Survival horror in gaming has gone through some radical changes over the years. With the rise of YouTube (and the internet in general), a trend has started to emerge, where many bank on the success of their “discoveries” off the latest obscure survival horror games to gain traction in the mainstream. I use the term “survival horror” very loosely here, as there have been admirable efforts to be unique with many misfires and unsuccessful clones along the way, but none have truly measured up to Capcom’s 1996 breakout hit in the genre, Resident Evil. It goes without saying, a juggernaut franchise like RE would go through many stages of evolution to remain relevant two decades later. With their latest instaLlment in the series, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Capcom have not just put the series back on the map, but in the process, redefined survival horror once again.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is Capcom’s most ambitious outing in the genre, and a bold if not divisive step forward for the franchise. Almost void of any relation to the previous games’ plot and characters while weaving its own path in the overarching universe, Resident Evil 7 returns to a much smaller, focused scale. Set in the rural marshlands of Louisiana, players assume the role of Ethan Winters, an ordinary civilian following leads on the disappearance of his wife, Mia, several years ago. He winds up on the doorstep of a derelict plantation in the bayous run by the mysteriously ominous Baker family, and this is where the nightmare really begins.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard shows a welcomed return to form for the series, re-introducing an astute focus on survival horror over action. The horror elements are especially amplified due to Ethan’s disposition as a regular man without much combat skills. The opening hour of the game is a masterful dose of hair-raising suspense and tension, where a mostly defenseless Ethan must get acquainted with his new fiendish hosts. The cat-and-mouse chase here may be more in the vein of Outlast than a traditional RE experience, but it quickly bounces into the thick of the plot when the plantation opens itself up and exploration, weapon/ammo scavenging, and item management becomes a key component to survival.
In this regard, it feels much like a traditional Resident Evil game than any other, taking us back to the 1996 original as a fair comparison. Ammo is very scarce, the plantation is sealed off in sections usually opened by solving intricate puzzles, and the fear of not knowing what lies around every corner certainly elevates the horror to terrifying levels.
Make no mistake, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard may be the scariest entry in the series to date, where players – thanks to the divisive but very immersive first-person perspective – are at the whim of the games horror rather than having a sense of security much like the combatant protagonists of the past. The game toys with several concepts and ideas that all land their mark spectacularly, including well-handled dream sequences, VHS tape segments (as seen in the demo) that act as guidance points, and of course, the first-person perspective that provides a level of intimacy rarely done to this degree in horror gaming. For all its ambition at the risk of alienating fans, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard does a commendable job of keeping things familiar while breathing fresh air into the series; a remarkable balancing act of old and new.
The game boasts a colorful cast of new characters in the universe, especially its central antagonists, the Baker family. Clearly inspired by the redneck torture family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Bakers, for the duration of the game, are the driving force behind the horror and the various enemies you’ll encounter. Jack, the dominant patriarch, acts as the Nemesis of the experience – an unstoppable killing machine that relentlessly pursues you at the most vulnerable times. Marguerite, Jack’s wife, is almost the opposite, preferring to stalk Ethan and instill panic and fear in the player. The delinquent son, Lucas, offers his own twisted form of confrontational horror, but that should be savored for the experience. And finally, there’s the wheelchair-bound nameless lady, who mostly remains a quiet and hidden enigma.
Individually, the Bakers aren’t the most remarkable of villains to grace the series. In fact, they’re not entirely developed or have abundantly clear individuality, but what makes them click as a formidable and fierce terror is how well they work as a collective family – seemingly one entity more akin to a force of nature. While the absence of traditional zombies may disappoint, the game more than makes up for it with the new enemy types engineered by the Bakers called the “Molded” – lumps of rotting flesh, plants, and teeth that eerily resemble the infamous Regenerators from Resident Evil 4 (and pack just as much of a punch as them too). Without spoiling anything further, players can expect to encounter some truly horrifying enemies, some more viscerally grotesque than others. And it isn’t an easy ride. The game prides itself on the same brutal challenge that the original introduced, but is never unfair.
The emotional backbone of the story relies on the chemistry between Ethan and Mia, the central protagonists of the game. At times, their connection is felt and works greatly to give weight to the decisions and actions made along the way. I found myself being drawn to Ethan’s plights and woes, seeing as how this timid civilian can endure the amount of terror he does for the sake of saving his wife. Mia, on the other hand, is given a compelling and unexpected character arc that brings their connection full circle, and feels like the most genuine relationship in the entire series (sorry, Leon and Ada shippers). While it never really reaches the emotional heights it could, it’s good to know Capcom attempted to give the RE series a believable beating heart.
Despite a drastic shift to the first-person perspective, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard’s gameplay is fluid, responsive, and refined to perfection. The combat feels natural and does well to play to the strengths of the first-person point of view. Without a proper field of vision, the scares are purposefully restricted and therefore more effective when directly confronted with them. This is where the game diabolically harbors its terrors. Capcom have masterfully managed to create a palpable, outright terrifying experience in an era desensitized to the whole first-person horror gimmick. This is thanks to a keen eye for atmospheric detail, well-designed combat and exploration mechanics that work hand-in-hand, and the refocused genre shift that puts survival horror back in the franchises name.
As a direct sequel to Resident Evil 6 that ties into the franchise, some may be disappointed in the directions taken here. While little nods and hints to the universe are plentiful, they never deter from the standalone nature of the game. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is very much a confined story existing in its own chapter, with only the spectacular ending – which, as a Resident Evil fan, put a massive grin on my face – to seal the knot of the tie-ins. This was a necessary move in order to make the series relevant again. Another explosive entry with the routinely superhuman characters we’ve come to know in the past could’ve hurt the franchise more than give it the rejuvenation it deserved quite like this.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a marvel of the survival horror genre. Capcom have crafted potentially the best game in the series since Resident Evil 4, and exceeded expectations in the process. The divisive first-person perspective actually works incredibly well in building tension and atmosphere, and the new characters and story add several dimensions and interesting new revelations to the series as a whole, all the while retaining the spirit and tone of a traditional Resident Evil experience. Not only is it an absolute delight to play, but its also as overwhelmingly scary as it is relentless – the sign of a masterful horror experience.