly unrealistic moments. While that might seem absurd in a game already dealing with regrown-limbs, mutations, and near-immortal opponents, these qualities make it important for other physics to be plausible. At one point, Ethan uses a seemingly regular chainsaw to cut through a thick, metal obstacle, in a way that would certainly destroy ordinary machinery. Little moments of disbelief in the small details can unsettle the immersion, but again, this is a minor aspect of RE7.
More concerning is that the puzzles in RE7 feel lackluster overall. Often, the secret of progressing to a new location is a mere case of using the correct item(s) in the appropriate spot(s). It's a systematic process, and even the "shadow puzzles" are more about patience and accuracy than deciphering a clue. The challenge level does increase as the game progresses, and towards the end, there are a few puzzles worthy of the RE name. I would have enjoyed a little more mystery and problem-solving with my creepy, unnerving adventure, but I suppose that the fact that puzzles exist at all is a step in the right direction. Still, RE7 steps dangerously close to spoon-feeding solutions to fans who deserve more credit for their ingenuity and problem-solving skills.
The inventory screen no longer pauses the gameplay and feels a bit cumbersome to navigate. It seems intentional, however, like a tribute to the mechanics of the original game's menus, and it adds to the suspense of the moment tremendously. It seems like a calculated choice, but then again, the RE7 developers have no doubt considered their techniques extensively - and it shows. In exchange, players gain the ability to switch weapons with the press of a button, rather than the old requirement of accessing the menu for arsenal choices. Additionally, the selection of first-person over third-person perspective seems the logical option for a game that boasts impressive Virtual Reality components. It is a break from the standard, RE-style viewpoint, which is one major choice on Capcom's part that deviates from the original formula, but it works here and lends an extra oomph to the unnerving environment.
Capcom has seamlessly taken the Resident Evil gameplay back to the themes that made it so revolutionary and utterly addictive. There is real horror here, a woven web of intriguing and disturbing plot pieces scattered in fragments within a rich, vibrant setting. Fear comes to life, in creaking floorboard behind you, the flash of a silhouette in a doorway, or a seemingly endless malice stalking you throughout the house. Players who shy away from the Horror genre, as a rule, may rate RE7 more critically – this is not just a spooky, weird Action title. But those of us who cut our teeth on the Survivor Horror genre have a buffet of elements to savor, and the psychological aspects are top-notch. I was committed, from the very beginning to unlocking the whole story of Mia's fate, the truth of the "Family" and their origin, and to discovering what would become of Ethan.
I have been waiting for years to get another taste of the original Resident Evil games that I fell in love with long ago, with dwindling hope after RE4 ushered in so many Action elements. But I stuck with the series, even if I couldn't justify the loss of challenging puzzles, terror, and an inventory management system shoehorned in just to gain co-op gameplay. Finally, Capcom has rewarded long-standing fans such as myself, and given us a brand new take on the genre they helped to define: challenging Survival Horror, with genuine suspense and anguish. It took me over twelve hours to defeat Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, which is a very moderate duration for a linear, single-player campaign, and upcoming DLC will lend more replay value to an already intense experience.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a game that I would use to introduce a friend to the Resident Evil universe. Previously, I've been a huge advocate for starting at the beginning, and "knowing your roots." But Capcom has created a new chapter that effectively recaptures old charms for a modern era, and I hope this is just the beginning of a reimagined, polished series of new RE titles that will continue to unite old school fans and newcomers alike. RE7 is as near to perfection within its genre, and its legacy, as any game I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing; it is a must-buy, especially for RE1 loyalists. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, and help all of us send a clear message to Capcom: More of this, please, and soon.