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Review: ‘Resident Evil 7: Biohazard’

Capcom’s fantastic new release is a watershed moment in the franchise’s history.

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Capcom

Release Date: January 24, 2017

NOTE: This was played on the PlayStation 4 with the bonus Madhouse Difficulty. Additionally, this will not be a review of the PSVR experience. It will solely be of the base Resident Evil 7 experience.

Resident Evil, known as Biohazard in Japan, is one of the more established video game franchises. Popularizing the survival horror genre in 1996, the series has gone through significant changes throughout its history. Its first dramatic change came with Resident Evil 4 (2005) that leaned towards action as it revolutionized the third-person genre with a camera positioned over the shoulder and quick-time events. Resident Evil 5 (2009) followed suit but it wasn’t until Resident Evil 6 (2012), which was panned by critics and fans, that Capcom recognized it had to make another dramatic franchise change. Resident Evil 7 adopts a first-person camera and discards many of the characters we’ve come to know and love. It remains to be seen if Resident Evil 7 can pull a second hat-trick and bring back horror to the Resident Evil name…or if the series is best left forgotten.

Resident Evil 7 follows new protagonist Ethan Winters, who gets a mysterious message from his wife, Mia Winters, telling him that to stay away from The Baker House in Louisiana. Ethan misunderstands his wife’s warnings and goes anyway. The central story begins to blossom halfway through and eventually ties into the larger Resident Evil franchise as it takes place within the same universe. As far as Resident Evil stories go, this is the perfect “jump in” point for newcomers. There are hints and references here and there but the game never requires you to know the difference between a C and T-virus. The story is largely about Ethan vs. The Bakers and it does a good enough job making you care for the characters. You even learn to sympathize with the Baker family although some members overshadow others.

As you approach the dilapidated Baker house, the game’s focus becomes abundantly clear: atmosphere. Dark, poorly lit hallways and basements contrasted with the rain and wind outside create a game world that is completely immersive. The care and detail that went into Resident Evil 7’s environments must have been immense. It truly makes you appreciate just how far a game’s environment, world and level design can take you. The game also runs at a fluid 60 frames per second, which means it outputs a smoother gameplay experience than most of its competitors. The textures on the walls and bricks don’t hold up to scrutiny when examined up close but it’s safe to say that Resident Evil 7 is one of the best-looking games to date.

The foreboding atmosphere helps to highlight that Ethan is not a superhero like previous protagonists. He gets knocked down and hurt constantly, even if the voice actor for Ethan is nonchalant most of the time. Early on, The Baker Family becomes the central antagonists for player combat -- each one has their own abilities that fit with their personality. As the Bakers grow in strength, so does the player character. Resident Evil 7 does a fantastic job balancing feelings of disempowerment and empowerment, almost at the same time. When you get a shotgun, you’re amazed at the power of the gun as well as the lack of damage you inflict on the enemies – for story reasons.

When you progress through Resident Evil 7, you notice essential gameplay pillars that are the DNA for the series -- Save rooms, ammo scarcity, strict item management, puzzles involving replacing one item for another, multiple different keys, exploration, secrets, etc.  This is very much a Resident Evil title, despite what many online detractors would say. Newer gameplay elements include stacking items, where one item of the same type stacks in your inventory rather than taking a separate slot, and quick-heal buttons -- these were additions for the sake of modernization and do not take away from the horror that is so prevalent in the game.

One of the weaker elements of Resident Evil 7 is the enemy variety. In any other game, it wouldn’t be an issue. But when your game series has had zombie sharks, elephants, bats, etc., it’s much more noticeable. The Molded - black oily, lumbering monsters - only come in two or three flavors and you quickly see all that the game offers. They’re also easy to dispatch, save for one or two encounters, so the fear quickly runs out when facing these creatures. No coincidence that The Molded coincide with the latter 3rd of the game which takes a sharp left turn into a location that may or may not sit well with the player.

Depending on the type player you are, Resident Evil 7’s game length will be either a pro or con. I finished my playthrough in 11 hours on the normal difficulty and am currently playing again on the bonus Madhouse difficulty. Madhouse changes the item location throughout the house. It also regulates saves to cassette tapes, much like the Ink ribbon system in the early Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 7 never wears out its welcome and excels in the areas it needed to excel in. It’s not a 300+ hour game and was never meant to be. It shines even when compared to its 20-30 hour experience contemporaries. It doesn’t add pointless filler like Alien: Isolation or drag you down with lore like The Evil Within. Resident Evil 7 will also have free content added in the first few months post-launch.

I have intentionally left many of the plot details and specifics out of this review because the best way to experience Resident Evil 7 is by playing it. It is truer to the Resident Evil of the early franchise days than to the action-oriented 4, 5 & 6. It excels in horror and scares and shatters any expectations generated by the exceptional pre-release marketing. Resident Evil 7 marks a new watershed moment in the franchise and it’s going to be exciting where the ship sails from here. I cannot recommend Resident Evil 7 highly enough.