Much of Resident Evil 7’s fear comes from leaving you alone. There are scares, and drawn out horrible sequences, but many of my favourite memories are just creeping around a house. A pretty normal looking house to start with, just abandoned and decrepit. It’s only later you start to find the slime, mutilated dolls and animal parts. By then you’ll already know you’re fucked, but it’s nice to have clarification.
This is a game about decaying spaces littered with rotting memories of a life gone by; of ichor and threat. It’s a game where standing in a room and looking at the state of things and wondering how it - and its owners - got that way is enough to instil dread. The bodies, gore, and monsters that come later only add to that menace: they don’t make it
I’ll avoid spoilers for the story and just say you play as Ethan, a guy looking for his missing wife in a Louisiana swamp. He doesn’t say much - he’s mainly your vehicle to ride in this ghost train - but when he does talk it’s usually helpful or adds a touch of character. “Who builds this shit?” he mutters after solving a very Resi puzzle.
The opening hour sets a strong tone for the rest of the game. It’s a low key, slow burn beginning that plays out with a minimal cast and almost in a single location. It’s a gentle creep that turns into a terrifyingly confusing rush of horror with so little warning that you’re all but left spinning. Even with so few moving parts at play initially, it throws such a blood soaked wrench in your expectations that you’re left trying to make sense of what just happened as you stand in the wreckage.
There’s a ‘low budget break out horror movie’ vibe throughout the first two thirds of the game thanks to the small cast and cleverly thought out ideas. Tonally, the team have really done their homework here, pulling the best (worst) ideas from more recent sources. There’s nods to Japanese horror but mainly it’s a Blair Witching, House on the Hilling, Texas Chainsaw Massacring found footage type of deal - lots of crowing, crazy freaks and body horror (oh God the bit with the teeth, or the rusty nails, the hatchet, the arm...).
The gore and guts only work, though, because they’re used sparingly. You could be standing in God only knows what sort of filth pretty much all the time, but that’s only set-dressing to get under your skin. When the real grot drops you’ll know about it.
Resi 7 is an intimate game, and uses this smaller scale well. The dinner scene you might have seen with the Baker family - father Jack, mother Margueritte, son Lucas and the creepy granny - is the largest number of people you ever see on screen at once. For the most part it's you and one other other person. Maybe a few monsters in the shape of the new Molded - slimey human shaped things with a face made of teeth and a horrible resilience to bullets.
It makes everything all the more personal as you’re creeping around the Baker mansion, avoiding whoever’s trying to do horrible things to you at you at the time. Plenty of space is given to letting the family, the real stars here, breathe and find their voice. From Jack’s boorish, redneck Silverback bullying, to Marguerite’s mad cat lady screeching and Lucas’ very special brand of ‘that kid ain’t right’ - they bring the game alive and give it a unique character. You get to know them, in a way. A horrible way.
Resident Evil 7 uses space as much as it does threats to make these people and this place feel dangerous. Often you’re alone in corridors, and the game’s not afraid to leave you to work yourself into a state. There are jumps and cheap scares, but this game is aware that the anticipation is always worse than the reveal, leaving you to creep around and expect the worst whether it appears or not. The beautifully designed house gradually opens ups as you unlock areas and routes, expanding and looping in and around itself, making it all too easy to rush into previously safe areas without thinking about how things might have changed since you were last there. There’s some great, sparse, sound design as well; all desperate breathing and softly clacking shoes on wooden floorboards. At the same time music is minimal, often only appearing when things kick off to underpin the desperate panicky action.
While we’re on the bits that don’t quite feel 100%, the boss fights tread a fine line between frustration and brilliance. Which one you get largely depends on luck. One has mechanics and options that, from speaking to several people who’ve played it, not everyone discovers. For example, a certain encounter can be over in minutes, or seem impossible according to what you find. Another is just hard, hard work and - with no onscreen feedback - it’s impossible to tell if you’re having any effect. As a result it’s easy to be left wondering if you’re doing the right thing.
At least one section also strays too far in the direction of making you vastly underpowered, creating an insta-death stealth slog that’s just a relief to finish. Another misfire is a weird decision you have to make towards the end. The options are odd to begin with but also basically pointless as only one matters - if you chose the wrong thing it’s neatly resolved within minutes and everything picks up with the other answer like nothing happened.
These fumbles only stand out because everything else is so precisely milled that the few bumps and divots are easy to feel. They don’t detract, you can just tell where it isn’t quite perfect. Other than those hiccups this is a great horror game, and that’s without mentioning the added danger of playing in PSVR, where the mildewy atmosphere gets into your soul. I played the opening hour and a few other levels in virtual reality and screamed a lot, ending up, during one extended sequence, curled foetal on my side attempting to balance playing and hiding at the same time. It didn’t work very well. It’s terrifying, and there are sections I played in normal TV-o-vision that I don’t think I could have done in VR.
However, it’s worth mentioning I’m bullet proof when it comes to motion sickness. I played in virtual reality as a full FPS, with all the stabilisers off (so no segmented turning, tunnel vision, reduced speed etc) making it play exactly like the non-VR version. It was brilliant, but I’m in a minority of people that can do that. I know from speaking to other reviewers that some needed to play it with the anti-hurl aids on, and at least one person felt sick just trying the tutorial.
However you play it, Resident Evil’s back. Completely different and yet instantly familiar. Compared to the bloated action of the last few installments this is literally a Resi revelation, executing modern horror ideas, interesting characters, locations, and a fantastic atmosphere to create something that can stand proudly among its sources. It’s about as an essential a horror experience as you can get.