Zombies – they’ve literally been done to death.
Hordes of undead shamblers have been chasing our delicious brains so regularly across games, movies and TV shows recently that they barely register so much as a shiver any more.
A murderous family of rednecks with a truly twisted idea of hospitality, though? One that makes the house from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like a five star hotel? That’s enough to give you nightmares for weeks – especially when you’re meeting them in first person.
The Resident Evil series has seen its fair share of shake-ups and spin-offs, but this latest entry feels like a true return to form.
Pick up your controller, pull on your PlayStation VR headset, and make sure you’ve got a spare change of underpants – survival horror is back, and properly scary.
A NEW KIND OF EVIL
From tank-like controls and fixed-angle camera to over-the-shoulder action, Capcom hasn’t been afraid to change up the Resident Evil formula, but for the sheer fright factor, we think they’ve nailed it with the first person perspective.
A tight field of view, plodding movement speed and a game world packed full of incidental (and gross) detail leave you constantly on edge, wondering if the next enemy is going to appear in front, above, below or behind you.
You’re plunged into darkness pretty much from the off, and the violence quickly gets turned up to eleven before you’ve had a chance to draw breath. You’ll never look at a shovel in the same way again.
There’s plenty of scrabbling around on hands-and-knees, searching for hidden exits, and the whole house is suitably maze-like, so you never feel comfortable. Opening the map and inventory screens don’t pause the action, either – so you never feel comfortable until you’re safely back in a save room.
Capcom has resisted the urge to head completely into FPS territory, keeping combat to a minimum in the opening hours and concentrating on ramping up the tension instead.
It might not be long before you pick up a gun, but ammunition is still a precious commodity, and now that you’ve got to do all the aiming yourself, missing a shot just makes your situation even more desperate.
Instead, you’ll spend most of your time sneaking, searching corners and cupboards for precious healing herbs, and staying out of sight of the terrifying Baker family.
That doesn’t mean familiar Resident Evil tropes don’t make a reappearance, though. You’ve got a limited inventory to manage, item boxes to store your extra gear in, and save points (now cassette recorders instead of typewriters) are few and far between.
You’re not controlling a well-trained S.T.A.R.S. special forces member this time around, just a regular guy. Ethan can only take a few hits before it’s game over, which means peeking around corners and edging into unexplored rooms a step at a time, just in case there’s something waiting for you in the darkness.
In first person, every room feels constrictive, with overflowing detritus and ruined furniture blocking your path. It doesn’t help that everything is so dark, with your flashlight barely illuminating a few metres in front of you.
There were plenty of times where we’d open a door, take a peek inside, and “Nope” all the way back to the last voice recorder save point. Even when you’re armed to the teeth with shotgun shells and medical herbs, the setting alone is enough to send shivers down your spine.
And that’s when you’re not being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
MEET THE FAMILY
The Bakers are a looming presence, with each member stalking you through their own part of the house. Our favourite, Lucas, is more content to tease you with puzzles than chase you down himself, but mother Marguerite is savage and even comatose grandma gets in a few scares of her own.
You’ve got other monsters to worry about too, but they’re nowhere near as deadly. Get spotted and you’ll have to run – unless you fancy a brief trip to the game over screen, after a decidedly grizzly end.
It’s these moments of tension, listening out for footsteps as head of the house Jack hunts for you, taunting and calling out your name as you hide, where Resident Evil VII really shines.
The occasional VCR tape only helps add to this, giving some exposition when you play it by experiencing the compound’s many terrors from someone else’s perspective. They’ll usually die in a gruesome way, before jumping back to Ethan in the present.
It’s a great device that helps elevate the Bakers above the generic enemies you’ll encounter.
Eventually you’ll stop playing hide and seek, and have to take a stand against each member of the Baker clan. It’s here where Resident Evil VII feels its weakest, at least in the early game.
The deliberately clunky controls conspire against you at the best of times, but when you’re in a confined arena and forced to dodge attacks, land pin-point precise attacks and find your way around without getting stuck on the scenery, they just feel unfair.
It’s worth sticking it out, though – the sections between each round of forced combat are truly brilliant.
BACK TO REALITY
That’s especially true if you’re playing in VR. Resident Evil VII is one of the first games we’ve tried that give you the choice of playing normally or in virtual reality. Trust us, if you’ve got the hardware, you’ll want to be wearing a headset. It makes an already scary game truly pant-wetting.
That’s partly because of that old horror game favourite, the jump scare. There are more than a few, and when they’re happening mere inches from your face, there’s no doubt they’re going to have the desired effect.
Capcom has done a great job on the controls, too. On a regular TV, you move with the familiar twin stick layout, but in VR, the right stick turns you in 30° intervals. That leaves your head free to look around, and the left stick for movement. Tap up on the right stick and you’ll turn to face whatever you’re looking at.
Aiming weapons is done through head tracking, so you can be a little more accurate with your shots, but movement is slowed down slightly – which can make boss battles that much trickier. We ended up switching back to the TV to finish one particularly troublesome section, but the headset went straight back on once we’d done it.
You can play with the standard controls in VR if you like, but that’s a sure fire way for VR newbies to make themselves ill. We didn’t have any problems with motion sickness using Capcom’s system, and hope that other first person VR games follow suit.
The gorgeous visuals do take a bit of a hit when playing on PlayStation VR, but you’ll be so concerned with ducking the menacing Marguerite’s lantern and staying undetected, you just won’t notice.
The first person mechanics might be the biggest departure for the series since Leon S. Kennedy back-dropped his way through a horde of Ganados in Resident Evil 4, but VII just can’t help itself in the final act.
Things take a turn for the action-packed, with large battles you’ve got no choice but to fight your way through. It grates with the rest of the game, where you’re mostly facing untold horrors in a one-on-one environment.
The pacing picks up dramatically, too. After six hours spent creeping around, solving puzzles and being scared out of your wits, you’re suddenly handed a machine gun and face less menacing, but more numerous enemies.
Add that to your existing arsenal and you’ve got plenty of ways to defend yourself – which is the polar opposite to the rest of the game.
It all feels rather rushed towards the end, losing a lot of the tension in favour of wrapping up the story. It all gets pretty convoluted in the final act – which cynics would say makes it a lot like every other Resident Evil game. This is seemingly done to tie in the story with the long-running and complex series lore, but we’re not sure it needed it – VII could have existed as its own beast, without mention of the Umbrella corporation or Bio-Organic Weapons.
That doesn’t take away from the rest of the game, though – it’s a fright fest that somehow feels familiar and fresh at the same time.
VII might be seen through your character’s eyes, rather than over their shoulder or from a fixed camera, but it feels every bit a worthy successor to the original. That first trip through the Spencer mansion still resonates with us today, and we’ve got a feeling we’re going to be feeling that way about the Baker compound in ten years’ time.
Things fall down in a few places, most notably when those unavoidable boss battles kick off and during the final hour, where the pacing shifts three gears at once, but as a whole, this is a seriously slick horror adventure – whether you play it in VR or not.