The long-running Resident Evil series started life as a foreboding survival horror title which saw you roam around a mansion full of undead zombies and unspeakable creatures. You just never knew what was around the next corner or door; there was a constant level of fear and dread and it was the first game I've encountered where I really felt apprehensive to progress. The original Resident Evil played on emotions that I didn't believe were possible in a video game. It's brilliant and easily my favourite of the series..
Fast forward a number of years and the series has evolved from survival horror to a much more action-oriented game which left many fans disillusioned. You could take out all manner of creatures infected with various viruses with a large arsenal of weapons without breaking a sweat. The series lost what made it special: psychological horror and suspense. Resident Evil VII aims to bring the series back to its roots, and for the first time in the main series it reverts to a first person perspective and supports PlayStation VR (which I took full advantage of for this review) to create a more immersive experience than ever before.
You take on the role of Ethan Winters who has made the trip to Louisiana after being contacted by his wife Mia. Sounds conventional enough. There's a twist, however: Mia has been missing for three years and has been presumed dead.
You start the game walking through the claustrophobic bayou strewn with trees. An opening reveals a large and daunting mansion which doesn't fail to bring back memories and the chills of your first encounter with the Spencer mansion from the original title.
The gate is locked so you need to take the scenic route. Along the way, you are met with some alarming sights. You approach a structure composed of a bull's head and limbs which oozes liquid to the floor. On closer inspection you see the limbs are arranged neatly and purposefully to form a make-shift arch giving you an early glimpse into the deranged minds of the Baker family.
Continuing, you happen across a run-down wooden house almost consumed in the local flora. Some windows are blocked by an assortment of metal, wire mesh and barbed wire, a concoction fashioned by a madman you ponder. You hear noises inside and are reluctant to enter, but there's nowhere else to go. The open door slams shut behind you - the only only way is forward through another door.
Not long after, you meet the disturbing individuals which make up the Baker family. They've been kind enough to invite you for dinner. More specifically, when you recover consciousness, you find yourself gagged and tied to a chair at the dinner table and it's not long before you realise that human tissue is on the menu. Anyone for spare ribs?
Looking at each twisted member of the Baker family sitting at the table is very unsettling. To your left you see a corpse-like elderly woman, and to your right the Mother figure who has a face which is the stuff of nightmares. A knock at the door disperses the family members leaving you alone with the Grandmother. You escape from the chair unarmed, and this is where the game begins in earnest.
Soon you'll bump into the head (and father figure) of the family Jack who touts a large weapon of some sort. Jack is big and menacing, and will hunt you down in a very small and enclosed section of the mansion, so you have no option but to run and hide by slipping through a crack in the wall or diving behind a sofa or table. Alternatively, if you've unlocked a near-by safe room then you can always cower to that. In short, you need to get to safety, and quick. It's in these moments where Resident Evil VII is at its best and most terrifying. You are constantly on edge and dreading what's around the next corner. It was like experiencing the original Resident Evil again after all these years, except this is more evil, more real, and, needless to say, more terrifying - especially when experiencing it in the world of virtual reality.
At one point I found myself entering a hatch in the floor, making my way under the mansion floorboards. I can hear Jack's footsteps above and my heart rate accelerates. I'm almost expecting him to appear behind me or for him to smash his weapon of death through the floor into my spine: it doesn't happen. I emerge into a dimly lit laundry room which looks filthy and damp. I spot a tape player on a rusty metal table with an item chest behind it. And then it dawns on me: this dark and dirty room is a safe room.
A far cry from the traditionally well lit and nicely furnished save rooms of old, it really hits home that Resident Evil VII is an altogether different beast and never wants you to feel at ease. Even though it's a safe room, I still expect one of the family members to burst through the door at any time and I feel anything but safe. Resident Evil VII is psychological horror at its best.
Not so lethal weapon
Zombies found in previous games are replaced by “molds”. These creatures are black in appearance and can be hard to make out against the shadows. Much like with Dead Space's Necromorphs, you can target limbs to handicap your foes. Attacking the arms will take away its main swiping move, whereas removing a leg will hinder its movement. Combat using the PlayStation VR feels decent enough, if a little clunky at times. I opted to turn off auto aim for added difficulty and aim for the head for maximum damage. This is achieved using the PSVR by hitting the aim button and then simply moving your head around to target specific points, which works surprisingly well for the most part.
After persevering with a knife, you soon stumble across your first firearm. Normally this would install a sense of power and confidence, but after emptying a few rounds into the nearest monster you soon realise that you still have a fight on your hands and sometimes you're better off running rather than standing your ground. The smaller weapons serve as a constant reminder of just how vulnerable you can be.
Although the game feels and begins very differently from any other Resident Evil game in the series, it's not long before familiar elements materialise which gives you some assurance and comfort in the otherwise unfamiliar and petrifying residence. There's maps, lockpicks and green herbs to find along with item boxes to help with inventory management. The cardiograph even makes a return and can be seen on your wrist watch displaying your health. This is accessed by pressing the inventory button. Oddly at times, however, your character's arm can get in the way of the inventory screen which can be frustrating.
New items to the series include bobbleheads named “Mr Everywheres” which need smashing to “collect”, 20 of which are hidden throughout the game. Antique coins are also littered around which can be amassed to unlock character bonuses to health and reloading, along with an additional powerful firearm. Treasure photos can also be found in limited numbers which show the location of a secret item. Despite the photographic reference, these can be tough to find.
Another new item in Resident Evil VII are the videotapes which allow you to experience previous events played out in short gameplay sequences. These events add meat to the storyline and enable you to get a good look at future locations and item placements. These sections take considerable time to load which can yank you out of the experience somewhat, but are completely optional.
The game also has a simple crafting system where otherwise useless objects can be combined to form various helpful items such as ammo and health. One item known as Psychostimulants allow you to see hidden items scattered around your local vicinity. It amazed me just how many items I actually miss, so it pays to look into every nook and cranny when you have the chance.
A nervous wreck
Much like the original game in the series, Resident Evil VII's locals are not limited to the Baker mansion. Soon after you make your escape you'll stumble across the old and rotten guest house. In fact, the Baker mansion and guest house draws parallels with the Spencer mansion and guardhouse from the original, which probably isn't a coincidence. Elsewhere, you'll negotiate a number of floors on a creepy and desolate ship wreck and make your way through a cave network.
All environments install a sense of dread and angst with their dim light and general dilapidated state of repair. Wallpaper peels from the dirty walls, wind penetrates the boarded up windows blowing the curtains, pools of liquid cover the floors of the basement reflecting bright fluorescent light, mold runs up doors, ruptured floorboards pierce the floor below and a mess of paper often litters the floor. It's the attention to detail which really brings these places to life: they are completely believable, especially when donning the PSVR headset which makes exploring all the more unnerving.
Background music only really kicks in during the high-action moments leaving most of your audible experience to the mercy of everything within your earshot. This works well and makes the setting all the more eerie, allowing you to clearly hear the haunting sounds of swirling wind, ticking clocks, creaking wood and those oh so scary footsteps. It also elevates the feeling of relief when you enter a safe room accompanied with its reassuring audio track which provides the only true respite in the game.
Every so often you will encounter setpiece moments where you face off against a member of the Baker family. Here, you will need to perform specific tasks to progress. These require some trial and error so you'll probably die a few times before you figure out what it is you need to do. They can make for some truly terrifying moments, but can get a little annoying if you're anything like me and don't like dying in games in pursuit of that no death run through.
Along the way, you'll be met with a few puzzles as you might expect. These are kept simple for the most part and only require some patience. This is especially true of the shadow puzzles requiring you to rotate an object over and over which can get frustrating and fiddly. There is one sequence in the game where Baker family member Lucas sets up a host of puzzles for you which can take some time to wrap your head around. Other than that, puzzles are relatively straight forward, for better or worse.
Further in to the game you are left with a tough decision. However, regardless of choice, the game plays out much the same, save for a couple of additional short scenes which is disappointing. It's also fair to say the game's intensity tails off around two thirds of the way through; it simply doesn't capture the sheer terror of the mansion and old house as you explore other locals.
Lazy puzzles, long loading times, some awkward aiming at times, trial and error set pieces and the fact that the terror falls off a bit for the last third of the game mar an otherwise great experience
Overall, Resident Evil VII is easy to recommend, especially to long-term fans who enjoyed the first few games in the series and to those that have a PlayStation VR yearning for a full Triple A experience. Be careful though: Resident Evil VII has some truly terrifying moments which will set your heart racing and some jump scares which could make you shout or scream aloud. Resident Evil VII is not for the faint of heart.
As a showpiece for the PlayStation VR, Resident Evil stands tall and proud and gives you a level of immersion that many games can only dream of. The experience is tense and will leave you in a constant state of anxiety, with the safe rooms acting as your only breathing space. If you're not currently under attack then it's surely around the corner: it's this expectation and psychological horror where Resident Evil VII dazzles. If this is the start of full virtual reality gaming experiences, then I'm completely on board.