The video game genre known as survival horror plays by a certain set of rules. These games generate thrills through atmosphere and tension rather than straight-up action, and limited resources give the player a sense of desperation. Running and hiding is often a better option than standing and fighting.
“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” is a nice example of survival horror done right, and by “nice” I mean “utterly terrifying.” Horror fans who like to scare themselves silly – whether by game, movie or book – will appreciate the experience that “RE7” provides. When executed properly (heh), survival horror games are unlike any other storytelling mode.
Returning players will already be familiar with the “Resident Evil” vibe – creeping horror punctuated with sudden scares by nightmare beasties. As the title of the new game suggest, the series also plays with our deep biological fears of infection and contamination. “RE” specializes in squirm-inducing environments designed to punch you right in the brain stem.
The environment this time around is a decrepit old mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou. Players assume the role of Ethan Winters, a desperate young man trying to track down his missing wife. Ethan isn’t a tough guy, he’s not even particularly heroic. That’s all by design and part of the survival horror aesthetic – Ethan is entirely unequipped to handle what’s about to happen.
And I mean literally unequipped. Weapons and tools are scarce in game – another genre requirement. “RE7” doesn’t bother with RPG elements like inventory and skill progression. The game is too focused on scaring the bejeezus out of you.
It’s no spoiler to disclose that the derelict mansion does indeed have residents – and holy moly, they’re evil. You’re better off going into the game cold, so I won’t get specific. But rest assured that creature design in “RE7” is up to the usual standard of creepiness.
The biggest structural change this time around is that “RE7” assumes full-on first-person perspective, rather than the fixed camera approach favored by earlier games. Die hard fans may object to this choice, but it’s handled quite well. This isn’t a point-and-shoot monster hunt. In fact, individual encounters have been carefully designed to maintain cinematic immersion. The game is almost entirely linear, so when you enter a new area you’re seeing precisely what the designers want you to see.
The little moments really add up – a fleeting apparition around the bend, a skeletal arm reaching from a doorway. The horror is oddly intimate, actually. When you do get up close and personal with the entities here, it’s just this side of traumatic. Quick tip: Don’t bother trying to finish off every enemy. Some are scripted to survive for later story points, so you’ll just be wasting ammo.
As with previous “RE” installments, you’ll need to solve various puzzles to keep moving forward. I’d have liked to see more challenging designs in this area – the puzzles are few, far between, and dead easy. Found videotapes fill out the larger story, which is effective but will feel terribly familiar to fans of the horror genre.
One last note: “RE7” is one of the first major titles to support the PlayStation VR headset. I wasn’t able to try the game in full virtual reality mode, but it’s clearly optimized to shine in that particular format. VR goggles are the future of scary stories, so don ’em if you’ve got ’em.
“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows.