The Resident Evil series has now gone through three distinct eras. The original games helped establish the survival horror genre, while Resident Evil 4 turned the series toward the third-person shooter genre. Neither of these eras were particularly scary. The earliest games might have gotten a few jumps here and there, but they were built more around the tension of navigating a contained location with esoteric puzzles. The horror was largely aesthetic.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, on the other hand, took a ton of influence from contemporary indie hits and delivered one of the most terrifying video game experiences. The problem in earlier entries is that, no matter how scary the monster you faced, you were playing an armed officer. Here, you play a completely ordinary person who was simply searching for his wife after receiving an alarming video. Mix in some seemingly immortal enemies, and you get a recipe for hopelessness. Every moment is suspenseful, as you never know when the Bakers will show up.
The opening sets the stage so perfectly. Having the first encounter be Ethan’s own wife establishes something being very wrong – and things were already bad with the basic concept. There’s a moment during this fight where you will likely assume you made a great mistake, only for the moment to keep playing out. So many horror games have introduced grotesque scenes as punishment for failure. Having such a moment be a scripted event results in several forms of emotional whiplash, establishing this game will be just as terrifying as it first appeared.
Like the original, Resident Evil 7 does a perfect job of keeping itself contained to a small location. The Baker Mansion is intricate, filled with dozens of horrifying corridors. This location also avoids the typical video game mansion design, where there are rooms which seemingly serve no purpose beyond being a puzzle in a video game. This feels like a place people might actually live, which makes the nauseating design all the more effective. There’s more to this game, but the slow pacing really emphasizes every corner.
The Bakers themselves are among the more striking villains I have encountered. RE7 draws explicitly from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre in tone, and they are a perfect take on the redneck hillbilly trope. The game also doesn’t settle for that somewhat problematic design; there’s a sad, twisted tale beneath these events to make this more than just the story of a man escaping psycho killers. Every encounter set my heart racing, though it’s a strange effect of video games that they are least intimidating during their boss fights. Like the shark from Jaws, they operate better as a threat than a direct encounter. The common mooks known as Molded are equally terrifying, operating more in the Lovecraftian pulsing horror vein.
The game maintains a consistently stressful tone while also shaking things up every stage. Some of my favorite moments involve VHS tapes which Ethan finds, putting the player in control of previous victims. Their integration is ingenious, as Ethan learns key details to aid his own survival. The best of these places a character in a morbid escape room puzzle straight out of the Saw franchise (with two of the franchises featured in this list seemingly drawing from Saw, I guess that series was good for something after all).
The best things about Resident Evil’s constant reinvention is that each era has featured at least one all-time great video game. When these games change things up, they have purpose in doing so. There are times where Resident Evil 7 barely feels like part of the actual series, yet it feels like the fulfillment of what Resident Evil would have offered from the beginning if it only had the technology.