Please note that using VR for an extended length of time as mentioned in this review may be overwhelming and cause sickness.
This is a post for those who share my desire to increase immersion in videogames and yet have still not embraced VR, remaining skeptical about its benefits in this area. It’s not exactly a review of either Resident Evil 7: Biohazard or the PlayStation VR, but an overall dissection of my experience and why you should consider trying VR for yourself if you haven’t yet already.
First, what does it mean to be “immersed” in something? A quick look in the dictionary will tell us that immersion has to do with depth. In terms of art, immersion is a matter of perception that comes and goes, to varying degrees, depending on what it is we are getting “immersed” in. When reading a novel, observing a sculpture, listening to music, watching a movie, or playing a videogame — when engaging with any form of art — we get immersed in them to a certain degree, because they occupy some or all of our senses and our ability to concentrate (assuming the art in question captures our interest at all). Art, like anything we engage with, can be persuasive enough to the mind that the physical body will recognize and be stimulated by the fictitious elements that are depicted in it as if the body was really witnessing these things, which we can then observe the effects of when, for example, we jump or wince at a shocking scene in a horror movie or videogame. This perceptive state is known as immersion.
So, back to videogames. I agree with anyone who considers most VR games to be little more than tech demos and mini-games than actual videogames. Perhaps it’s because modern VR technology is relatively new, and developers are still learning the ropes when it comes to designing games for the tech. While that may be true, it doesn’t change what I think about the average quality of currently available games for VR. I am most interested in playing feature-complete, state-of-the-art games, and while I sometimes enjoy playing something lighter and simpler, it’s not what I want the most out of the latest tech.
Resident Evil 7 is an exception to that rule, thankfully. In fact, I consider it to be (when played in VR) one of the greatest horror games ever made. Unfortunately, as of the date of this review (years after the release), only 11.56% of all players (1,090,767 in total) played the game in VR. Perhaps there’s more, since that number wouldn’t account for those who played it at their friends’, but it’s still an underwhelming amount for such an excellent gaming experience, which is why I wanted to write this article.
I was one of the earliest adopters of the PlayStation VR, having procured the headset back in December 2016 specifically to play Resident Evil 7. Back then, there were even less available games than now, and certainly not much that interested me, at least. I toyed with the PlayStation VR Worlds disc that the headset came with and tried some others like Driveclub and the X-wing VR mission for Star Wars Battlefront, which were interesting enough as first experiences with the new hardware, but weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted something meatier that would last much longer gaming sessions, like Resident Evil. Plus, as a longtime Resident Evil fan, I couldn’t settle on anything less than the most immersive experience possible for my first playthrough, and the PlayStation VR sounded like it would improve the immersion for me, so I intended to play the entire game in VR. But would the game be enough to justify the purchase of the headset, and would Resident Evil 7 even deliver?
I’ve been playing games for over 25 years. I’ve sunk tens of thousands of hours into well over a thousand different games. I was not disappointed.
Playing Resident Evil 7 with VR was one of the most compelling gaming experiences I’ve ever had. The VR drastically improves the experience. The headset is both a visual and atmospheric enhancer that changes how you perceive environments and objects in the game world. Being able to turn your head and see another angle of the environment within the game rather than the room you’re physically sitting in has such a powerful impact on immersion that I would rather play every single videogame in VR if I could. Note that I played the entire game with the Dualshock controller, as that was the only way to play it, so I’m strictly talking about benefits of using the headset right now.
Let me talk a bit about the technical aspect of the experience. The comfort settings both the PSVR headset and game offer are impressive. The headset rests easy on my head, especially while wearing headphones over it to keep it snug. I don’t feel any pressure from it, and it doesn’t slide down my face, because the PSVR headset is relatively lightweight. I found sitting in a wheeled chair that allowed me to easily rotate what direction I was facing in to be the best comfort option; standing up was too tiring and sometimes made me sick (however, sitting down did make me wish that the PSVR headset was wireless; the cable has the tendency to get tangled around the chair). I made sure a rug with edges I could feel was underneath me while I played so I could determine where in the room I was positioned at any given time.
In-game, I was immediately able to adjust the settings to smooth camera controls and full locomotion movement, and change other settings like the screen filter and brightness (which I slightly dimmed to make it easier on the eyes for longer play sessions). When pressing the left stick forward, the player moves in whatever direction the headset is facing, and the player can quickly do a 180 degree turn with the controller if need be, making movement in VR pretty easy. I was able to pull off 5-6 hour sessions multiple times in VR like this with no sickness or physical exhaustion whatsoever, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it yourself unless accompanied by someone else within reasonable distance, which I always was.
Once playing, the effect of stereoscopic 3D will be immediately noticeable. The effect tricks one’s eyes into sensing 3D depth in the game space and objects that populate it. Ethan’s (the player character) car and the surrounding trees will appear as though they possess a visual depth and are positioned at a physical distance. This effect can only be achieved in stereoscopic 3D. As a result, there is a distinct difference between looking at the Baker estate for the first time on a television screen or looking at it with the VR headset.
This visual effect of the headset made a huge difference on the experience for me. Resident Evil 7 is fundamentally an action-adventure game, like the classics, placing emphasis on searching the game’s environments for weapons, resources, and key items, and having elements in the background that the player can interact with, such as notes posted on the wall that can be read or mechanical devices that can be triggered (often tied to small puzzles that must be solved to proceed in the game). This encourages the player to explore the environment thoroughly (something which results in absorbing the environment in greater detail, thus becoming more immersed in it), and the stereoscopic effect lends itself positively towards this essential aspect of the game. I found myself searching under and inside furnishings and in the filthy crevices of the Baker estate in exquisite detail. To make it even better, I turned off the HUD in the settings which Capcom thankfully thought to let us do, so that I wouldn’t see those pesky little non-immersive icons floating over interactive objects. The result was near total immersion in the game’s expertly dressed setting.
Also, many environments and rooms in Resident Evil 7 have a spacious vertical design. The multi-storied foyer in the main house, the collapsed old house, the bayou, the desolate ship, the salt mines — with the stereoscopic effect, I found myself marveling at these bizarre, grand locations full of spectacular scenery and carnage. Looking at these sometimes impressed me like a beautiful piece of real architecture would, not only pulling me further into the game’s setting, but making me appreciate even more just how much work goes into designing 3D models and environments. Even something as simple as looking down the staircase descending to the basement in the main house in VR sent chills down my spine and made me recoil at the thought of having to go down there (a feeling that reminded me of the basement floor in the police station in Resident Evil 2). The masterful lighting contributed greatly to the experience, too.
The head tracking tied to the camera made navigating the environments a somewhat more realistic and therefore more immersive experience. To see the ceiling above, I had to physically look up, and back down to see the floor. I could tilt my head to look underneath a table or around a corner. I could look over a balcony or inside a pot on the stove more closely. This made a significant difference when it came to exploring the environment for items or keeping an eye out for potential enemies. It also made remembering my current position in reference to the rest of the environment a more realistic process: that room I had to go back to was now directly behind me, or in the wing of the house above and to the right of me, and so on. Navigating the environments in this manner made the environments overall more convincing, further engulfing me in the nightmarish horror the game takes place in.
I also found the enemies to be more convincing and intense in VR. In the same manner as navigating the environments, a Molded standing in front of Ethan now appeared in front of me. If I ran away and it chased me, it now seemed like it was chasing behind me, since my own head movements were in control of what direction I faced and moved in. This perspective also makes the Molded appear larger. The grotesque creatures that make up Resident Evil 7‘s main enemies tower over Ethan, and their frames will seem bulkier and more overwhelming in VR. Getting close to them was something I did not want to do, which made the option of running past them to save my ammunition an afterthought during most encounters.
There were three issues I had with the PlayStation VR, and they are important to note. The first has to do with the graphics; unfortunately, the PlayStation 4 console (even the Pro) falls short at rendering in VR without downgrading the visuals. Textures and effects are reduced; there is a graininess on the overall image. The second issue had to do with how the player’s head position is tracked in cutscenes. When a cutscene starts, the game doesn’t automatically adjust the player’s head position to face what is happening, so if the player has moved the originally tracked head position while playing (which will inevitably happen) and a cutscene starts, the player may very well be facing the opposite direction needed to watch the cutscene. It is an easy fix (just hold down the Start button to snap it back into place), but came up often enough to be disorienting. The third issue had to do with the PSVR’s tracking capability — it uses the PlayStation Eye, a camera which has a rather narrow field of view, making it somewhat easy to lean out of view of the camera, which brings up a prompt in-game alerting you. This was definitely the worst part of the experience and something that I imagine newer headsets with inside-out tracking no longer have an issue with.
But despite these issues, playing Resident Evil 7 without VR would have made it only half the experience it was for me. Even if the experience wasn’t flawless, VR undoubtedly ramped up immersion and is clearly a genuinely good thing for gaming in general. It’s an experience that has raised the bar for immersion for me; after a couple hours in VR, I would slowly forget that I was playing a videogame in my home, a feeling that I would love to have for basically everything that I play. While I haven’t paid too close attention to the modern VR gaming catalog since for various reasons, I personally haven’t seen or heard of too many big hits, which is a real shame. VR is taking longer to develop and flourish than I anticipated. Moving forward, I hope we see more and more developers giving VR support for their games, and more and more people writing about their time spent in VR, so we can get more experiences like this.
Resident Evil 7 is available on Steam, Playstation 4, and Xbox.