Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Over the next two weeks, Gameological Editor Matt Gerardi will be playing through Capcom’s latest nightmare and checking in to comment on how the game is shaping up. This first entry covers the beginning of the game through the third boss fight (Marguerite) but avoids spilling any plot or encounter details. As always, we invite you to play and discuss along with us as Matt tries to escape from the sinister Baker family.
Resident Evil 7 marks the series’ second metamorphosis in as many decades. After 2012’s Resident Evil 6 turned out to be a lumbering, tumescent mess, Capcom’s latest is a concerted effort to renew and redirect its wayward flagship. The most drastic change is a shift in perspective, as RE7 moves the player’s view from a distant, nerve-comforting remove to a distressing, claustrophobic first-person camera. But there’s more to this transformation than a new look. In its first hours alone, Resident Evil 7 emerges as a strange, glorious rebirth, a transformation that recaptures the best of the original games and injects the series with a renewed sense of energy, focus, and, most surprising of all, humor.
Resident Evil started as a mishmash of Sweet Home’s mansion-bound Japanese psychological horror and George Romero’s zombie films, particularly the stillness and dread of Night Of The Living Dead. The former still serves as Resident Evil 7’s bedrock, as the player arrives at a farm in rural Louisiana and is promptly trapped by its crazed cannibal inhabitants, but its other cinematic touchstones have changed. Instead of Romero, it channels the gory gross-out comedy from the likes of Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, and Peter Jackson.
The Baker family, your super-powered pursuers, are hillbilly horrors of the Evil Dead 2 persuasion: raving, invincible loons who stalk and murder you with a mad grin on their face. They’re presented as a wacky dysfunctional family as much as backwoods terrors who’ve been kidnapping, eating, and/or doing something much worse to people for decades. An early scene where you’re strapped to a chair and forced to sit through a family dinner that devolves into bloody slapstick and wild ravings feels cribbed straight form Texas Chain Saw Massacre and sets the tone for the horror-comedy that’s to come.
And that comedy works on a few levels in the game’s opening hours. There’s the flat-out goofiness of the characters, like Daddy Baker who shambles around with a giant ax and screams Deliverance-style taunts, or the comatose Granny Baker, who parks her wheelchair in perfectly devious positions when you aren’t looking. There’s the meticulously choreographed, over-the-top gore, which the game uses its new first-person view to gleefully throw in your face. And then there’s a meta level, where I found myself laughing at the audacity and specificity of the horror tropes RE7 was invoking and the absurdity of its own series traditions. For all the changes, this is still a Resident Evil game, and you’ll find yourself fetching bizarre statues to open ornate doors that have no logical business being inside a backwoods farmhouse.
The game’s first boss fight—an encounter with burly Mr. Baker inside the main house’s garage—is where Resident Evil 7 stakes its claim as something far more alive and inventive than its most recent predecessors. It starts with a ludicrous act of violence and turns into a puzzle where you’re trying to stop this invulnerable killing machine of a man. Dumping lead in his cranium doesn’t seem to work, and every time you die, the game gives you a little hint about trying to use what you can find around the room. Normally, this sort of trial-and-error encounter would be infuriating, but there are enough different ways to lose here, all of them hugely surprising and entertaining, that it’s fun just to see your failures play out. Even the correct course of action ends up with you trapped in Daddy’s crescendoing madness, as the game toys with your sense of control before culminating in a final brutal image.
Despite their zaniness, the game still manages to make the Bakers a very real threat. They’ve clearly been infected with some sort of virus or fungus that drives their aggression and makes them capable of Wolverine-style bodily regeneration. You can fight them off and slow them down with enough bullets, but they’re effectively invincible, filling the role of the unstoppable, unceasing force at the heart of every first-person horror game these days. The feeling of being hunted is a powerful, natural fear that RE7 plays upon constantly, forcing you to cross paths with the Bakers to find the various items you need to escape the house and, eventually, the property. It quickly devolves into rudimentary sneaking, but in reality, the Bakers’ aren’t nearly as fatal as they seem (you can take plenty of damage yourself) and the challenge is more about steeling yourself and gathering the courage to forge ahead into danger than dealing with them.
Like the best Resident Evil settings, the Baker estate is a detailed space with a personality and story all its own. The individual buildings are nowhere near as sprawling as the original game’s Spencer Mansion, but the smaller scope allows each room to have its own memorable details and realistic roles. The halls of its various houses and their floors are conveniently designed to wrap around on themselves, opening up shortcuts when you’ve found special keys or solved certain puzzles. The mystery of the Baker family—who they are, what they do, and how they ended up this way—is an intriguing one, the vague details of which are meted out in small doses as you explore the property. It provides a little more depth to these psychopaths, too, as you get the sense they’ve been used by powers beyond their understanding and the horror you’re witnessing is the tragic results. This is Resident Evil, though, and that tale could easily drown under corporate-conspiracy nonsense as we push closer to the end. But for now, what’s slowly unfolding in the background of this nightmare is a compelling, personal horror story.
That return to a more intimate form was something the series desperately needed, but RE7 pulls it off with a confidence and character that’s wholly unexpected. Despite Resident Evil 6’s mountain of problems and toxic reputation, it went on to become one of Capcom’s best selling games. The company could have easily soldiered on, continuing the series’ exponential growth into action-packed anime madness. Instead, Resident Evil 7 is a rebirth by reversion. Like last year’s Doom reboot, it looks back to the series’ roots and builds something modern around them, an experience that’s distinctly new and old. It’s the complete opposite of the disheveled mess that was Resident Evil 6. Its beginning hours display a sense of considered pace and purpose, personality and clarity. Given this series’ history, I have reason to doubt it’ll stay that way, but after such a strong, self-assured start, giving in to the over-indulgence that began dragging Resident Evil down would be a more terrifying prospect than anything RE7 has thrown my way so far.