Resident Evil VII: Biohazard
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Like one of the unfortunates infected by the T-virus, Capcom’s long-running series has undergone a profound mutation for its latest iteration. The contaminate in Resident Evil VII: Biohazard’s system isn’t a lab-engineered mutagen, but rather the surprising influence of Konami’s Silent Hill series, and a not inconsiderable dose of some of the ideas Red Barrels introduced in its debut horror effort Outlast (a game that’s itself heavily indebted to Capcom’s early work).
In fact, Biohazard immediately invites direct comparison with Outlast by starting in a familiar manner. The game opens as protagonist Ethan Winters comes to the end of a long drive through desolate countryside and pulls up just outside the grounds of a dilapidated old building. After handling Winters’ disembarkation with a short animation, Capcom dutifully hands over firstperson control to the player and tasks them with finding a way into the building. Winters’ motivation to put himself in obvious danger runs a little deeper than journalistic curiosity, however, as he’s here after receiving a message from his late wife.
While there are plenty of jump scares and outlandish monsters along the way, Biohazard breaks with series tradition to keep the player in a near-continual state of psychological unease that makes this entry one of the most exhausting, and brilliant, survival-horror games in years. Sure, the series has dabbled with other genres in the past – most recently in the rotten Umbrella Corps – but in every case the end result has been like a brittle, crooked branch sprouting from an otherwise robust trunk. Biohazard is a numbered sequel, of course, but it represents an innovative, benchmark-setting template that breathes new life into a series that hasn’t felt truly progressive since its fourth instalment – a high point that’s now more than a decade old.
Such a far-reaching overhaul was always going to perturb traditionalists, of course. Many voiced their disappointment in forum posts and on social media after the game’s reveal in June last year, accusing Capcom’s designers of straying too far from the company’s original vision, disgruntled purists selfdefeatingly labelling the game a ‘triple-A Outlast’. But while there are absolutely comparisons to be drawn, such reductive classification fails to take into account the generous list of Capcom’s own ideas that set Biohazard apart from other firstperson horror games.
Unfortunately, not all of them are good ones. As much a product of the game’s VR leanings as its series’ legacy, default walking speed is somewhat sluggish and lacks any sense of dynamism. Things can be improved by spending a little time with the game’s extensive selection of sliders, and the ability to quick-turn helps, but even with everything dialled up as far as it will go, the sense persists that you’re wrestling with the vestigial remains of tank-control DNA.
The setup does its job insofar as it gleefully introduces moments of sticky panic while you desperately try to get through a door and close it before whatever is behind you gets any closer, but it needs space to function at its best. When you’re hemmed into smaller areas with fast-moving enemies, or those with ranged attacks, it can frustrate. Two claustrophobic boss fights early on – one which takes place in a garage, and another in a macabre storage cage – suffer as a result, and end up being more irritating than tense. Some ill-considered checkpoint placement that fails to take into account drawn-out, unskippable cutscenes (excellent the first time, but quickly frustrating thereafter) and initially poorly telegraphed rules of engagement conspire with Winters’ lumpen reaction speeds to tarnish what is otherwise a memorable opening hour. Tackle the same encounters in VR, however, and it’s clear that they’ve been balanced for players who have the ability to look over their shoulders while keeping on the move. Both are significantly improved with the PSVR headset, but it’s a pity that a middle ground couldn’t be found in these instances. And it’s all the more frustrating when Capcom hits its stride shortly thereafter and delivers a number of exceptional boss encounters that excel in either mode.
But it’s in between these fights that Capcom really flexes its survival-horror muscles. The game takes place across locations that are parts of a gradually expanding, tightly packed map, which unfurls as you unlock smart – and often surprising – shortcuts. This, together with some puzzles whose constituent parts are spread out across considerable distances, makes backtracking a pleasure. You’ll rarely have the run of the place, however, as there’s usually something – or someone – in each area with you. In many cases you simply need to avoid being spotted by a creature that doesn’t know you’re there, and can’t open doors anyway. But on other occasions you’ll find yourself stalked by the house’s violent occupants, or hunted down by shambling but relentless creatures in darkened corridors.
At least the Molded, the catch-all term given to a host of grim mutants that look like they’re made of tar, can be downed with a close-proximity shotgun blast to the head – or, at least, a proportion of lucky hits from the dozens of poorly aimed pistol shots you loosed in panic. However, many of the humans you’ll encounter are capable of regenerating themselves (for plot reasons we won’t spoil here) and impossible to kill outright. You can down them temporarily, but it’s only a matter of time before they get back up again – a little more angry than before – while you desperately search for the items you need in order to proceed and try to figure out how they must be used.
Biohazard breaks with series tradition to keep the player in a near-continual state of psychological unease
Some of Biohazard’s most memorable puzzles span time as well as physical distance. You’ll acquire several video cassettes during the game which, when played in any of the VCRs dotted about the world, put you in control of other characters at some point in the past. Brilliantly, these sequences are used to foreshadow areas that you’re about to visit, presenting them in a different context and providing clues as to how they can be reached in your own timeline. Rather than make tackling them a second time around easier, however, Capcom instead takes the opportunity to lean on your nerves a little harder than might be considered sporting had you not already mapped out the territory, and toys with your expectations.
It’s also one of many tools the studio uses to tell its surprisingly well-written – and performed – story. By Resident Evil standards at least, Biohazard’s narrative is a pleasantly restrained yarn that is often as rich as it is terrifying. Capcom hasn’t blithely abandoned the abstractions and camp excesses of Resident Evil’s universe – you still consume herbs to fix any ailment, even chainsaw wounds; chests in save rooms happily ignore the laws of physics and offer up their contents in every location; and the game’s mawkish ending feels anachronistic in its new context – but the studio has embraced a more convincing tone that exacerbates the terror, and frames each set-piece and period of exploration with a greater severity than the game’s predecessors ever set out to.
One sequence in particular, involving a child’s bedroom, will stay with us for a long time. But a particularly creepy boss fight prior to it – tackled during the day, in a well-lit, busy office – elicited involuntary exclamations from two Edge staffers that neither is proud of.
Biohazard’s downbeat, atmospheric squalor and gloom is rendered all the more potent by Capcom’s new RE Engine. The Molded glisten like Giger-esque nightmares as they loom out of the darkness. Steam billows and swirls in believable patterns across the floor of damp corridors. Capcom lavishes particularly extravagant detail on decaying food and flesh. The game’s human character models are also striking, the combination of their eerily convincing presence and exceptional lighting effects making the prospect of being caught all the more unbearable.
While the visuals take an expected hit in VR mode, particularly detailed areas – not least the dense foliage in outdoor sections – really suffer at PSVR’s resolution. There are some odd quirks, too, such as the way that items you pick up to examine feel slightly too far away, and that a portion of your drive at the beginning of the game plays out on a virtual screen before dumping you into the interior of a 3D car at the last moment so that you can get out of it. For the most part, however, Biohazard makes excellent use of VR to make an already alarming game all the more hideous (see Post Script).
With Biohazard Capcom might’ve taken liberties with a much-cherished format, but it does so with such bravado that it’s hard to imagine the seventh instalment coming together in any other way. And while it’s unlikely to win as many hearts as Resident Evil 4 did, it’s an equally important and remarkable entry in the series’ tumultuous timeline.
While the Baker property is made up of several discrete buildings, they’re all linked by a web of secret passageways and rickety walkways. The coherence of the environment evokes memories of early Resi games