Ben Plays: Resident Evil 7 - Biohazard
"Give Me Back My Hand"
Pixel Vision podcast listeners will recall I mentioned at the conclusion of our Resident Evil 3 (2020) episode that my interest in the franchise had been well and truly reinvigorated. Following that game, I immediately sought out RE7: Biohazard and RE8: Village - the most recent of the games I'd yet to play. I'll get to Resident Evil Village in time, but first up: Biohazard.
Biohazard marks several departures from the series to date. For one thing, it's a first person perspective rather than the traditional third person over the shoulder view. For another, the protagonist is not an established character or even an unknown from an established organisation. He's not a cop or a member of a paramilitary group, but a regular guy (a systems engineer), trying to survive against the odds. It's also in a new location (unsurprisingly given ‘the history’ of Racoon City… I’m trying to keep this spoiler free 😉). According to a magazine found in game, Biohazard is set at least 16 years after the events of RE2/3. If you didn’t yet listen to our coverage of those games, check it out here:
The first person perspective did throw me a bit. I was apprehensive, worried it'd be more along the lines of Outlast or Amnesia, those games that are such terrifyingly immersive horror experiences they're borderline unplayable for anyone but a sociopath or total masochist. But having played both RE2 and RE3 fairly recently, and The Forest not too long ago either, I hoped I'd be somewhat desensitised and was confident I could hack whatever scares it had in store.
Scant moments into the game, in the all encompassing darkness of a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere with just torchlight illuminating a circle in front of me, the beam sluggishly roaming the cracked and peeling walls and cockroach laden, putrid remnants of abandoned cooking, the wind thrumming in my ears as it chased through the draughty rooms, I began to doubt that confidence. I felt like one of the moths on the farm porch at night, bouncing back and forth in the thin orange glow of the tungsten, helplessly flapping against the glass bulb, burned over and over, but endlessly allured by the light.
Your character is Ethan. You're looking for your wife, Mia, who has been missing for three years. After receiving a cryptic video file, you're led to believe she's here, somewhere in this creepy backwater farmhouse, barely standing amid an encroaching swamp. Unfortunately, within minutes of arriving, you find she isn't quite the life partner you exchanged your vows with, and she furiously attacks you with a knife and chainsaw (thankfully, nothing a healing med won't salve!). You survive, perhaps killing her in the process, and a mysterious girl, Zoe, gets in touch with you to advise you of an escape route from the house. Would that it were so simple.
There's a simplicity to the Resident Evil series that I really appreciate. It doesn't throw intricate game mechanics and awkward leveling systems at you, it doesn't overwhelm you with a dizzying array of weaponry and upgrades, it just drenches you in atmosphere, goads you with a few mysteries, locked areas and unanswered questions, and drops some key items in the environment to help prod you on your way. The rest, a fraught but not unenjoyable journey of discovery, is up to you.
There's also a comedy to it. On arrival at this derelict house, you watch a video revealing three guys arriving here before you. One goes missing, the remaining two discover a sinister secret passage, find their friend gruesomely murdered and bleeding from his eyes, and then get attacked. Your instinct at this point is not to get the fuck out of dodge, but instead to think, 'Huh, now I know how to access that hidden hallway where those guys got massacred. Let's go there.' It's entertainingly preposterous, and somehow feels like a hat tip to you, the player, who, after all, is doing the exact same thing!
There's no doubt that playing a first person perspective results in a more intense horror experience. There are jump scares galore, but if you play anything like me, you anticipate every freshly explored area to involve a sudden new threat, and maybe some of the previously explored areas, too. You've learned the hard way that Resident Evil is a series where the enemy is not contained by brick, or fire, or locked doors for long. Sure enough, this game is no different. Enemies burst through concrete walls, drop like stalagmites (or Dropbears) from the ceiling and erupt through flimsy, rotten floorboards to accost you. Despite the novel perspective though, the focus on exploration, constrained view and claustrophobic, labyrinthine map, felt stylistically similar to the RE games I'd already played. The moment I picked up bolt cutters and saw their clunky little choreographed animation, I got such a sense of satisfaction. Yes! Never mind the changes, this is what Resident Evil feels like.
But then the craziness went a little too far. The RE franchise has always required suspension of disbelief. I mean, it's about a Zombie outbreak, it includes invulnerable monsters, two dimensionally villainous villains, and doors and secret passages locked with bizarre symbols. In this game, some doors require animal based keys - crow, snake or scorpion - and others only open when you successfully line up the shadows of wooden statuettes to overlay on paintings. Who makes this shit?! (The game offers an answer in the form of a contract from Trevor and Chamberlain Construction.) By and large, these quirks are the recipe for a good time, and a hefty pinch of salt more than helps make the extraordinary events and characters palatable. In Biohazard, that disbelief gets pushed beyond its limits. Within the first hour or so of playing, your character, Ethan, has his hand pinned to a wall with a screwdriver before being sawn off entirely, a knife thrust into his eye, his arms struck repeatedly with a hatchet, his leg is detached from his body then somehow reattached without impairment. Even within the confines of RE's bizarre ruleset (and its subsequent relevant plot developments), this is a crazy stretch.
As well as the usual bag of tricks, Biohazard has a few novelties tucked up its sleeve. For example, when you watch a VHS tape (like the one described above), you embody one of the characters in it, giving you free rein to explore and look around. It's a really inventive idea and proves itself more than a gimmick by contributing to the playthrough: the video sequences clue you into areas you've not yet visited, as well as preventing the exposition from feeling as passive as it can do with simple cut scenes (which, mercifully, are few and far between).
Fortunately, Biohazard, like other RE games, capitalises on the thrill of cautious progression and the reliable sense of achievement won with new unlocks and revelations - whether story based or literal. That means despite its flaws - and they are numerous - it still comes out on top. But contrary to the tone of this review so far, it's not all fun and games... (I know technically it is, but...)
Regular Pixel Vision listeners and readers will know I'm often skeptical of a boss fight, particularly when the fight doesn't offer much by way of variety, involves an abrupt difficulty leap, and feels more like an obstacle arbitrarily laid in your path to slow your playthrough and create a narrative peak rather than because the devs thought you'd have a lot of fun dying over and over trying to beat it. The chainsaw fight with Jack, the father of the family who live in the farmhouse, falls precisely into the latter category. It's a tedious, overly long battle in which two clumsy and inhuman psychos with cumbersome chainsaws (and low fuel) swing them at one another, with neither party unduly affected when they hit home. It's a slog, and its weird pacing, and lack of any discernable rhythm makes it feel a chore to complete. The first major black mark against the game. I'd like to say the subsequent boss fights proved more entertaining, but they followed a similar style: chaotic, unstructured, unrewarding.
The RE series has always involved back tracking, and where most of the time this works well (as Tao and I acknowledged and praised in our episode covering RE3 remake), in Biohazard there's not quite enough variety in this single location - one lonely bleak house - to keep the exploration feeling fresh, and the map doesn't do you the favour (unlike in the remakes) of colour coding zones to let you know when they're fully explored. As a result, you find yourself retreading old ground unnecessarily each time you become disoriented or confounded by a locked door. One particular section saw me cover the entire house, room by room, because I couldn't find the next passable entrance. I was working methodically, top down, and it was in the damn basement. The red zone - blue zone combo of the recent remakes would have obviated this frustration. Hopefully this is corrected in Village. Similarly, the remakes let you know when an object had outlived its value, overlaying a little trash can onto its icon so you knew it was safe to dispose of or remove from your inventory. In Biohazard, my inventory was constantly too full, and I was yoyoing to and from the save rooms simply to stash more and more stuff (an issue that compounded the backtracking exhaustion mentioned above).
Sometimes, the game's desire to have you follow a set path at its own steady pace causes confusion or, at the very least, a break of immersion. One sequence sees you enter a room, pursued (as usual) by Marguerite, an old woman with a lantern. There's an interactable locked door puzzle in the centre of the room, but approaching it prompts a message saying, 'not available right now'. So you hide. Then you run back through the room as she follows you again (it's still not interactable). You hide again the other side as she returns. Finally, after repeating the same steps three times, you can now interact with the puzzle. Why?! It was there the whole time. The game simply declines to let you use it. Another example, in a different area, was when I left the main house, immediately explored the frontiers of the new zone I was in and encountered a locked gate. I went to the save room (a little caravan on this occasion), and when I reemerged, was unclear how to proceed since the only exit was the very same locked gate I just discovered. Turns out, with no explanation or prompting, the game unlocks it behind the scenes, another invisible wall lowered for you to progress through the story. It's an oversight when the unlocking could easily have been justified narratively, or a key could simply have been left in the caravan.
Ironically enough, this is actually the exact opposite of another issue I encountered with the game (a bone I have to pick, if you will). It lets you, even encourages you to interact with tonnes of irrelevant things! You can open some empty cupboards and drawers, pick up scraps of paper or dog-eared indecipherable photos. It's a weird decision. Most of the time in the game, something is only interactable if it's going to prove relevant to the gameplay (which makes sense, because otherwise the whole house would be full of pointless interactables). But perhaps for a bit of variety, or for some false hope, or I don't know why, the devs have included loads of items and objects that are devoid of purpose. It's just annoying. It doesn't add threat or atmosphere, it just wastes time. In 2022, gamers simply don't have time to waste, if they ever did, and games that don't respect that will fast lose favour.
This introduces a concept that's worth exploring further: player agency, or lack thereof. In Biohazard, you don't get much of it. Linear feels too generous a term, you're near enough on rails. In addition to the previous examples, when you enter a particularly dark area, Ethan unilaterally activates what appears to be a head torch (which is to say, a light clicks on and illuminates the area directly in front of you. But you're not holding a flashlight and you have no power to control it). This would be fine, except there are loads of areas in the game that as a player, I'd prefer to be a bit brighter, whether to diminish some of the fear of the unknown, or to make collectibles easier to spot. Given that Ethan clearly has some form of torch available to him, it's vexing that I can't use it, except when the game arbitrarily decides I can. It's another one of those decisions which takes autonomy away from the player unnecessarily.
This sense that I'm a disconnected observer, rather than someone embodying Ethan, is compounded in the game's occasional movie scenes. At one point a character goads you as he abducts Mia (again): "Well don't just stand there, do something!" I couldn't have said it better myself. Why do game designers script cut scenes that would never plausibly happen? Why am I forced to just stand gawping as crazy shit goes down? This is particularly annoying when the cut scene surrenders any advantage my character might have had (for instance, having the jump on a villain and plenty of opportunity to fill them with lead, but instead I'm forced to just observe them passively). It's hardly unique to Biohazard (I also complained of it in my review of Horizon Forbidden West), but it feels like an own goal that could easily be avoided.
The game's enemies are mostly aptly ghoulish. The predominant threat comes from the family of cannibalistic lunatics who each prowl a different area of the house, pursuing you in that omnipresent, indefatigable way Mr X and Nemesis did. Often running, hiding and hoping is your best option. The other enemies are the molded, a kind of undead mutant fungus (or 'mold') thing, vaguely reminiscent of the Leech Man zombies of Resident Evil 0, or Clickers from The Last of Us. So far so good. Oh, you also have flies. Yeah, you heard me: Flies. At various points you're literally swiping at giant mosquitoes with a knife. Did not like that. Sure, you can eventually spray them with a flamethrower or detonate the whole room with a grenade launcher, but anything more than a knife feels like overkill. This is the kind of enemy that's a nuisance rather than a threat, but still depletes your health and harasses your playthrough, raising your blood pressure for all the wrong reasons.
This is where I found myself pining after the more conventional zombie outbreak stories and settings of earlier Resident Evil games. The weighty analogue feel of the telephoned story updates, its tape player save points, magic storage containers and save room safe havens (with accompanying reassuring music) were pleasingly nostalgic, but pleasantly uncomfortable as this house of depraved and cartoonishly manic psychopaths is, it just doesn't feel as grounded, or as realistically unrealistic as being a cop fighting visibly humanoid zombies in lifelike environments that resemble places I've seen or even been.
At one moment in Biohazard, as you watch a video entitled 'Happy Birthday', your character (one of the family's previous victims), curses, 'This is fucking disgusting,' as he reaches into a toilet overflowing with shit. It's a sentiment I shared multiple times throughout my game, whether shoving my hand into the mangled, fleshy neck of a beheaded police deputy, having my arm carved into with a quill pen, being force fed maggots, or watching as a mutated and mutilated old woman crawls around on all fours giving birth to swarms of bees. This is a game that ramps up the gross outs without making much (if any) effort to contort them to fit narratively.
In fact, what's significantly lacking is any motive for the craziness that surrounds you. I know method's not always got a role in madness, but it's hard not to wonder why Lucas, while plucking his own fingernails out, is plotting a birthday game involving automatons, bombs, showers, passwords and UV lights. Or why he has rigged an entire floor with booby traps, disco lights and speakers and feels the need to commentate as you battle some raging mutant. I was reminded of a scene near the end of Spectre, when James Bond is lured to a building by Blofeld, and there are posters pinned up everywhere, like, literally everywhere, and I was so distracted by the set design, how much work must have gone into orchestrating this and how easily it could have been ruined (what if the blu-tac had failed?) that it broke the whole story.
Nobody would do this, not even if they're really loony tunes. Not even if they had a point to make (which they don't). It's insanity as imagined by game designers, without any relationship to real life mania. In short, it's nonsensical. Even Far Cry feels more plausible than this. Well, maybe.
The final section of the game is unexpected, and unexpectedly detached from the house. Your escape is cut short and you find yourself first aboard a ship, then within a mine. This is such a geographical disconnect from what's happened so far, it almost feels like a separate game. It's the same formula, just at different locations, but feels tacked on in a slightly annoying way, like I was ready for the game to end, then they moved the goal posts. As a result, the concluding chapter is lacklustre, fizzling out in correlation with my interest in the game, and the final boss battle less of a battle than an inexplicable explosion of black goo.
A shame that it overstayed its welcome, but overall, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is fun and immersive, and it happily distracted me with its own sickness as I suffered a few IRL sick days. (Aside: common colds these days are savage, right?!) Comparing it to the recent incarnations of RE2 or even RE3 is night and day, though. The more recent games are more polished and more interesting in just about every regard. Having heard Village is a sequel to this game specifically, I confess I'm now much less enthused at the prospect of playing it. But don't worry, I will.
Further survival horror listening: