I'm a long-time fan of the Resident Evil video game series, and I'm a big believer in virtual reality. Combining the two sounds like a winning formula, right?
But, even I had some trepidation about the new Resident Evil 7, which allows you to play the entire game in virtual reality on a Sony PlayStation 4 console, via the PSVR headset. Virtual reality, whether the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PSVR or others, is great for puzzle games, simple sports and occasional shoot-em-ups, but scary games can be a little too immersive, especially if they're filled with cheap jump scares or in-your-face monsters.
This is not a position I take lightly -- I've always loved games like Resident Evil and Dead Space, and a reasonable amount of my Blu-ray collection is dedicated to directors like Dario Argento and George Romero. But after playing dozens of VR games this past year (while I've been testing VR-ready PCs in the CNET labs), I can safely say horror VR games are not for me. I don't even like when fish swim too close to my face in VR demos (and that giant whale should back off a bit, too).
But in the interests of science, I loaded up Resident Evil 7, and without even giving the regular 2D version of the game a perfunctory spin, jumped right into VR mode. Despite the fact that I'm especially sensitive to artificial locomotion in VR, the first-person view of the game, with its gamepad controls, was pretty easy to take for about 30 minutes of uninterrupted play. The very slow pace of the initial game probably helps with that, as does the slow walking speed of your character and the horizontal turning that's restricted to 30-degree jumps by default (you can change that, but smoother rotation can lead to motion sickness in VR).
The slightly hazy look of the game, a byproduct of the lower specs of both the PSVR headset and the PS4 console when compared to $2,500-and-up investment required for a decent PC-based VR setup, gives it an otherworldly feel, and helps divorce the gruesome action from reality. It's a bit like viewing a late-night cable TV B movie on an old tube TV.
But even then, the oppressive atmosphere quickly gets to you. Inspired by a the visual style of "found footage" movies and Americana horror auteurs like Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, it's very different from the quirky Resident Evil games of old, with their colorful, over-the-top characters and lost-in-translation dialogue.
I finally give up on the VR after a few too many in-your-face jump scares. They probably would have seemed mild in a 2D game on a flat-screen TV sitting 10 feet away, but had a much more visceral impact in the PSVR headset. Continuing the game in its 2D mode, I was struck by how much sharper it looked at its full 1080p resolution on a 50-inch TV. That extra clarity and resolution made it feel much more like just another game -- less interesting, but also more playable for lightweights like me.
Check out our full review of Resident Evil 7 here.