Resident Evil 7 has hooked me since its E3 reveal. The American horror tale Capcom is looking to tell in its return to survival horror is something I never knew I wanted. Having got the chance to spend a couple of days with the Baker family in their decrepit estate, I can’t stop thinking about the game. The experience is as captivating as it was way back in 1996.
My time with Ethan and the Bakers begins at the dinner table. Decaying internals, which presumably belong to previous victims, decorate the crockery. To Ethan’s immediate right is Jack – the Baker’s Jason Vorhees – next to him is Marguerite, the most evil step-mum you’ll ever encounter, then there’s Lucas and the ever-asleep Aunt Ruby.
After Ethan refuses to eat, it kicks off. Marguerite screams, “You’re a son of a bitch!” and storms out, Jack stabs Ethan in the mouth after cutting off Lucas’s arm. (In the trailer, his arm remains intact due to global content restrictions, director Koshi Nakanishi later informs me.) As Jack is about to slit my throat, the phone rings, and everybody leaves, except the sleeping Aunt Ruby. After escaping Ethan’s restraints, I’m able to explore the house free of this crazed family.
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The switch to first-person works wonders for Resident Evil’s core philosophy: the sense of powerlessness. Latter entries in the series saw us play as gun-wielding superheroes rather than relatable characters who are out of their depth. Chris Redfield in particular became a walking steroid. As Ethan, I feel utterly vulnerable. He can’t jump obstacles or move objects and can barely defend himself. Once again fleeing has become the first and best option.
Producer Jun Takeuchi told me how first-person perspective aided the return to survival horror: “It makes you feel like a normal person and puts you in their shoes, making the situation scarier. You won’t even think of doing the things that other characters could do, like leap over obstacles and shoot out of cover and so forth, because if you can’t do it because of the gameplay perspective, and feel like the character can’t do it anyway, then it’s almost like those options are taken away. It adds to the feeling of horror.”
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Getting a chance to explore the first few rooms of the house shows off its amazing detail. Pale greens, greys and washed-out reds create a real sense that this place is decaying before my eyes. I open the fridge to see even more mouldy flesh, the sink is full of cockroaches and unwashed plates. It all complements the diseased look of the Bakers, whose drab green skin really does a great job of de-humanising them.
After opening a drawer I hear a sudden, slow banging at the window, and that’s the first time I piss myself a little.
It turns out to be a police officer, whom Ethan desperately asks for help. After being handed what looks like a pocket knife, I surprisingly don’t suddenly feel indestructible. As I begin to explore deeper, Uncle Jack decides to stop by and try to tear me limb from limb.
Resident Evil 7 operates in a way where each major location is occupied by one of the family members, each a terrifying predator you must overcome. Jack is your typical horror movie serial killer – a giant, overbearing presence who kills with brute force. He stalks with terrifying confidence, squealing lines like “Where’s my little Ethan?” and “I’m gon’ getcha” in that sinister southern drawl. And when he gets you, the helpless panic sets in in a way that’s almost indescribable.
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When watching horror movies, I lambast actors for doing the exact opposite thing that logic dictates. The teenage girl hiding in the closet, the young jock taking on the monster with the hook hand – all dumb ideas – yet Resident Evil 7 does an amazing job of causing your fear to throw all reason out of the window. As soon as Jack turns up I immediately turn and run in the opposite direction, straight into a dead end in the living room. What a plum I am.
I stand behind the dining table, thinking I’ve outsmarted Jack, but he soon smashes it to pieces with his giant rake/cleaver concoction, then picks me up by the throat and throws me to the floor. Thus begins the process of hide-and-seek. The aim of the game is to run around and escape Jack’s sight – he’ll continue to search for you, though his vision isn’t the best. You can shoot him down, but this only temporarily disables him, before he wakes up, pissed off.
After escaping, I’m able to assess the damage. Health and inventory are still managed in real time, though health is now shown on Ethan’s snazzy smartwatch, with the inventory overlaid on the right side of the screen. Keeping it in real time further adds to the dread of what on earth is going on while I’m busy combining herbs and examining picture frames for secret keys.
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Exploring the mansion with Jack on your tail really adds tension to the mix, and for the most part it manages to avoid the problems other first-person survival horrors like Outlast suffer with, where the game devolves into frustration as you try to complete objectives in spite of the enemies before you. With just one baddie to worry about, I’m able to move through the house and continue exploring. That is, until I get stuck.
Resident Evil 7’s mechanics work superbly as long as you know where you’re going and/or what you’re doing. However, once I get lost I reach a point where I’m “gaming” Jack, thus losing the sense of fear. While struggling to find the key to a door which will lead to my escape, I give up on trying to hide from Jack, knowing that whenever he finds me, I can simply sprint to one of the two “safe” rooms and reset his position in the mansion. It’s a shame that the veil quickly fell, as when the game is in flow, it’s utterly terrifying.
Once I find the key, Jack changes his pattern, and the scares became all-too-real again. Moving into one of the most entertaining boss fights I’ve had in years, Jack is dispatched, I think, and I head to the next part of the Baker estate and onto an enemy even more horrific: Marguerite.
The most accurate description I can think of is Matilda’s Trunchbull meets Medusa – and she’s been dead for six weeks. Her shrill yell is spine-tingling.
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She doesn’t pull any punches, either. While walking towards a half-open door – my first mistake is believing this isn’t a scare-in-waiting – Marguerite leaps from the other side of the door, yells “F*ck off!” and slams it shut. She’s truly vile. The events within her mould-ridden swamp-house are some of the greatest scares I’ve ever experienced – at one point I jump so hard my whole body begins to tingle.
I realise while writing this preview that much of what should be the meat of the discussion is incredibly vague. I can only apologise for this, but I am being deliberately so – much of what was amazing while playing the game was discovering all these brilliant set-pieces and moments for myself. It’s no good talking about these spectacular boss fights and heartbeat-skipping scares if I simply tell you what happens, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until January 24 to have your jaw drop just like mine did (and your mouth become full of swears, which mine also did).
I also got the chance to play in PlayStation VR, but unfortunately found it incredibly sickly. There are two control inputs: one (Smooth) sees left and right analogue sticks control as they do in the non-VR game, with the added ability to peek and look around corners using the headset. I found the ability to rotate and turn Ethan without moving my head so disorientating that I had to switch to the other control method, which sees flicks of the analogue stick rotate Ethan at sharp 30-degree angles, just like in Robinson: The Journey (though the degree of the turn can be altered).
It was hugely disappointing that the VR experience was so uncomfortable, as when hiding from the likes of Jack and Marguerite it sees the game, and probably virtual reality as a whole, at its most intense and terrifying. It also adds the strategic advantage of being able to poke your head around a box or doorway without being spotted, though the developers tell me this has been accounted for, and leaning too far will lead to the Bakers noticing you.
Although the discomfort in VR is disappointing, I’m delighted at how good Resident Evil 7 is. There’s so much more I wish I could tell you, but to do so would spoil the experience. Capcom has done a superb job of bringing the series back to its roots in an incredible way. The most apt description I can think of is: “The original Resident Evil in first-person.” And if that doesn’t get you excited, you’re probably a zombie.
This is the scariest, most entertaining survival horror game I’ve played, and if it can maintain this level of performance at launch, it has the potential to surpass Resi 4 as the series’ greatest.