While it might not be entirely fair to say that Resident Evil has been universally bad in recent years, the once-revered franchise has definitely seen better days. Recent entries have struggled to balance the series' signature blend of horror and hi-tech action, and the last mainline installment veered too heavily into shooter territory. As a franchise fan, it's been disheartening, to say the very least.
So, despite enjoying the direction Capcom was taking with the duo of Revelations titles, it was sort of a joy to see Resident Evil VII's reveal be something entirely unexpected. During Sony's press conference yesterday, the VR "Kitchen" teaser Capcom had previously put out wound up being a drastically different direction for their flagship franchise. And, after spending some time with the demo, "different" doesn't even begin to describe it.
This first-person teaser puts players in the role of an unnamed man who wakes up in a decrepit, rotting house in the middle of the country. There's a TV blaring static next to him, and a busted fusebox across the room for him. A nearby note threatens to dash him against the rocks, and from there, players have to traverse the house, in hopes of escaping with their lives.
Of course, anyone who's played a horror game in their life will know it won't be that easy. While the threat isn't obvious at first, it becomes readily apparent that you aren't alone in the house. When you pry a pair of bolt cutters from a cow's corpse, someone throws a mutilated doll at you. After finding a key, a sinister figure walks past the doorway. Mannequins mysteriously turn to face you after you turn your back on them for a few seconds. It's made clear that there's a palpable, tangible threat present, but unlike previous titles, there is literally nothing you can do about it.
That's right, Resident Evil VII takes a cue from modern horror titles, in that it's just you, some ominous noises, and a bunch of jump scares. No shootouts or knife fights. No rocket launchers to villains' skulls. No punching boulders. It's a much more minimalist and subdued experience. However, there being an inventory present does suggest that the series' famous emphasis on item management could make a return in the final project.
During my time with the demo, I got to see two different potential endings. Neither of them were particularly pleasant, and both of them were brought about by doing different playthroughs. Taking a page from PT's playbook, doing things in alternating orders will give players access to deviating paths and different items to use. Given that there are two items I have yet to figure out how to use, it's safe to assume the demo has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
Now, I'll be the first to say that I'm a bit sick of "walk here, push a button, get spooked" sorts of games. Many of them, like the Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs or this year's lacklustre Layers of Fear, devolve into dull "walking simulators" with creepy noises. But Resident Evil VII, if we're to believe this demo is indicative of the final product, seems to have a bit more depth to it. The alternating paths and ability to collect interactive videotapes (as in, you play from the perspective of the cameraperson,) belie more gameplay depth than other, similar products.
That being said, it's hard not to be a tad cautious about this direction. If Capcom really, truly is moving their franchise in this direction, it feels more like a case of "me too" as opposed to trying to truly evolve their franchise. There is a way to take the series' now-standard third-person shooting and do something fresh with it. The Evil Within proved that. Heck, both Revelations titles proved it. In a strange way, Capcom radically changing the series to fit current conventions is actually the safest choice they could make. YouTube streamers will undoubtedly find a lot of fodder here, and I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Tense action and resource management's always been a staple of the Resident Evil brand; jump scares and minimal interaction, not so much.
Yet, as I said above, it's hard not to be at least a little excited about Resident Evil VII. This is the first time the series has been genuinely scary in a long time. Even if it's taking cues from other games on the market, this demo is leaps and bounds better than most of those. With the addition of more mechanics and a fleshed-out narrative, Capcom could have a potential contender on their hand.
So when a rabid man in a jumpsuit punched me in the face and grunted, "welcome to the family," it was hard not to feel it. Because, for the first time in a while, I felt like Resident Evil was trying to pull me in and scare me. And that, to me, is a most welcome change indeed.