Ever since BSAA beefcake Chris Redfield exacted grievous bodily harm on a boulder, the Resident Evil franchise has been on a bit of a downward spiral. Sure, the Revelations side-stories delivered disposable enough entertainment, but numbered entry Resident Evil 6 was a rotter through and through. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard aims to drag the series back to relevancy, and while its first-person perspective will divide the series' most ardent fans, it's unquestionably the best entry since Leon S. Kennedy went in search of the president's daughter.
Not that it shares much in common with the more recent Biohazard titles, of course: this feels like a reboot for much of the campaign, though those already engaged in the brand's increasingly anime fiction will find some nuggets of narrative to sink their teeth into. Refreshingly, this survival horror is perhaps closest in tone to the very first entry; the Louisiana plantation in which you're stranded bears a passing resemblance to the Spencer Mansion, and there are save rooms with storage chests and cassette decks – it's all very familiar.
And yet it feels fresh, too: the game borrows liberally from the likes of Outlast, Alien Isolation, and even Silent Hills' iconic teaser – but it blends just enough old-school Resident Evil into the concoction in order to create something somewhat unique. It's an approach that, as alluded earlier, will split the fanbase right down the centre, but after the Frankenstein monster that was its predecessor, it's nice to see Capcom focused for once. This is a game all about exploration and resource management, and even though its emphasis on action does eventually increase, it never loses sight of this core concept.
You play as Ethan Winters, a mysterious everyman lured to the Dulvey Estate after his wife Mia goes missing. The plantation plays host to a family of screwballs named the Bakers, who eventually hold you captive. It's down to you to unravel the secrets of the manor, dispatching of your kidnappers one-by-one in order to escape. At first you'll start out with little more than a knife, but as the game progresses you'll have amassed an arsenal of makeshift firepower – though you may find ammunition hard to come by.
Make no mistake: this is a survival horror game. Flight will take precedent over fight in the early exchanges, as you're stalked by patriarch Jack through the main house's creaking corridors. Each room harbours secrets, be it documents that slowly unravel the story or items which can be used to aid your survival. There's a simple crafting system which allows you to combine components in order to create useful new ones, and the game never pauses as you interact with these, helping to up the tension during dramatic scenarios.
It's the face-offs against the family members which will last long in the memory. While the game does eventually succumb to the Uroboros-esque silliness of more recent entries, the first few fights keep things quite grounded. Without wishing to spoil too much, one battle sees you trapped in the house's garage, driving a car into the nutjob Jack in order to put him down – it's brilliant. We won't mention any of the other bouts because they're best kept as a surprise, but needless to say they follow a similar blueprint, and are equally entertaining.
But the Bakers aren't the only antagonists that you'll find yourself up against. As you open up more and more of the map – which spans the aforementioned mansion all the way through to marshlands and boathouses – you'll encounter an infected threat known as the Molded. These razor-teethed oddities best resemble the Regenerators from Resident Evil 4 and are equally deadly; while there isn't a whole lot of variety in their design, they do become a drain on your resources, and if you haven't been scavenging appropriately then you may find yourself on the back foot.
The game's great at keeping you on the tip of your toes. For large swathes of the campaign you'll never quite feel comfortable, and that makes the final moments all the more exciting, as you finally reach a point where the tables turn. The gunplay's never really outstanding – and some poor hit detection doesn't exactly help – but the emphasis on defence in addition to offence makes for an enjoyable system; you can block the attacks of your enemies, which underlines the importance of reading their motions.
While almost all of the action takes place in a single expanding location, the title does a good job of reinventing itself as you progress. A trip to a dilapidated outbuilding introduces a more insect-orientated environment, while son Lucas opts for Saw-esque tricks and traps. You'll collect VHS tapes as you progress which can be watched on old televisions that you'll encounter around the map; these all augment playable scenarios which allow you to see the world through other characters' eyes – and one in particular enables you to subvert the rules of a puzzle room in a rather satisfying way.
The game's never particularly difficult or obtuse on the standard difficulty, but this keeps it moving forward at a reasonable pace. There is an unlockable Madhouse difficulty – available from the start if you pre-order – which significantly ups the difficulty and limits the number of times that you can save, so those looking for an even more intense survival experience will be well served. But even on its standard setting, it took us a good 15 hours to see the campaign through, and we still managed to miss a few collectibles despite scouring every inch of the map.
Still, that's no hardship because the world that Capcom's crafted here looks very good. Leveraging the new RE Engine, the entire experience runs at an almost locked 60 frames-per-second, which gives it an eerie realism across the board. The lighting is very good, and while the textures aren't as detailed up close, there are certain scenes that frankly look photo-realistic when you take a step back. Elsewhere, the facial animations aren't always amazing, but there are moments where characters get right up close, and it's quite harrowing just how realistic they look.
But this isn't a hugely scary game – just a tense one. It does fall on some tired horror clichés, and the campy writing can break the illusion of the protagonist's plight. That said, the immersion is enhanced in PlayStation VR, which can be used throughout the entire campaign. But while the world scales well to virtual reality – the mansion itself looks bizarrely believable – the controls never quite stick, and long sessions will leave you a little motion sick. To its credit, Capcom's augmented a number of comfort options, but none of these feel quite right, which is a crying shame.
At its very best, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a barnstorming survival horror with some truly brilliant boss fights. Granted, the game isn't always able to maintain its own high standards, but it eclipses its abysmal predecessor with ease. While it borrows ideas from a variety of different sources, it manages to feel both original and old-school all at the same time. And even though fans are likely to be divided by the release's direction, make no mistake: this is the change that the series has needed for quite some time.