Much has been made about Resident Evil's new direction. Developer Capcom released two demos for Resident Evil VII: Biohazard since its reveal at E3 in June, and both show a clear step away from the action-movie tropes present in most recent series entries. The sequel also eschews the traditional third-person perspective for first-person, and in doing so, has drawn comparisons to story-driven horror titles such as Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
But after spending four hours with Resident Evil VII during a recent trip to Capcom Japan, one thing is clear: this is a survival-horror game in every sense of the phrase, with inventory management, item scavenging, and a constant sense of dread.
In fact, based on my time with it, Resident Evil VII so closely adheres to the tenets of the franchise's early entries that I can best describe it as the original Resident Evil set in first-person. My demo began in a mansion, laced with hidden passages and ancillary corridors, before opening up onto the rest of a decrepit plantation in the American South.
I searched for keys to specific doors, solved myriad riddles across the manor grounds, and memorized shortcuts back to a few precious save rooms--all the while evading the deranged members of the cannibalistic and, I suspect, incestuous Baker family.
The Baker family mansion is full of secret passages and hidden rooms.
None of this is to say there's a lack of action this time around. It's here. It's just a more measured type of action. My demo demanded that I scavenge every inch of the plantation, saving up ammo and health packs so that the eventual encounter with an enemy followed a mounting sense of dread--Resident Evil VII earns its tension.
There's also a delicate balance to strike with inventory management. Chem Fluids can be combined with several items for different results: paired with gunpowder, they'll create ammunition. Mixed with the series' pervasive Green Herbs, however, they'll create first-aid fluid. This presented decisions to agonize over: health or ammo? It made me weigh my current predicament--and I was almost always in a predicament--and think three steps ahead:
I think the key I need is in the basement. I have Chem Fluids, and I'm low on ammo. But all I have is my handgun. And based on my first few encounters with those weird shape-shifting monsters down there, my handgun won't suffice. There's a shotgun in that room down the hall, but I have no idea how to get it yet. I'll use the Chem Fluids for health. That should be enough of a buffer to survive a few hits from those things.
Resident Evil VII doesn't completely remove the action of recent Resident Evil titles--it's just more thoughtful this time.
Cut to a few minutes later--I found the key in a labyrinth of damp passages, evaded the enemies, and emerged from the cellar after a brief chase that felt like it lasted an hour--I'm reminded of a phobia from my childhood, when I imagined monsters pursuing me up the basement stairs.
These emotions, and that kind of thought process, pervaded my time with Resident Evil VII. And although the puzzle and survival aspects reminded me more of the first Resident Evil, there are influences from elsewhere in the series' history. Members of the Baker family, the presiding clan at the decaying manor, became boss encounters during my demo. I won't spoil the specifics of the two fights, but they were both preceded by sequences straight out of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, in which a singular monster stalked you throughout the game. The Baker family was almost always slowly pursuing me throughout my time with the upcoming sequel, instilling a definite urgency and removing any sense of security I might otherwise have had. Lethal hide-and-seek games became bookends to brief chapters of calm.
When I did have a moment to breathe, I was engrossed in the game's storytelling. Resident Evil VII functions as a frame story, in which a variety of shorter sections are nestled within the larger narrative. The short stories take the form of playable flashbacks, accessed by VHS tapes scattered around the plantation grounds.
These flashbacks serve mainly to flesh out the game world, but also played host to an impressive narrative technique: I often found a clue in one of the flashbacks that aided me in the present day timeline. Furthermore, the two timelines actually foreshadowed events in the other--I'm reminded of the first time I saw the horrific Flood enemies in Halo through a video recording, only to realize I was standing in the same exact room once the cutscene ended.
I also found diary entries and handwritten letters scattered throughout the plantation that hinted at things to come. The estate's greenhouse, for instance, mentioned briefly in one of the Bakers' notes, would later become the scene for one of the more horrific things I saw. Another note mentioned a beached boat on down by the swamp's edge--I didn't see any such boat during the demo, but I suspect we may when the game finally releases in January.
Resident Evil VII already feels bolder and more confident than recent franchise installments.
Resident Evil VII, based on my time with it, already feels bolder and more confident than recent franchise installments. It feels content to let the level design and atmosphere drive the pacing forward. There were no quick-time events during my demo, and explosions were few and far between.
I can't speak to the quality of the entire game. But as someone who has been waiting for the series to find its way back to its horror roots for years now, I'm excited. It feels as if Capcom might finally remember what made the series great to begin with, and finally knows how to mine that legacy without using it as a crutch.