“Resident Evil” has evolved over the last 20 years, from a humble horror game set in a solitary haunted mansion to a globe-spanning epic in which humanity is fighting for its very existence. Along the way it has lost much of its charm. When 2012’s ‘Resident Evil 6’ gave up spine-tingling suspense in favor of explosive, ‘Call of Duty’-style bombast, I was ready to give up on the franchise. So I’m delighted that ‘Resident Evil 7: Biohazard’ (Capcom, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99) returns to its roots. It’s the series’ first genuinely scary entry in a decade, playing off classic horror tropes in inventive ways.
You play as Ethan, a regular joe searching for his long-missing girlfriend, Mia, in the swamps of Louisiana. Shortly after he finds her, Ethan is taken hostage by a family of cannibals right out of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” And what a charming clan it is. Dad is a hot-tempered mechanic who builds deadly weapons out of saws and rakes. Mom is apparently pregnant _ heaven knows with what. And then there’s wheelchair-bound Granny, who tends to show up at the most unlikely places at the most inopportune moments.
The initial goal is to get out of their rundown house, which turns out to be a maze of death. It’s not just the wacky family trying to kill you _ there’s a whole batch of gooey, toothy mutants in the basement waiting to bite your head off. Such an environment would be a picnic for the well-armed soldiers of ‘Resident Evil 6,’ but Ethan has few tools at his disposal _ just a pocketknife and a pistol whose bullets barely dent the monsters. Eventually he finds more powerful weapons, like a flamethrower, but ‘Resident Evil 7’ is painfully stingy with ammunition.
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That turns the game into a battle of wits: Do I kill this monster who’s blocking my way, or save the ammo for fiercer creatures? Do I waste fuel incinerating a hive of poisonous insects, or save it for dear old Mom? Along with some clever puzzles, the need to strategize makes this more of a thinking man’s horror game. ‘Resident Evil 7’ is the first game in the series to use a first-person perspective, making the terror all the more effective when a mutant is chewing on your arm. PlayStation VR owners can take it on in virtual reality, although I got woozy when I tried it; those with stronger stomachs are in for a treat.
There are some rough spots. The boss battles are ridiculous, with Mom and Dad bouncing back all too quickly from being set aflame or taking a shotgun shell through the head. You will die, a lot, before discovering the tricks to putting them down. Overall, though, ‘Resident Evil 7’ is a deliciously nasty treat _ and a good reminder that with horror, sometimes less is more. Three stars out of four.