What scares you? Eight-legged creepy crawlies? The whine of a dentist's drill? The phone call at four in the morning? That unexplained scratching sound in the attic, or a thin-skinned despot with his finger on the nuclear button? Truth is, while there are some common denominators, what frightens you might be a joke to me. Like humor -- an equally elusive genre to codify -- horror and suspense are maddeningly difficult cats to wrangle, which is why there are so many failed horror games, films, and novels. Thankfully, Resident Evil VII is not one of them. Not by a longshot.
Filled with both subtle and obvious references to other games in the series, RE VII is first and foremost a return to form, eschewing the action-oriented approach that characterized the last three entries. We're back to pure horror, suspense, claustrophobic environments and a slower, methodical pace that, for long stretches, is truly dread-inducing and genuinely, gruesomely unsettling. For much of its length, RE VII is a catalog of how-to-do-horror, combining heart-stopping jump scares, graphic violence, psychological terror, tension-drenched stealth and high stakes combat.
The plot machinery whirs into life when protagonist Ethan Winters receives an alarming and disturbing message from his presumed-dead wife Mia. Ethan heads to the backwoods bayous of Louisiana and a busted down, creepy mansion right out of...well, Resident Evil. There are few experiences in the horror game genre that can match the first hour or so of RE VII, which is a tour de force of pacing, environmental storytelling, sound and level design and restrained but effective combat. Like any great horror film or novel, silence and exploration are used to great effect and build tension for the more explosive action that will inevitably follow. The juxtaposition of the familiar and macabre creates disorientation and unease.
Eventually, of course, Ethan finds some weapons and the story starts to move a little quicker as the game settles in for the long haul. There are plenty of twists and turns, monstrosities to fight, and some truly memorable -- if sometimes annoying -- boss battles. While Ethan is an identifiable every man purposely lacking in character, Mia and her amoral captors are memorable antagonists. While there are moments of dark -- and not entirely successful --humor, RE VII is a mature, generally serious story that is punctuated by some disturbing scenes of violence and stomach turning gore.
The only real disappointment with RE VII's story -- and to be fair, this is a fault in many similar games -- is the reality and logic-breaking nature of some puzzles, none of which are especially difficult, but whose execution screams "videogame!" Of course, all horror depends on the protagonist suspending good judgement, poking a vulnerable limb into a darkened room.
As a series, Resident Evil has never been known for its satisfying combat mechanics, but this time around -- thanks largely to the first person perspective -- there's little to complain about. Ammunition is in short supply, requiring some hard choices. Some of the protracted boss battles rely on less-than-obvious gimmicky mechanics rather than simply superior skill or firepower, which can frustrate. Auto checkpoints are relatively generous and load times are tolerable.
RE VII generally looks and sounds fantastic on the PC, with textures, lighting effects and details that unsurprisingly outshine its console counterparts. Horror and tension rely on the unseen and the game's outstanding sound design and understated, generally ambient score work in tandem with masterful level design to produce really creepy-yet-familiar environments. While PS4 players can opt to experience RE VII in VR, those of us with an Oculus Rift or Vive will have to wait for at least a year to play the game with our headsets on.
Gamers who have written off the Resident Evil franchise will be heartened by VII's return both to form and style, but those new to the series will have no trouble jumping in. Resident Evil VII: Biohazard pulls well-worn riffs and familiar tropes from classic horror games, film and literature and doesn't entirely escape trafficking in cliche, but it still tells a compelling, suspenseful, creepy story that's both terrifying and hard to look away from.