Every night for the past week, after my wife and child were sound asleep, I've been placing a PlayStation VR headset over my face and turning on Resident Evil 7. Roughly 90 minutes later, I have to take the headset off—it's too much. Inevitably, my heart starts pounding, my muscles tense up, and I'm short of breath. Resident Evil 7 is not just a bold reinvention of a franchise that's long needed a shakeup, but it's one of the best horror games I've played in years, an interactive Texas Chainsaw Massacre that simultaneously serves as the best reason to buy a VR headset yet.
The only game poster in my house is one I've had since 1996. I found it buried in my parents' basement a few months back. I've loved a lot of video games in my lifetime, but few of them really meant something to me. Resident Evil, though, was one of them. The hallways of the Spencer Mansion are burned into my psyche, and the moment a ravenous dog jumped through a window still gives me chills.
I've been waiting for Resident Evil to feel like that again, and Resident Evil 7 is damn close. In terms of mythology and spectacle, each Resident Evil game has become more ridiculous than the last. And though Resident Evil 7 technically takes place after Resident Evil 6, a 20-hour slog where players fought a kaiju-sized insect thing on the top of a building, it's essentially a reboot. While the game nods at the games that have come before it, it's not built on the overwrought storylines the franchise lost control over years ago.
If you've been wondering if Capcom could make Resident Evil scary again, worry no longer. Switching the perspective from third- to first-person, Resident Evil 7 reestablishes the simmering tension of the original game by isolating the player and making them feel alone. Resident Evil was "survival horror" because you were barely scraping by, never having enough bullets to feel truly safe. The series lost that feeling as it went along, trading horror for action, but it's back. Once again, every bullet counts, and you might want to think about running away instead of fighting. You're going to be muttering fuckfuckfuck as you turn the corner, not knowing what might be around the bend. Whatever's over there, it's not good.
Largely set within a single housing property, Resident Evil 7 is uncomfortably claustrophobic, making walks down an otherwise innocuous hallway a stressful experience. Resident Evil 7, like the original game, operates within a limited, dense environment that shifts and changes, as events conspire around you. You'll often spend five or 10 minutes in a single room, hoping to find bullets, first aid, or notes to explain what's going on. You're likely to return, as every room hides secrets. When you leave, you can't help but think, "I missed something." (The game includes a consumable that briefly highlights hidden items. Make sure to use it!)
It's a game that embodies the phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick." Resident Evil 7 is painfully quiet at times, lulling players into a false sense of security, only to pull the rug from under them. When it's loud, it's loud, and inspires the dread you figure the poor victims from the Friday the 13th movies must have felt, knowing Jason Voorhees was slowly heading in their direction from both somewhere and anywhere.
At first, you have nothing to work with but your wits and ability to hide. But over time, you'll gain access to weapons and other tools to mount a resistance. You never feel like a badass, though, and death is a constant. A shotgun should provide security, but in Resident Evil 7, as you creep ahead, gun facing forward, you're only ever on a wing and a prayer, the evil forever hiding within the walls. It's a weird feeling to wield a grenade launcher and remark to yourself, "Yeah, I'm still fucked."
And though the tone is deathly serious, it's not without a sharp sense of humor. Don't be surprised when you're suddenly tasked with collecting a series of arcane objects, like a handful of metallic dog heads, to open doors. This time, though, you might also find a letter by one of the family members, scratching their head at why the doors are so weird. "Who builds this shit?" your character remarks, after stumbling upon a very Resident Evil-style puzzle. It's a nod to roots and the appropriate amount of indulgence, winking at fans without getting bogged down in the overwrought idiosyncrasies that could drag down previous series entries. It's reflective of the game holistically, too: stepping forward without forgetting where it came from.
Capcom's releasing Resident Evil 7 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, but you should play it on PS4; VR is the way to experience this. There's nothing else like it. I've spent hours playing it outside of VR and it's not the same. Whatever detail is lost in strapping on a headset running at a lower resolution was easily made up by the cold sweat constantly running down my neck. VR adds a depth to the Baker family's grossly detailed home that was, at times, too much. In VR, I'd crane my neck around corners, trying to get a sense of what's ahead, or swivel my head, à la The Exorcist, to keep an eye on whatever grotesque, lumbering creature was chasing, as I sprinted away. And the jump scares—god damn, the jump scares.
When I played Resident Evil 7 in VR last year, I wrote about how it made me want to throw up, despite VR not usually having that effect on me. I was enormously worried this would be a problem in the final game, but thankfully, I found a solution. By default, when you switch VR on, moving the analog stick left or right will sharply shift your perspective by 30 degrees, not smoothly rotate it. It's jarring at first, and feels a little like you're changing scenes in Myst, but it only took a few minutes to settle in. You can change this and allow the analog stick to adjust your direction the way you'd expect, but like the E3 demo, it made me nauseous. That's been the experience of other writers I've talked with, too.
The game isn't able to carry its momentum from start to finish, unfortunately, with Resident Evil 7 having a much stronger first half, before falling into some of the same traps as previous games. (Sometimes, what's "actually" going on is better left unexplained.) Though at its best when grounded and focused, by and large, this is the Resident Evil game I've waited 20 years for.
Resident Evil 7 is released on January 24th.