Something is wrong with the Baker family. That much is clear just 10 minutes into Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (or Biohazard 7: Resident Evil for those outside North America). Right from the start, the new numbered entry in the survival-horror series puts names and faces to its villains in a way that the zombie hordes from previous games simply can’t match. Then it forces you to look them in the eyes as they try to gouge out yours (and various other body parts as the game progresses).
You see, RE7 pushes the series’ standard third-person perspective into a much tighter, more claustrophobic first-person view. Meaning every act of torture that the Baker clan and… other things enact on protagonist Ethan Winters is shown in oppressively personal detail.
It’s a shame, too, since Ethan might just be the most loyal guy in history. Three years after she disappeared, his wife Mia contacts he with a terse email and an address. He drives out to the estate in question, alone. Instead of calling for help or hightailing it seconds after seeing the obvious murder-house, Ethan enters and is quickly captured by the Bakers: Jack, Lucas, and Marguerite.
The classic tale of “man gets captured by murderers, man tries to escape, man gets beaten to hell and back” ensues. You can probably guess, though, that things aren’t that simple.
For a large chunk of the game, though, they are. RE7 tightens more than just the series’ POV. The scope of this sequel is much reduced from the muddled, over-the-top action game that was Resident Evil 6 — and even the less controversial Resident Evils 4 and 5.
For several hours, the only enemy you face is Jack Baker himself — the family patriarch with a penchant for improvised weapons. He stalks through the estate, constantly taunting and occasionally breaking through walls in the effort to mutilate you. Shooting and stabbing — which, besides hiding and solving a few simple puzzles is mostly what you do in RE7 — will slow Jack down, but not kill him. It harkens back to Resident Evil 3’s immortal “Nemesis,” even while the rest of the game invokes the series’ first game by taking place almost entirely in one residence. Eventually, Jack becomes less of a factor, only to be replaced by the remaining Bakers in their own uniquely pervasive ways.
You’re better off hiding and running from Jack than fighting, though. Whether you’re holding back the patriarch and his wife, or battling the more fodder-like enemies that pop up over time, ammo is at a premium. Enough so every that wasted pistol cartridge and shotgun shell will make you grind your teeth, but not so much that you’re unable to progress. Assuming you scrounge for more rounds in drawers, cabinets, and closets.
To help with this, there’s also some very low-intensity crafting in the game — all of which centers around a single item called “chem fluid.” Mixing the liquid with a host of other items will create bullets, explosives, health packs, and more. Yet there are always more of the other materials than there is chem fluid. Which, in my experience, mostly means constantly choosing between making new bullets and the easy-to-use healing juice that’s only available through crafting. Oh, and all of these components, medkits, and cartridges take up premium inventory space. Which means, besides constantly asking yourself what to make, you’ll also need to decide what’s worth taking with, and what’s to be stored in the item box conveniently located next to every save point.
More than anything, this captures the soul of early Resident Evil games for me. In my mind, the “survival” in survival-horror comes from keeping yourself stocked with the healing items and ammunition needed to ride out the meat grinder of monsters and murderers. Biohazard delivers that tension in spades, while hiding diaries and VHS tapes that allow you to play out brief vignettes from the Bakers’ past to make constantly searching the environment feel rewarding on its own.
Superficially, though, RE7 couldn’t be more different from past games in the franchise. Besides the first-person view, the writing and mysteries surrounding the “evil” Louisiana family are much more down-to-Earth than the series’ previous tales about custom viruses and “B.O.W.s.”
That is until the back third of the game, when events take a decidedly late-era Resident Evil turn. As I said, things aren’t as simple as a family of Southern killers. Unfortunately, though, the last few hours of RE7 drop the Bakers almost entirely. The up-close-and-personal, just-this-side-of-believable horror is completely uprooted by more traditional videogame baddies.
Despite the tone switch, Biohazard does successfully humanize its named antagonists, though. Going into RE7, I worried it would lean heavily on the “hillbilly horror” stereotype that demonizes certain poorer parts of the United States. It… does, but through diary entries and at least one sympathetic cutscene the Bakers are shown to be just as much victims of what’s going on in the game as Ethan and Mia. These villains feel much more fleshed out than the cardboard cutout baddies from past games.
This makes the time you spend cowering from them that much more impactful. Before its eleventh hour turn, RE7 splits its shadowy, confined tension between different zones of the Baker property. Each is effectively “ruled” by a different member of the family, and you’ll need to puzzle and fight your way out of each area to reach its final boss.
The formula builds unique dread for each area, as you prepare to face the relatives, while also letting you “switch off” the stress for just a moment between zones. This is the personal touch that’s lost in the closing hours of the game, as it’s replaced with a slurry of oncoming monsters and info dumps about what kicked off the rest of the game.
Ammo and health conservation is still tense — enemies slowly wriggle and writhe towards you, dancing between gunshots. You’ll curse every wasted round from the beginning of the game till the end.
It’s just that RE7’s introductory acts are so much more than cold, mechanical tension. With the first-person perspective cutting off everything but a small, visible window into the Bakers’ mansion, you’ll instinctively rely on other senses: like sound, and that sixth videogame sense that tells us when opening a door or solving a puzzle is about to alert the forces of evil.
RE7 knows it, too. The game leans heavily into the artificial sounds of the house settling, pipes rattling, and Ethan’s own footsteps pounding in your ears. Every rumble is a cause for concern. Every strangling shortcut under the house’s foundation might as well sport a sign reading “Ambush Ahead.” And, just often enough, it really is Jack or Marguerite shuffling up behind you, or waiting to pull you out of some hidey-hole you hoped was safe.
The worst — not bad, just worst — parts of RE7 instead lay on the combat so thick, right up until a final encounter that does regain some of the game’s early momentum, that you’ll be sure to die and reload enough times in quick succession to remember, “Oh, right. It’s just a videogame.”
That’s not a new problem for horror games. It is a disappointment after the rest of RE7 sidesteps the issue with intimate, uncomfortable stalking and other psychological devices. Even when you do die early on, there are plenty of other scares that can’t be erased with bullets and tenacity. You either look them in the eye and power through, or remind yourself that it’s just a game, and switch it off.
The mediocre penultimate chapter doesn’t take away from the rest of the game’s power, though. Resident Evil 7’s new, claustrophobic perspective and old, recaptured sense of tension make for one of the best blends the series has achieved so far. It might not be the perfect survival-horror game (it probably should have cut out an hour or two of its 15-hour runtime), but it’s the best one I’ve played in a long, long time.