1996’s Resident Evil is widely held to be the game that put survival-horror on the map: a bona fide classic, it established Resident Evil as one of the games industry’s most treasured franchises. But somewhere along the way, as so often happens to games franchises, Resident Evil games lost their bearings. 2005’s Resident Evil 5 and 20102’s Resident Evil 6 appalled lovers of the franchise by combining gratuitous Hollywood-style action sequences (Resident Evil 6 even had a motorbike chase, FFS) with an almost complete lack of anything identifiable as horror.
Luckily fate intervened, in the form of the emergence of virtual reality as a mainstream technology. As soon as the first pre-release iterations of the Oculus Rift arrived, it became obvious that VR is perfect for horror: feeling immersed in a shocking situation, as opposed to witnessing it on a screen, ramps up its intensity to a massive degree. Clearly Capcom, keeper of the Resident Evil flame, noticed that, having deciding to make Resident Evil 7 for PlayStation VR as well as TV screens. At which point, it would have realised that a reboot was required. The result is Resident Evil 7: a deliciously scary, creepy and claustrophobic game which harks most satisfyingly back to its illustrious 1996 predecessor.
It immediately becomes obvious that Resident Evil 7 represents a clean break with the recent past: it jettisons several examples of what had become Resident Evil conventions. Most notably the familiar over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoint – third person games just don’t work in VR, so it has moved to a first-person perspective. Impressively, that radical move has in no way affected the feel of Resident Evil 7’s gameplay. Ethan Winters, the character you play, lumbers around in a slow and cumbersome manner (in common with all previous Resident Evil protagonists), and the aiming system is still one of the slowest around. Just as it should, Resident Evil 7 feels squarely like a survival-horror game, rather than a wannabe first-person shooter.
Also conspicuous by their absence are franchise’s ever-growing cast of recurring characters (the Redfields, Jill Valentine et al). Ethan Winters is a cipherish Everyman, who receives a mysterious email from his wife Mia, missing for years and presumed dead. His investigations take him to a forbidding abandoned house in the swamplands of Dulvey, Louisiana.
At first, proceedings are very minimal – Winters arrives with nothing bar a flashlight and, after working out how to break into the house, he must explore, gathering objects that will open areas of the house and hopefully lead him to Mia, and piecing together what might have happened. Atmospherically, Resident Evil 7 instantly establishes itself as top-notch. The house is marvellously creepy – dark, fetid and decaying.
Ethan finds a VHS tape and plays it, establishing another new game mechanic: although it shows flashback footage of two frat-boy ghost-hunters exploring the house (disastrously), he can jump into that footage and control a character. The various VHS videos you find are invaluable when it comes to unveiling bits of narrative and offering hints about how to approach particularly arcane puzzles you will eventually face.
Ethan soon finds Mia, but something has gone horribly wrong and she attacks him. After dealing with her, he passes out, at which the point the game begins properly. Now he is in another house in the complex, in the clutches of a hilariously deranged redneck family that delights in self-mutilation and cannibalism. A cop arrives, providing a distraction, so Ethan is able to stealth around, exploring and acquiring useful objects including, at last, some weaponry. Receiving guidance from a girl called Zoe via the telephones dotted around the place, he plots his escape. And those trademark Resident Evil mutants start coming into the picture, along with plenty of new types of enemies.
Once it gets into its stride, Resident Evil 7’s gameplay conforms – thrillingly for fans of the series – to that found in the very first game. So you must assiduously explore and collect objects (as ever, amm is at a massive premium), solve some very decent puzzles, find keys which unlock new areas of the various festering houses and, of course, fight bosses. Much retracing of steps is required – which helps keep proceedings from feeling too linear (although at the game’s final climax, it does revert to linearity). Even bosses are reused, hilariously – there’s a surprising amount of humour on show in the game’s early stages, along with all manner of sly nods to past Resident Evil games and classic horror films.
A bit of humour is most welcome since, otherwise, Resident Evil 7 is one of the scariest games you will ever come across. Quite apart from the stunningly fetid surroundings, all crawl-spaces and blood-spattered dungeons, there are abundant jump-shocks and all the ingredients of a very fine horror film. All of which is hugely intensified when you slip on a PlayStation VR headset. There is a VR-versus TV trade-off, as the resolution is crunched down massively when you switch to VR. But the sense of presence more than compensates, and the VR control system, which lets you aim by moving your head, is spot-on.
Game or not, as a pure example of horror, Resident Evil 7 is up there with countless classic movies, let alone horror-games. And it’s great fun to play, in the manner of Resident Evil games prior to the fourth iteration. There are problems with it, though: it’s too short. We managed to spin it out to 18 hours first time around, but you could breeze through it in less than 12. You don’t get much by way of replay-inducing rewards, either – just a fearsome new difficulty mode called Mayhem, a new gun and an upgraded ability. If only it had a zombie-wave mode, like Resident Evil Revelations’ Raid Mode. And, in VR, the occasional glimpse of your disembodied hands takes you briefly to the Uncanny Valley.
But Resident Evil 7 is exactly what the vast majority of Resident Evil fans hoped it would be, and that represents bravery on Capcom’s part. If you love being scared and shocked, it’s a must-buy, and pretty decent justification for splashing out on a PlayStation VR headset.