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‘Resident Evil 7: Biohazard’ VR Review – Bringing The Survival Back to Horror Games

by David Jagneaux • January 23rd, 2017
Platforms: PS VR (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.
Positives

- Terrifying sense of desperation
- Robust narrative with great pacing
- Pulse-pounding gameplay
- Well-balanced blend of puzzles, exploration, and combat

Negatives

- Some enemies are more frustrating than scary
- Minor VR integration issues

I can no longer tell if the heavy breathing I hear is coming from my own mouth, or from the mouth of Ethan, the main protagonist I’m controlling in Resident Evil 7 on PS4 using a PS VR headset. Using my actual body, I lean forward on my couch, craning my neck around the in-game corner to my left, trying to see if Jack, the hulking mass of seemingly invincible mutated flesh, has passed by yet. Just before I take my step around the corner, much to my horror, Jack grabs me from behind and for a moment it’s as if I can feel his breath and spit on my face. He throws me to the ground, cursing at me, and raises his shovel high above his head. With a loud thud, he slams it down into my shin, slicing my leg in half. For a split second there’s the illusion of pain — a sudden twitch of realism — before Ethan bleeds out and dies not just before my eyes, but within myself, as I sit there stunned inside the immersive power of virtual reality.

Honestly, I don’t know if the world is ready for a game like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard in VR and that’s exactly what makes it so exhilarating.

For years, the survival horror genre was synonymous with Resident Evil, until things started to change. The first few games did their part to popularize the entire concept of horror games as a whole, but ever since the universally acclaimed Resident Evil 4 Capcom has struggled to recapture that magic. In an effort to rediscover what made the franchise so special to begin with, Capcom chose to mix things up once again by shifting to a first-person perspective and for the first time ever, offering full VR support. It’s a glorious return to form that shakes up the formula just enough to feel both fresh and familiar.

I played the entirety of Resident Evil 7’s 12+ hour story from start to finish inside of the PS VR headset and it was absolutely incredible. This is the first game that I’ve seen that features a fully developed and realized single player story that lasts longer than a couple of hours and can be played entirely inside of a headset from the first-person perspective. There’s full locomotion movement with the Dualshock 4 gamepad (no Move controller support) with a suite of customizable comfort options to adjust rotation speed, FOV dimming, and several other options. Capcom listened and has crafted a game with choices to alleviate sickness concerns for most that would be impacted. However, it is worth noting that I don’t personally and have never suffered from motion sickness in VR. Your mileage may vary and I’d recommend mixing VR and non-VR modes during your playthrough with frequent breaks.

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The narrative begins with the game’s main character, Ethan Winters, on the hunt for his missing wife, Mia. His search takes him to the  derelict and disturbing Louisiana swamp property of the Baker family. Things quickly unravel once you’re on the scene and all manner of horrors reel their grotesque heads in your battle to survive and escape.

If you’ve ever played a Resident Evil game, then you know they’ve always been from the third-person, which makes Resident Evil 7 a major departure from the series’ roots mechanically. However, despite that shift, its tone, pacing, and gameplay elements feel much more like Resident Evil than anything Capcom has released since the late 90s. And by the end of the story, it all ties back into the core mythology of the franchise very nicely.

The story is told through a mixture of first-hand accounts taking place in real-time and video tapes found that recount past events. Ethan and Mia are the focus of the story, but you’ll play as a handful of characters throughout the haunting adventure.

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Significant portions of the first half of the game revolve around you participating in a deranged series of hide and seek chases with various members of the Baker family. Hearing Jack whisper and yell things like “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” never ceases to make my skin crawl. Above all else though, where Resident Evil 7 truly excels most, is in its ability to craft a believably desperate and overwhelming sense of danger.

No matter how many times I’ve traversed a particular hallway, I felt the urge to walk — not run — and take my time just in case. And it wasn’t arbitrary fear, because new dangers were literally lurking around every corner. Taking a note from the original Resident Evil’s playbook, you won’t find massive hordes of zombies in this game. The most enemies I ever did battle with at one time when playing on the Normal difficulty setting was around four or five, but that’s not to say it wasn’t difficult; every single enemy is dangerous enough to kill you. There are no filler creatures in Resident Evil 7 because every encounter is a life or death situation.

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Plenty of other genre staples are featured front and center in this installment as well. I found green herbs scattered throughout the game for healing, managed my inventory in a pseudo sub-game of Tetris, and searched high and low for keys and other necessary items. My loadout included pistols, machine guns, a shotgun, flamethrower, and more — complete with tons of enemies and entirely unique boss fights to test out my weapon skills. There were also a litany of dastardly designed puzzles. Some of them involved simply decoding small riddles or flipping paintings around in the right order, while others are full-on “Escape the Room” dungeons with multiple layered problems to solve.

After playing for long stretches of time in VR, it became physically difficult for me to continue. My body was sore from tensing up so much and I wasn’t sure how I could press forward due to the sheer number of ways the game was designed to scare me. There are all manner of jump scares sprinkled in for good measure, along with slow-building moments of tension, a wonderfully haunting soundtrack, horrendously disgusting creatures designed to make you sick, and the ever-present anxiety of running out of ammo or supplies — it’s all here. Pick your poison.

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While plenty of VR games have already captured the elusive sense of immersive realism — and presence — they seldom wrap you up in the emotions of the world around you, only to saw off your hand, stab you in the eye, and kick you through a wall at the height of your mental sensitivity. If nothing else, Resident Evil 7 is relentless in its pursuit of your fear.

Playing Resident Evil 7 outside of VR yields a better visual experience due to the increased resolution and higher fidelity, but it’s overall less immersive. Flicking a thumbstick is a poor substitute for physically moving my head in the world. I also realized a noticeable improvement in my aiming while in VR due to the subtle head tracking movements I could make when looking down the barrel. However, there were distracting technical hiccups like pop-in textures inside VR that weren’t apparent outside of the headset. The menus could also have used some work as they didn’t always display properly.

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If you want to switch between VR and non-VR mode, you have to exit all the way to the main menu. And for whatever reason the game only displays each hand and wrist in VR for most scenes — not the entire arms or the character’s whole body, but everything is fully animated outside of VR. Some of the enemies were more frustrating than they were scary in certain areas as well. Dealing with small and fast flying enemies like moths and swarms of bugs is just never fun. They’re tough to kill and serve no purpose other than annoying you.

All that being said though, I’m hard pressed to levy any serious criticism. Horror icon H. P. Lovecraft once wrote that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” — while that certainly may be true, fear has a new name now in 2017, and it goes by Resident Evil 7.

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Final Score: 9/10 – Amazing

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard sets a new bar for survival horror games and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best games in the franchise’s long history. By uniting elements from the past, such as the slow pacing, focus on exploration, mind-bending puzzles, and desperation for survival, with the pulse-pounding first-person gameplay of the recent era of horror games, Capcom has crafted a veritable modern classic. Resident Evil 7 embraces virtual reality as a medium and proves that you don’t have to cut corners or make sacrifices to create a compelling VR experience.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard releases on January 24th, 2017, for PlayStation 4 with optional PS VR support, as well as Xbox One, and PC. It may come to other VR headsets in 2018. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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