[contains minor spoilers]
If you would've told me a year ago that Resident Evil would return to its horror roots with its seventh installment, I would've called you a dirty rotten liar. I loathed Resident Evil 6 with an unenviable passion and found no solace in speculating the future of the franchise—it was clear that Capcom wanted their once fearful zombie series to be as loud, dumb, and bombastic as possible. And don't get me wrong—I really did enjoy Resident Evil 4 and 5, but survival horror they ain't, and RE6 only seemed to spell certain doom for the next installment. Perhaps in another timeline we would've received Umbrella Corps as the next official RE game, but thankfully in our universe we've been given a glorious marriage between the old and the new: Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.
Before I begin, I have to point out that the game is bookended by some pretty awful sections. The intro is too slow, linear, and derivative, resembling much better horror media while simultaneously hamming it up to high hell. Meanwhile the end of the game ditches the typical exploration-survival-puzzle loop and becomes a tepid gray gauntlet of enemies that you've already fought before. Neither of these parts particularly ruin the experience, but they stick out like a sore thumb once you've finished, especially the bizarre intro. I can see a lot of people liking how off-the-wall it gets, but I've always appreciated Resident Evil for the game aspect of it, rather than the bonkers presentation.
Thankfully, by the time you step foot into the Baker estate's foyer, it'll feel like home. Boiled down, RE 7 is a more compact and condensed version of the original, hitting a lot of similar notes in its own gruesome way. Instead of zombies you have the molded, instead of being out in the midwestern wilderness you're in the thick of a swampy southern bayou, and instead of wielding a shotgun and grenade launcher you utilize a... well, shotgun and grenade launcher. But the way RE 7 clings to tradition is endearing rather than tiresome; it's been so long since we've gotten to explore a creaky old wooden house that it practically feels like a brave new direction for the series.
And in some regard, it certainly is a new direction: the first person perspective is something that's not nearly as jarring as I thought it was going to be. Plenty of folks disparage the tank controls in the original games but they helped to keep the gameplay tense and uncomfortable, allowing the zombies to be a threat despite their leisurely walk speed. And the first person perspective works as a direct analog to that—your sprint speed is significantly slower than other FPSs and not being able to see what's behind/to the sides of your character creates a ton of tension when you're fleeing from a foe. More than once I made a mad dash for a door with an inhuman gurgling echoing in my headphones, my heart racing as I dove into a safe room (and on one occasion, was pursued up some stairs I wasn't expecting the enemy to climb). The gameplay can still be awkward at times (like trying to shoot a darting mosquito), but it's a good kind of awkward, one that remains subservient to the game's horror.
I mentioned previously that Resident Evil 7 felt like a condensed version of the original, and this is a facet that has its own pros and cons. The minimization of each area means you'll get to know every layout intimately—so you're never lost or left wondering where the next puzzle key is—but on the other hand, it does make the RE 7 feel less like a full-fledged adventure and more like an extended introduction. At first the Baker estate appears to be a massive complex but in reality it's a modest little playground, boasting 1-2 routes to each room. You won't need a plan of attack for going back to a locked room since the smaller square footing means far less enemies, but thankfully the game is packed with a lot of good surprises and jump scares, never outstaying its welcome even by its combat-oriented end. Although there's a part of me that wishes it was longer or that certain sections were more fleshed out, what's here is great and absolutely worth a playthrough for survival horror fans.
I'm not going to talk at length about the story mainly because I think the Resident Evil lore is mostly rubbish, and I largely enjoy the moment-to-moment spooky bits (like reading Lisa Trevor's diary) over learning the internal politics of Umbrella. The main villains of Resident Evil 7 is both corny and nonsensical, each of them running the gamut of different horror tropes (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Saw). Individual fights against them are fun however they're never really interesting to listen to, and the plot doesn't really have any clear direction until its final act. The main protagonists aren't anything special either—if anything, they're less remarkable than the dysfunctional Baker family. Again, there are bits and beats I enjoy (like the "Happy Birthday" tape), but the overall feel, look, and sound of Resident Evil 7 is what kept me coming back to it, rather than learning about the Bakers' backstories.
In the opening hours I was ready to write Resident Evil 7: Biohazard off as a fluke that fans were partial to only because they hadn't played other horror games. After climbing past the lunatic heights of battling a car doing donuts in a garage, RE 7 finally clicked with me just as anxiety was bubbling in my stomach. Did I have enough ammo? Should I combine all my chem fluid now or save some for later? Is it worth it to head back into the house to scavenge around for the antique coins? Even while writing this, I felt trepidation and dread thinking back to certain moments, RE 7 finally accomplishing what every game post REmake had failed to do: fill me with fear via gameplay. It certainly was an awesome ride while it lasted.