First of all, may I take this opportunity to apologise if, in the following, I not wrote down words dead good. See, I’ve not slept properly for a few nights. The first night was just because I was quite excited to start playing Resident Evil 7, but the last few were because every damn time I closed my eyes, I was back in the dank, fetid and – quite frankly – horrific world of Resident Evil 7. It’s not that I scare easily, or even that I was “scared” per se, but having decided to play RE 7 in Virtual Reality, it all got into my head a bit. As I hope to explain in what follows, Resident Evil 7 is, in many ways, an excellent advert for Virtual Reality, and whilst I think this is a great game anyway, it’s a positively fucking brilliant VR experience.
Whether you’re playing RE 7 in VR or not, one of the very first things you’ll notice is that the game adopts a first person perspective, and gone is the over-the-shoulder 3rd person view of the last few RE games. I’m not sure to what extent – or at what point in development – Capcom decided on having the VR option (i.e did they make it 1st person because they always intended to have a VR mode, or did they already know it was going to be 1st person and think, ‘hey, that means we can do a VR version’) but either way, it’s a decision that has a wide-ranging and profound impact on the Resident Evil 7 experience. Along with the 3rd person stuff, the game has also ditched much of the “action” of the last few games, and instead Capcom have opted to take everything in a much more survival horror direction. Those two things (along with a few others we’ll cover too) mean that, in essence, Resident Evil 7 can be seen as something of a Hard Reset for the franchise, and whether you think it needed it or not, it does mean that RE 7 feels different, refreshing even.
The NARRATIVE elements of this “reset” will become quite clear within just a few minutes of starting the game too, and Resident Evil 7 also ditches the ‘Massive Globalised Bio-Terrorism Outbreak’ type story that’s been a hallmark of last few outings in favour of a much more personal, localised one. As Ethan, you’ll be searching for your missing wife, and after receiving an email from her, you’ll set about following the only lead you’ve had in years. This’ll take you deep into the bayou, but it’s not the happy-go-lucky, honest-to-goodness, homemade Apple Pie bit of the bayou because, well, because this is a Resident Evil game, innit!? And because it’s a Resident Evil game, you’ll find yourself very much in the Deliverance-y bit of rural America; the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y part; the very heart of The Hills Have Eyes territory. It’s not a particularly original setting or story, to be sure, but by choosing this scenario, Resident Evil 7 is able to both piggyback the existing revulsion and tension those films have engendered, and to also ram in about a bajillion references to them in there too.
Indeed, if you’re a fan of the genre, I expect you’ll find yourself spending a chunk of time going ‘Hang on a minute…..is that the house from x’, or ‘Wait.. That’s the scene from y’. Basically, if you combine the sheer horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, throw in the sense of mystery and pure evil of True Detective (Season 1, obviously), then mix in a bit of the 1st person creepiness of The Blair Witch Project, you’ll get a rough idea of what to expect from Resident Evil 7.
Anyhoo, what this localised, claustrophobic setting means in terms of GAMEPLAY is that you’ll spend a lot of time in pretty much the same place, gradually unlocking little pieces of it at a time as you progress in the story. If you’re a long-time Resident Evil fan, this’ll likely remind you of a certain mansion, and you’ll very soon return to the same mindset the original game popularised. You’ll frequently come across a locked door, realise you don’t yet have access to it, but you’ll find a key for another door, and beyond that you’ll find a key for yet another door, until bit by bit, piece by piece, you uncover the house’s many, many secrets.
Given you’re playing as regular dude Ethan, and not one of the zombie-hardened franchise regulars, this focus on just getting the fuck out of dodge relatively unscathed works really well, and it adds a degree of urgency and necessity to the proceedings. Even though I personally liked the action of the last few games, those were always played with a ‘Come at me, Zombies’ mindset, whereas with RE 7, there was a sense of ‘What the hell is happening/Please can everyone stop trying to fucking eat me’ that I’ve not felt since the earlier games. All the bombast is gone, and playing as a regular Joe waaaay out of his element, and given the game’s return to the franchise’s earlier Gameplay elements (including resource management, backtracking, figuring stuff out, etc) there’s a definite feeling of ‘right, take a deep breath, you need to find x, maybe it’s back in that bit you can now open…. You got this’, and I thought it was all really rather gripping.
Now, if you take both the Narrative and Gameplay elements together, you get the essence of why Resident Evil 7 positively shines in VR.
See, a big part of the reason the original Resident Evil game was so well received was because, at the time, it was largely unique, and its arrival on the new PlayStation heralded a fundamental change in Gaming’s direction and capabilities. Back then, Games were largely colourful, cartoon-ey ways to pass a few hours, and it was rare that a game would feel tense or scary, and as such, Resident Evil was something of a revelation. With its genuine scares, its real world setting (Zombies notwithstanding, obviously), and its constant, unrelenting tension, Resident Evil helped define Gaming as a serious medium, and one with great narrative and emotive potential.
In a similar way, I think Resident Evil 7 does this kind of service for VR. Technically it’s superb in Virtual Reality, and whilst it’s not photorealistic per se, it’s solid, exceptionally well made, and as a result, it’s hugely, ridonkulously absorbing. The world of RE 7, particularly given its locale, is oppressive and dingy anyways, but in VR that’s magnified almost exponentially. Crawling through tunnels, being up to your neck in stagnant water, squeezing between wall spaces, all feel exceptionally real. To illustrate this point, in these water sections, I automatically closed my mouth and began to breathe solely through my nose – which I only noticed because breathing through your nose is hard to do with the VR headset strapped to your face. Similarly, all the things you interact with in Resident Evil 7 are weighty, realistic objects, and turning them over to search for clues, or hidden information gives the game an added sense of tactile involvement (even if they’re actually just floating in mid-air). Given the game’s emphasis on exploration, on returning to previously overlooked objects in light of new information, I found this really helped in that respect. In short, I actually felt like I was physically trapped in that damn house, actually interacting with its contents, and it’s difficult to accurately describe how that adds to the sense of involvement and immersion.
These feelings of involvement and immersion are further compounded by the decidedly creepy atmosphere that hangs over Resident Evil 7 like a dense cloud of bayou mist, and actually “being in” a three dimensional rendering of it makes the tension and unease much, much more palpable. Having abandoned the wave after wave of Zombies type action of the most recent games, Resident Evil 7 has been allowed to replace it with an impressive sense of foreboding – a sense of fear at what might be around the next corner. This is great anyways (the best films, for example, allow your imagination to provide the real scares), but in VR, I found myself constantly checking over my shoulder, or actually physically leaning my head around that next corner, trying to get a peek at what might be lurking there. This, quite cleverly, is something you can do, and it’s something you almost certainly will do given there’s a sense that your actual body is in danger, rather than just a 2D representation of it playing out on a flatscreen in front of you.
And when you do come across an enemy, the games VR mechanics accentuate the idea of being bodily in-game too. Whilst RE 7 uses a controller (and not wands, meaning you’ll be shooting with L2 + R2), exactly where you shoot is determined by where you’re actually looking. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got to grips with it, it’s brilliant for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a lot easier than using thumbsticks (especially under pressure), and secondly because both you and the enemy have a definite sense of occupying a physical space, if you do get grabbed, if they have you pinned, it’s genuinely terrifying; both in and of itself, and because being able to physically see that you no longer have an angle to shoot them is panic-inducing in an instinctive, primal kind of way.
Ditto the more scripted scares. Yes, Resident Evil 7 relies heavily on so-called jump scares sometimes, and sure they’re not particularly clever but a) as I already said, given the sense of foreboding and tension, I think there’s a decent balance (and you can’t really have one without the other, right!?) and b) those scares last a lot longer when you’re playing in VR. Again, precisely because there’s a sense of being bodily in that world, there’s a visceral and entirely automatic reaction to suddenly finding yourself in the inescapable grip of an assailant. In other words, the initial scare makes you jump, but it’s the following seconds that consolidate and multiply that fear until its cold, dead fingers are wrapped around your very soul. Or something. Whatever… the important point is that it really works in Resident Evil 7 VR mode.
There are lots of other, arguably more subtle things that augment the VR experience too. Take something as simple as finding ammo and health items – another hallmark of Resi games. Here, they’re sometimes cunningly hidden, and you’ll have to “physically” crouch and root behind objects to find them. Similarly, something as common as opening doors is a different prospect in VR. In other games I’ll often cheat, pressing the “open” button before leaping back just in case. Here, that’s not always an option, because your arm/shoulder is opening the door, so you’re physically tied to the motion, fully committed until it’s complete. If that new room happens to be dark too, there follows an agonising second-or-so until your torch kicks in, and where your imagination will be doing its very best to give you a fucking coronary.
Even the fact that you can’t look away from the game has weird effects on you, and there’s no having a quick glance out of your window to remind yourself you’re not actually trapped in a psychopath’s basement. Once you’re in the world of Resident Evil 7 VR, you’re all in. At one point, my girlfriend gently touched my arm to get my attention, and not only did I come very close to actually shitting myself, but I also fired off a full clip of precious machine gun ammo in that general direction too. See at that exact second, the rational part of my brain that knows nothing in the game can actually, physically touch me was being drowned out by another part that was screaming “Jesus Christ James, a molded’s got you… FUCKING KILL IT. FUCKING SHOOT IT NOW FOR FUCK’S SAKE!!” It was, all things considered, a rather unedifying moment for me – and one which will be used to tease me for the foreseeable future I expect – but it does highlight the whole immersion thing quite well, I think. So, you know, there’s that….
In more general terms – and in CONCLUSION – I think Resident Evil 7 is a great game, even if you’re not playing it in VR. The game’s main strengths are its atmosphere, its story and its setting, and they all still work exceptionally well without it. It is a hard reset in many ways, and Capcom have opted to return to the franchise’s roots, but they’ve done so in a way which doesn’t really feel like leaping back two decades. In some ways, they’ve achieved this by dropping much of the series’ more recognised features, and that was risky, but mostly pays off, I think. Until quite near the end, you might even find yourself questioning how, or even if this is game that fits in with the others, but whilst that might upset some fans, it’s arguably also necessary for the game to win back yet others and/or appeal to Non-Fans too. The game does have a few issues – not least that its both relatively short, and doesn’t quite have the usual RE incentives toward replayability – but for me, that’s more than made up for by the VR stuff. And honestly, even if you don’t have VR, I think it’s hard to argue that a game that basically gives you a VR option for free isn’t pretty fucking cool, and a great idea in general, right!?
And had the VR option not existed, I’d have still had great things to say about Resident Evil 7, and as a Resident Evil fan, I’d have embraced everything it has to offer with relish. But because it does have the VR option, it elevates this from just being a decent game and instead makes it into a positively breathtaking VR experience. Whilst I haven’t regretted buying VR, I was thinking maybe I’d been a bit quick to do so, but Resident Evil 7 definitely disavowed me of that notion. Resident Evil 7 is absolutely phenomenal in VR, and it was a spectacular experience from start to finish. I appreciate not that many people have VR yet, so VR reviews are niche at best, but honestly, playing Resident Evil enveloped and surrounded by its menacing presence was one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences of my Gaming life.