Contrary to what its own demo suggested, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard doesn't fully take Resident Evil away from the elements that made the series what it was 20 years ago. On the contrary, the game has more in common with the very first entry in the series than anything else. But make no mistake, that's more of a structural similarity. In terms of tone, viciousness, subtext, and sheer oppressive fear, Resident Evil 7 is a beast unlike its predecessors.
Gone is the series's overreliance on gung-ho military archetypes, B-movie voice performances, and plot elements that made it prime inspirational fodder for Paul W.S. Anderson's particular brand of goofy kid-in-a-toy-store filmmaking. Resident Evil 7 emphasizes the horror part of survival horror above all things. You play as Ethan Winters, a protagonist who stops short of being a blank slate, delivering only sparse—albeit sharp and naturalistic—commentary on his situation. Ethan's wife, Mia, went missing three years prior, so imagine his surprise when he receives a video message from a terrified Mia telling him to stay away from her location. Of course, that's advice Ethan ignores, promptly setting off to the fictional middle-of-nowhere town of Dulvey, Lousiana and the disgustingly derelict home of the Baker family.
Much of how the Baker family operates is straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre playbook, especially in a horrific dinner scene close to the start of the game. But where the iconic Leatherface and his family are simple, backwater crazies, the Bakers retain a level of humanity that actually makes them more unsettling. The subtext of this game—and let it be said that the fact that there's subtext at all to a Resident Evil game is miraculous—is that this is an abusive family who are trapped together, able to inflict unimaginable physical and emotional damage on each other and anyone who tries to interfere with their gory plans, and essentially can't die.
The game's title is finally literal: The Bakers' brand of evil and pent-up hostility has been allowed to fester and brew inside this house, unleashed without remorse on anything that moves. When the members of this family attack, taunt, and torture, it's hard to not see in their violence the baleful, abusive specter of a million abusive fathers, the shrieks of spiteful mothers, the ignorance of a sibling who will never leave home. It's a point bought further home by the fact that Zoe, the one Baker who decides to help Ethan save Mia, is calm, sane, and well-read. She'd be clear across the country if not for her pesky, lingering loyalty to the people her family used to be.
In terms of tone, viciousness, subtext, and sheer oppressive fear, Resident Evil 7 is a beast unlike its predecessors.
Of course, what isn't subtext in the game is completely boldfaced: Ethan being confronted with the nigh-unkillable backwoods lunatics keeping him from the love of his life. As pure horror, the game does peak early; the first hour has Ethan unarmed, wandering through a decaying house infested with maggots and rotting wood, the brilliant, expansive soundscape ratcheting the paranoia every step of the way. When Resident Evil 7 gets down to the dirty business of introducing Ethan to the family, it's the stuff of pure nightmares, and the game takes sadistic joy in stripping away what little ability the player has to try and push back against the Baker clan's violations. Sure, the guns get bigger and more powerful, but the first time an enemy takes your best shot, then plays dead just long enough for you to turn your back on them, the safe, secure feeling from having a weapon around vanishes in a heartbeat.
As Resident Evil 7 progresses, and it starts shoving weaponry at the player, Ethan continues to remain under pressure. The house itself is a character all its own that suggests simple neglect in one room, and unspeakable body horror in the next. Zombies return to the franchise, but this time take their design cues less from George Romero than David Cronenberg, and the result is sickening in ways even the man who gave us Brundlefly might never have conceived. The consequences of letting any enemy get too close is more dynamic and pulse-raising than ever. A hit might knock Ethan to the ground long enough for an enemy to take a gruesome chunk out of his arm or neck. An enemy might slice off Ethan's leg and force him to choose between his gun or his missing limb. Enemies will get up close and personal to take a blast from Ethan's biggest gun, then smile a sick, bloody grin as his ineptitude.
The grace notes of the game are the video tapes that Ethan finds throughout the Baker home: short, self-contained, playable experiences of some of the family's last victims. This is all to say nothing of what kind of experience Resident Evil 7 becomes when played in PlayStation VR. The headset offers a level of breathless, harrowing immersion that conveys the potential of the technology better than any virtual experience to date.
More than anything, Resident Evil 7 just plain feels like the series having finally grown up instead of out. It's a game that doesn't flinch or elbow the ribs in its approach to placing the player in high distress at all times. It retains the series's guiding design principles while stripping away any extraneous, winking noise. It represents the first time since Resident Evil 4 that the series might surprise the player, but it's been much longer, if ever, since the series has ever aimed to make players truly, legitimately, afraid.