The Resident Evil series has had almost innumerable ups and downs during its more than two decades on the market, but despite faltering on occasion, Capcom’s willingness to innovate has been nothing short of admirable. The seventh mainline entry continues that trend, taking bold strides in new directions, yet simultaneously bringing the core mantra full circle by serving up horror on an intimate scale.
The decaying mansion is inhabited by the crazed Baker family, who are only too glad to extend their twisted brand of hospitality.
Enhanced by its Beginning Hour and KITCHEN demos, which we now know served as establishing prequels, the Baker compound may well be remembered for years to come in much the same way the Spencer mansion is now. You’ll be intimately familiar with its layout by the end, to the extent that you could probably draw a map from memory.
As you investigate the lavishly detailed residence, the mysterious Zoe Baker reveals herself through a series of guiding phone calls. It’s an uneasy relationship, mostly due to her surname, but she’s never totally explicit and it’s easy to assume she’s holding something back as a result. This air of ambiguity means her tips are never coddling, which is good, because you won’t need more than the occasional hint she offers.
Puzzles, while placed under a brighter spotlight than they have been in recent instalments, are incredibly simple. There aren’t any head-scratchers, just intellect-strokers, which regardless provide necessary moments of respite between unnerving enemy encounters.
The ageing complex doesn’t host shambling hordes of the undead in addition to its leading family, but rather tar-like relatives of Resident Evil 4’s Regenerators - the Moulded. They lose limbs under maintained fire, yet continue to imposingly lumber towards you, sporadically breaking pace to lunge with intimidating intent. Though there are slight variations on the base model, they all quickly become predictable as you learn their behaviours through repeat encounters. This makes them considerably less scary in time (unless they’re introduced with a jump scare), while Normal difficulty sees them fall too easily when you consider it’s the highest challenge available on an initial playthrough.
As you accrue an arsenal ever-increasing in firepower any difficulty is gradually chipped away. While ammunition for these firearms is technically limited, in typical survival horror fashion, the return of the item box makes it incredibly easy to hoard every resource without ever passing anything up. You’ll not go without provided you take the time to journey to and fro to make frequent deposits.
While the interdimensionally-linked item boxes harken back to the innovative 1996 original, it’s in supporting an emerging technology that Resident Evil 7 really innovates. Arguably the first true, committed implementation of virtual reality into a high profile release, it’s also one of the best experiences available on the fledgling platform.
Every element of the game is significantly more impactful when experienced inside the PlayStation VR headset. It places you directly into the world, adopting a dimension intangible on a television screen to seamlessly become totally encompassing. Environments gain an immersive sense of scale and enhanced detail, head-tracked aiming is supremely accurate, and new gameplay opportunities are afforded as you peek around corners and through windows.
Every element of the game is significantly more impactful when experienced inside the PlayStation VR headset.
While it never quite matches the sheer, creeping dread of the VR-exclusive KITCHEN demo (which was to be expected, as Capcom need to cater to all players here), the headset can elevate a spooky situation into one that genuinely paralyses you in a fight-or-flight limbo. You really won’t want to set foot in dark, foreboding corridors; uncomfortably close, even invasive, encounters will require a moment’s pause thereafter to recompose yourself; leaning in with a morbid curiosity to inspect gory details might even turn your stomach.
The addition of 3D audio when connecting a pair of stereo headphones to the PS VR’s integrated processor unit also improves upon the already stellar audio design. The increased spatial acuity helps prevent enemies from sneaking up on you, but hearing tormenting knocks, rattles and bangs from multiple directions around a room is horribly, horribly disconcerting.
It’s seriously intense, and in these moments it’d be easy to call it a night if it weren’t for the incredibly consistent pacing. There’s an engrossing sense of progression that’ll see the desire to power on and discover what comes next prevail - unless you really can’t hack horror.
Motion sickness is a very real concern when it comes to VR, but we didn’t experience a moment of discomfort during twelve hours of play across four marathon sessions. This is due to a couple of things: a wealth of options mean you can customise the experience to fit your personal needs, whilst quality implementation of the technology sees distracting issues like image drifting (which frequently requires you to reposition and/or recalibrate) eradicated. If you’re somebody that opts to turn in set increments, it’s also a somewhat fitting return to the series’ tank-controlled roots, rather than an annoyance.
All that being said, the implementation of VR still isn’t perfect. There are some distracting clipping issues, missing animations, and the odd cutscene jarringly appears on a 2D screen suspended in a black abyss. Those drawbacks are minuscule in comparison to what you gain, however, and to put that into perspective, a second playthrough on a TV (even in 4K with HDR) felt decidedly flat and uneventful by comparison.
To be clear, RE7 is more than serviceable if you don’t own PS VR, but it’s definitely the best way to play. That much is clear not just from our own experience, but the way some scenes are otherwise reminiscent of watching a 3D film in 2D, whereby it’s clear to see the director’s intent while not getting the actual effect.
Whichever way you play, you’ll need to piece the full story together by compiling information from multiple sources. Documents, characters and items all gradually unfurl secrets, whilst compelling VHS tapes expand upon the Baker’s past exploits as you experience them first-hand. If you aren’t into detective work, the central narrative of Ethan’s struggle to save Mia stands alone, but either way there are intriguing implications for what’s to come. The immediate conclusion leaves as many questions as answers, admittedly, but free DLC “Not a Hero” looks set to try and remedy that later in 2017.
You’ll need to piece the full story together by compiling information from multiple sources. Documents, characters and items all gradually unfurl secrets.
If it wasn’t commendable enough that Capcom essentially made two different versions of RE7 - one for VR and one for the telly - the unlockable Madhouse difficulty significantly changes the game's dynamic, rather than just plain ramping the difficulty up. Throw collectibles, some of which can be used to purchase upgrades, as well as unlockable weapons and buffs into the mix, and there are a lot of factors that encourage repeat playthroughs.
Play it again you very likely will, because Resident Evil 7 is precisely what fans have been clamouring for over the course of a number of years. Capcom delivered a classic survival horror experience, with just a tinge of action flare, that brings the series inline with modern expectations. They bravely took risks and it has proven most lucrative, just as it did with the pivotal release of Resident Evil 4. Through its outstanding setting and cast that go hand-in-hand, in addition to providing perhaps the defining virtual reality experience, Resident Evil has reclaimed its place atop the horror genre pile.