Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

Note: This review contains spoilers for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.

Prior to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Biohazard 7: Resident Evil in Japan), I was aware of the franchise and even tried to play Resident Evil 4, but got distracted by other titles and never got back around to it. As I saw more information about Biohazard however, and even played the demo, I was interested in the direction Capcom had taken with the franchise and played it when it came out. Despite my general aversion to horror at the time, I played this game when it came out and got hooked on the central mystery and atmospheric nature of the horror. However, I didn’t actually give it a proper review and thought that in the spirit of October, it was time to rectify that with a look at Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Gold Edition, which still holds up three years later.

In June 2017, Ethan Winters receives a message from his wife, Mia, presumed dead since 2014, and drives to a plantation in Dulvey, Louisiana. When he arrives, he explores a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and finds Mia imprisoned in the basement. As they try to escape, however, Mia suddenly goes berserk and attacks Ethan, forcing him to kill her. After a phone call from a woman named Zoe, Ethan tries once more to escape and fights Mia again, but is knocked out by Jack Baker. When he comes to, he finds himself a captive of the Baker family, who want to make him one of their own.

Ethan quickly finds himself a captive of the Baker Family.

Ethan’s story is pretty straightforward for the most part, since he’s trying to escape the plantation and save his wife in the process. However, there’s still some degree of complexity as you learn more about the Baker family’s madness and the exact circumstances that led them to that point. It’s also pretty well-paced for the most part, with good foreshadowing to some of the later twists that take on a new meaning on a second playthrough. I also liked that the Guest House from Beginning Hour returns at the beginning of the full game, but features different puzzles and additional rooms and items so it doesn’t feel like a retread. Zoe is also an interesting character who serves as a guide to Ethan for a good portion of the game, though I eventually wondered how she would know the exact phone on the plantation to call you at.

At certain points, Ethan will also acquire VHS tapes that he can view with a VCR. These tapes are a clever way to incorporate flashbacks into the story while also shifting the perspective to fulfill this purpose. Two of these tapes let you play as Mia, one, “Mia”, showing her running away from Marguerite Baker in vain and the other acting as an expository view of her direct ties to the events on the plantation. A third tape, “Happy Birthday”, shows Sewer Gators cameraman Clancy Jarvis’ tragic and shocking final moments as he plays through one of Lucas Baker’s sadistic Saw-style games. Speaking of the Sewer Gators crew, “Derelict House Footage” also returns from Beginning Hour and plays out the same way. Only one tape is mandatory, but the other three are still worth it on at least a first playthrough, since they also give hints on future puzzles.

For example, these light puzzles.

Notably, Biohazard doesn’t really feature any overt ties to the previous Resident Evil games until the very end, when Chris Redfield appears as part of a brand-new Umbrella Corporation to rescue Ethan. As such, the game feels like somewhat of a soft reboot of the series, but this isn’t the worst approach. If anything, this gives new players a good jumping-on point where they don’t have to know the full lore of the series to get invested in the characters, plus it might get someone interested in the prior games anyway. This approach also makes sense from a storytelling perspective, since we’re seeing the effects of an infection from a civilian point of view as opposed to someone sent out specifically to stop it. Either way, Biohazard provides a great starting point for new installments going forward.

Unlike prior Resident Evil games, Biohazard uses a first-person perspective. Considering the game’s emphasis on survival horror, as opposed to the action horror of the last three main entries, this shift amplifies the atmosphere by removing a layer between the player and the plantation’s various horrors. The level design caters to this as well, with smaller, more intimate environments that play off the fear of the unknown. Since Biohazard was also developed from the ground up with PlayStation VR in mind, the environments are also linear enough to navigate without too much issue and the space between areas is open enough to not feel too restrictive and allow some amount of free travel.

Even outside of VR, which removes yet another layer between player and monster, Biohazard is terrifying. Starting with the environments, the more intimate layouts limit your escape options, forcing you to make quick fight-or-flight decisions against the variations of Molded you encounter. Then there’s the Baker family, who are invincible outside of boss fights, so you can’t do much against them while they roam the Main or Guest Houses. While Marguerite won’t really chase you, instead spewing insects at you, Jack Baker won’t stop unless you’re fast or dead. Running away from Jack is still one of the most terrifying moments from the game even after a few playthroughs, since he also packs quite a punch if you’re within range.

Running away from Jack Baker is difficult.

Running away from Jack isn’t the only time you’ll feel helpless, however, as the game constantly challenges your notion of safety. The first time is when you run away from Jack for the first time in a memorable early-game moment where he bursts through the kitchen wall just to get his hands on you. When you roam the basement for the first time, you’re forced to go through a rather twisty hallway where you’ll eventually run into a Molded that simply walks out from behind a corner. It’s not a traditional jumpscare, but the first time this happened actually scared me and I felt more cautious about the environment, especially after an encounter with Molded that burst out of a wall hammered this home. Later in the game, you’ll also deal with traps from Lucas, which include tripwires placed throughout the environment so they blend into the darkness and trip you up. During these sections, you’ll learn the importance of watching your step and taking things slow to avoid damage.

Contributing to this feeling of helplessness is the finite resources available to the player. You can find more ammo and items throughout the plantation, but they don’t respawn, so playing smart will get you further than acting on instinct. Otherwise, it’s easy to waste precious ammo when you don’t need to and, as an unwritten rule, more powerful guns have scarcer ammo. Of course, depending on the difficulty, it’s possible you’ll still end up with a surplus of ammo by the end, but you’d still have to emphasize efficiency through headshots. You’ll also grow more familiar with the game’s weapons, since knowing when best to use any of them is key to your survival. Personally, I’ve found that if I’m low on bullets after wasting too many, I could lean on the Burner, despite its high fuel consumption, until I felt more comfortable going back to traditional arms.

Throughout the Baker plantation, Ethan can also pick up 18 Antique Coins. These coins can unlock bird cages for different rewards: Steroids, which increase Ethan’s maximum health, for three coins; Stabilizer, which increases reload speed, for five coins; and the 44 MAG for nine coins. All of these rewards, should you choose to go for them, are worth the effort, though the order in which you unlock them is up to player preference. Additionally, you don’t really need to worry about missing one, since there’s one more coin in the game than you’ll actually need for this endeavor.

Antique Coins are worth collecting for great rewards.

Biohazard also has a crafting system where the player can create new items or ammunition to get a leg up on the opposition. For example, you can combine Herbs, which heal a small amount of health, with Chem Fluid or Super Chem Fluid to create a First Aid Med or Strong First Aid Med respectively. For the most part, the crafting system is pretty easy, as you can either combine items manually or go to a separate Crafting tab in the inventory to combine items at the push of a button. With finite resources, however, and the number of recipes that require Chem Fluid, it’s good to keep in mind a hidden recipe where you can manually combine a block of 10 Handgun Bullets with one Gunpowder to make some Enhanced Handgun Bullets.

No matter what you choose to bring with you, however, Ethan has a limited inventory space of 12 blocks, which he can expand later on with backpacks to 16 and then 20 blocks. This means that it’s best to only bring what you’ll really need while leaving room to grab more without running back and forth between Safe Rooms to store excess items. Since some weapons also take up two blocks, this means occasionally playing a minor amount of “inventory Tetris” to organize everything just so.

With all of that said, the game does take a turn to action horror during the finale in the Salt Mines. This does forgo some of what made the rest of the game terrifying, since this section is more linear and ammo is more plentiful during the climax, where you now mow down a horde of Molded leading up to the confrontation with the final boss. To some extent this feels appropriate, since Ethan is now single-mindedly trying to destroy the origin of the Baker family’s madness, but it can feel like a letdown after all of the buildup. It doesn’t help that the final boss isn’t as creative as the previous fights against the Bakers.

Either way, you'll fight plenty of Molded on the plantation.

I did have a couple issues with the gameplay, including the unskippable in-engine cutscenes that can make subsequent playthroughs take longer than maybe necessary. There’s also one choice that Ethan makes at one point between whether to cure Mia or Zoe, but I’m not sure how to feel about it. Giving such a choice can have real weight to it, but one choice is obviously good and the other obviously bad in the game’s eyes. Plus, it’s presented at an awkward moment, since no matter what you choose, Mia is still required for the story to work, plus Zoe has to stay behind for the End of Zoe DLC to make sense. In other words, the choice feels pointless.

If there’s one thing that really sells the atmospheric horror, it’s the graphics. The RE Engine, introduced in Biohazard, shows off a lot of its potential with incredible lighting that’s more realistic while also putting the player on edge within the plantation’s darkened hallways. Black mold also covers a good portion of the property and looks appropriately disgusting. The water effects are also pretty good, considering there are times when Ethan has to wade through it. I especially have to commend some of the shots from the intro and outro, which I easily confused for live-action at first. A more realistic art direction also means that characters look different than in previous games, especially Chris Redfield, or at least his face.

Despite how much of a graphical step up Biohazard is, it does run into some problems. Some of the textures don’t look that great when you get up-close and others, like memos on a board, don’t even look fully loaded. I also noticed that as great as the models are, the hair physics feel slightly off and the mouths don’t 100% line up with the dialogue, though I chalked that up to lip lock from localizing Japanese. On a lesser note, I found it odd that the constant flame from the Burner weapon continued burning behind the Pause menu. There’s also a slight graphical downgrade when playing VR, but that’s not unexpected.

Perhaps one overlooked aspect of horror that this game nails is the audio. There is a soundtrack that does a good job highlighting and building up to certain moments, but it’s not constant and only when the moment calls for it, like an incoming boss or the appearance of a new Molded. Most of the time, the audio is just ambient noise, enough to make you question if an enemy is nearby or if wherever you’re standing is really that safe. To contrast this, the Safe Room music is very calming and indicates a moment to breathe. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the main theme is a very memorable and chilling rendition of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” with new lyrics to better match the tone of the game. I also liked the sound design, as each weapon has its audio associated with it, not to mention the noises when interacting with objects or the inventory, which I never got tired of hearing.

Before I end this review, I’d like to mention a couple interesting observations about the game. While playing on a PS4 the DualShock 4’s controller light is orange, which fits the color associated with the game. Also, the first time you load the game, the menu is very plain against a black background. Every time afterwards, however, the main menu displays a tape recorder on a table and plays the associated sounds.

Resident Evil 7 Biohazard’s commitment to an atmosphere of constant tension, gameplay that continually challenges your notion of safety and its full playability in VR makes it one of the best horror games in recent years. As an added bonus, its story is very accessible for first-time Resident Evil fans and serves as a good starting point for future installments. If you’re interested, then you can get more bang for your buck with the Gold Edition.

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