The Resident Evil series has become more divisive in recent years, moving away from the survival genre and more and more into that of action, replacing the limited resources and vulnerability with gunfights and explosions. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, however, looks to return to the original staples of the series, reining the action in and bringing survival very much into the forefront once again.
It's hard to talk about the story without spoiling key events, but we'll try to creep around the major talking points. You play as Ethan, an everyman who is looking for his wife, presumed dead for three years, after seeing videos from her, and your search leads you to the home of the Baker family. The horror start as you navigate the huge complex - a plantation - from the main house itself, which ranges from neatly kept to dilapidated in certain areas, to secret passageways and hidden rooms. Ethan must navigate this mysterious place and discover what's going on and, more importantly, find his wife.
As those of you that have played the demo know, the atmosphere in the house is a little bit different, and incorporates darkness into the horror. Almost all aspects of the game (which takes place over one night) are dimly lit or pitch black, and this increases the tension dramatically, but the good part about this is that it doesn't become a jump-scare-fest. The shocks are used sparingly throughout and therefore retain their effectiveness - we don't get scared easily but there were times we really weren't expecting things and found ourselves squealing. Most of the time you can't hear anything but your own footsteps, so when a shock comes, you definitely feel it.
In the first few hours the game is mostly about exploring, hiding, and feeling pretty vulnerable as you avoid the Baker family, however, once you start picking up herbs, guns, ammunition, and little trinkets, then a key returning feature of Resident Evil comes into play: inventory management. As with previous entries, there's often difficult decisions to be made regarding what to keep and what to throw away, although this is helped somewhat by the sporadic storage boxes you find throughout the game.
Some items you can pick up feed into another classic Resident Evil gameplay feature, and that's puzzles, which are scattered throughout Resident Evil 7 and range from the obvious to the obstinate, and quite often you'll need to do a lot of backtracking and exploring to open all the hidden places and find all the secrets of the Baker household. Not only that, but you'll also need to choose wisely what you use and when, as not all of the items can be picked up on one play-through.
It might sound clichéd but we're serious when we say that the shift to the first-person perspective really adds to the immersion, drawing you deeper into the horror. Opening closed doors without knowing what's behind them, and enemies jumping out at you becomes all the more effective when it really is 'in your face', and although people loved the iconic viewpoint of vintage Resident Evil, the first-person shift does signify a dramatic improvement in that regard.
This applies to combat too, which is made simpler in comparison to previous games. Shooting feels satisfying and weighty, which is ideal considering how hard bullets can be to find. Importantly, though, it never feels like a shooter due to the lack of ammo and the realistic recoil of the firearms. Instead, it feels like the guns are a weapon you must use to survive, not something to revel in as you mow down enemies, and you really kick yourself when you miss a shot.
In terms of how the narrative works, we can't tell you much, but for the most part we really enjoyed the story it offered, and we definitely didn't see where it was going to go. The characters carry weight and meaning, and that's helped significantly by the fact that Ethan is an everyman trying to look for his wife, rather than a beefed up soldier saving the world. The stories are more personal, and the horror is amplified because of that, as well as with the choices you have and the discoveries you make.
That said, we wish there was more to enjoy. We had a head start at the beginning thanks to playing a preview build of the game some weeks ago, so we got through the opening quite quickly, but we'd estimate that the standard play-through will clock in at ten hours. For some, this relative brevity might be an issue. While the story is rounded off nicely, and works as a whole, we'd have liked a couple more hours, especially as there isn't a huge amount of replayability on offer here.
What is there, though, looks fantastic, and the combination of lighting with great visuals heightens the horror significantly. The game is built on the new RE Engine, and the environments and the characters are detailed and well-crafted, often utilising shadows to great effect. In one room, for example, the only movement you can see is the shadow of a ceiling fan on the floor, which is incredibly disconcerting. In short, it looks fantastic.