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‘Resident Evil 7’ brings an intimate darkness that will save the franchise

Video game review: Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” released on January 24, and the franchise’s return to survival horror scores a big win. Video game columnist Rory Appleton plays.
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“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” released on January 24, and the franchise’s return to survival horror scores a big win. Video game columnist Rory Appleton plays.

From its first gasp, “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” breathes new life into a dying franchise.

The opening “cutscene” – a simple shot of hero Ethan Winters driving up to a creepy house in a Louisiana swamp – floored me. There were moments I thought I was watching a live-action intro, which has been done before, but it was just the best graphics you’ll find anywhere. Capcom gave reviewers strict instructions to only take video from the middle of the game, and now I understand why.

One of my gaming resolutions for 2017 was to review more horror games, so keeping to that before the end of January was important. Opening my mind a bit rewarded me, as “Resident Evil 7” hooked me.

This installment is a dramatic departure from the “pile up as much dead zombies/monsters as possible” gameplay the franchise veered toward with its fourth, fifth and sixth installments. Apart from horrible controls and bad camera issues, those games weren’t too bad. I prefer action games to survival horror.

But this franchise was built on horror. It helped establish many of the tenants held to by the two decades of survival horror that followed: limited supplies, poor visibility, puzzle solving and bad guys who must be evaded rather than killed. And the latest release has all of that and more.

“Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” is playable from start to finish on PlayStation VR.

“Resident Evil 7” might include Biohazard (the name of the franchise in its native Japan) in its title, but it’s a marked departure from its predecessors. Rather than battling corporate greed-turned-zombie in dark, cold office complexes, you are essentially pitted against the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a – well, dark, cold house.

I love this choice. Painting the franchise with traditional horror colors works on so many levels. It’s this weird juxtaposition between typical “Resident Evil” silliness – finding magical plants that can heal severed limbs, for example – and traditional horror movie realism. The evil family who captures Ethan is straight out of the ’80s, but the franchise spices them up with some T-Virus magic.

“Biohazard” is scary, but more importantly, it’s creepy.

Unlike “Alien: Isolation,” for example, it isn’t flooded with jump scares. Things pop out and grab you. If you should be hiding and aren’t, you’re going to die. But these moments are spaced out enough to keep the tension high while maintaining a medium frustration level. My biggest issue with “Isolation” was that the constant stream of scares and deaths gave way to frustration. After a while, the alien only upset me. “Resident Evil 7” has not yet done that.

Instead, “Resident Evil 7” bombards you with creepy sounds and images. The player is left anticipating the jump scare – sometimes for over an hour. This sustained terror kept me from quitting, which I am prone to do when frightened too often in horror games.

That isn’t to say it didn’t frustrate me. I hit a few walls, none larger than a particular boss fight early on that took me two days to beat. It is a difficult game, but stressful stretches don’t lead to blinding anger – at least not for me. If you are an angry player, consider the easy mode.

The move from a clumsy over-the-shoulder camera to a clean first-person view was also key. It ratchets up everything – the realism, the tension, the fun. The first-person camera is prevalent in gaming because it gives the player the illusion that whatever happens is happening to them. That is more important in horror than probably any other genre, as a great scary game can lead to twinges of survival instincts kicking in.

However, I found a few flaws as I pushed deeper into the game. The game is filled with actual bugs, but I found a few of the glitch kind as well – particularly when sprinting near obstacles. Ethan can sometimes get caught in doorways or walls as you move him.

I also wasn’t wild about the story. Capcom’s focus was clearly to design great gameplay – particularly during boss fights. The narrative was secondary. As a writer, maybe it should have bothered me, but centering a game around its clear strengths is a great strategy.

“Resident Evil 7” is a strong title helped out by its release date. January is typically a dead zone for video game releases, so perhaps its fitting that a zombie changed that up for us in 2017. Is it as good as “Until Dawn?” Probably not, but it is worth a look if you need to get that heart rate pumping.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

Video game review

1/2

▪ Rated mature for blood and gore, strong language and intense violence

▪ Developer: Capcom

▪ Publisher: Capcom

▪ Out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC

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