Resident Evil has remained a prominent name in gaming for almost 20 years partially because of its willingness to experiment with its formula. Granted, the name has been attached to numerous questionable projects in the past. From light gun games (Survivor, Umbrella Chronicles) to early online offerings (Outbreak) to multiplayer shooters (Operation Raccoon City, Umbrella Corps) and more, Capcom has never been afraid to throw ideas at their big Resident Evil board and see what sticks. In the core, numbered series, however, change has meant much more than it has in its many spin-offs.
The first two games were undeniable highlights in the history of the PSX. Tank controls were a controversial feature, but the series was an immediate success. After Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was released, the refrain from some of the fan base was a desire for something new. That game wasn’t a failure by any stretch, but the series needed a shot in the arm. When Resident Evil 4 released for the GameCube in 2005, it was simultaneously referred to as one of the greatest games of all time by some, and derided by longtime fans for its more action-oriented gameplay and over-the-shoulder perspective. It may have done away with the deliberate controls and horror movie tone of the past, but it was a monstrous success on all fronts.
This new trilogy of Resident Evil games saw diminishing returns going forward. Resident Evil 5 featured a heavy focus on co-op gameplay, but veered even more towards action and away from the series’ roots (despite plenty of fan service callbacks in the form of returning characters). By the time the sixth entry was released in 2012, Resident Evil felt like a generic Japanese action game, bearing almost no resemblance to the games that made the series a phenomenon in the first place.
To keep Resident Evil relevant, Capcom would need to shake up its formula just as they had done between its third and fourth entries. With Resident Evil 7, it’s clear that they went back to the drawing board once again and reconsidered core components of the franchise’s DNA. The end result is a resurrection of many of the elements that made the original games great, while at the same time introducing a new perspective and the best story yet.
New characters and a fresh narrative feel extremely welcome after the mishmash of story threads and numerous characters of Resident Evil 6. The setup is simple enough: You play as Ethan Winters, a man in search of his missing wife Mia. She’s been presumed dead for several years, and Ethan’s search leads him to the swamps of Louisiana. This simple premise naturally opens up to reveal a more sinister plot, and it manages to remain intriguing while avoiding the convoluted nature of many past games in the series.
At the core of the story is the Baker family that Ethan encounters early on in the game. Their presence is immediately unsettling, and their actions and demeanor make it unclear what exactly is wrong with them. They seem at times to be cannibals, zombies, psychopaths, or some combination of the three. The opening hours of the game are especially effective in terms of scares, as I was always worried that one of them would be waiting just around the corner.
These moments can feel like the best parts of Amnesia: The Dark Descent at times. Ethan doesn’t have much in the way of firepower at his disposal early on, so I frequently found myself crouching behind cover and praying that one of the Bakers didn’t spot me. When they did, the ensuing chases were often thrilling. I lost track of how many times I frantically ran down hallways, trying to zigzag through rooms and close doors behind me in an effort to shake my pursuer. These tense sequences are helped in no small part by the absence of the loading doors that were trademarks of early games in the series. Load times are occasionally present when you’re entering a completely new area or triggering a flashback, but for the most part you’re free to go straight through any unlocked door without waiting.
While Resident Evil 7 may seem like it’s taking the franchise in a radical new direction in some ways (most notably, the first-person perspective), its core formula feels remarkably similar to the original PlayStation games. After a prologue sequence leads you by the hand for a bit, a larger area opens up and familiar elements immediately reappear. This area is filled with locked doors, with many indicating that they require a particular key or elaborate assortment of objects to open. Exploring various rooms yields plenty of drawers filled with ammo, lockpicks, notes scrawled on photos, and ominous diary entries. Safe rooms offer relief with their calming music, save points, and storage boxes. Resident Evil 7 takes a bold step with the new first-person perspective, but adjusting to it takes no time at all and you’re quickly thrown into pleasantly familiar territory.
At no point did I miss the traditional perspective and tank controls. This doesn’t play like a first-person shooter, it plays like a Resident Evil game that happens to be in first-person. Ammo is sparse, so you’ll have to make tough decisions regarding when to use it. When I decided to bring the guns out, I kicked myself for every missed shot. Not only are bullets a valuable commodity, but death can come quickly when you’re reloading during a tense enemy encounter or boss fight.
Of course, another big change comes along with the shift to first-person. If you’re playing on PlayStation 4 and have a PSVR headset, Resident Evil 7 marks one of the first major game franchises to feature full VR compatibility. I played the first several hours of the game exclusively in VR, and it really does add a lot to the scare factor. During those Amnesia moments where I was hiding behind a crate or a corner, I found myself slowly peering out to see if my pursuer was heading my way. These moments can raise your heart rate when playing on a television, but the fear is more palpable when you’re physically tilting your head around the corner instead of strafing with an analog stick. When one character grabbed me and wildly swung a knife at my face, I found myself tensing up as I involuntarily lurched backwards on my couch. At one point, a grotesque enemy surprised me while I was exploring a crawl space. When it popped up, I instinctively turned my head rather than look straight ahead and face the disgusting creature directly in front of me. A lot of these moments can fairly be categorized as jump scares, but I can’t deny that many of them really scared the hell out of me while playing in VR.
If you have a PSVR, I’d highly recommend playing at least some of the game with it (ideally, the first couple of hours). After a few hours, I decided to take the headset off and play the traditional way. The game’s visuals look noticeably better on a television screen, and I did prefer to comfortably sit on a couch rather than have a bulky headset and headphones on. VR in this game is a highly effective gimmick, but the additional scare factor was beaten out by overall comfort in the end. I say “comfort” in regards to the headset itself, as I never felt sick to my stomach or dizzy while playing on the default settings, even during my initial three-hour extended session. I appreciated the variety of options for those that want to play in VR, including the ability to change the turning degree angle of the right analog stick (the only time I felt odd was when I tested the “smooth” turning option). If you don’t mind wearing a headset for an extended period of time, you should be able to tweak the VR settings to your liking.
Even the best Resident Evil games have featured frustrations, and 7 is no different. While the first-person perspective works great most of the time, navigating around the occasional boss encounter can feel a bit clunky. Some of these involve attack patterns that you need to avoid before moving in to counterattack, and the controls don’t always do a great job of facilitating that kind of movement.
I’ve always appreciated how bonkers Resident Evil games got with their stories, but the more straightforward narrative this time around was a nice change of pace. You'll be able to follow the entirety of the story even without any previous knowledge of the series, as well. It stays intriguing throughout even if it ultimately leaves a few questions unanswered. Only one area near the end of the game seems like it drags a bit, feeling more like a solid DLC side story than a part of the main campaign.
These complaints did little to dampen my enjoyment of the overall experience. I had been underwhelmed by the brief looks at the game I had received prior to release, as most of those snippets involved the early portion that leads you by the hand. While that part of the game boasts its fair share of scares, the really impressive stuff is what comes once things open up. Resident Evil 7 features just the right amount of modern twists mixed into the traditional formula. It may not reach the same heights as an industry-changer like Resident Evil 4, but it certainly ranks among the best entries in the series.