The Resident Evil franchise has had an identity crisis in recent years. Resident Evil 4 and 5 shifted to action-based gameplay and 6 took this even further, presenting blockbuster set pieces that completely abandoned the isolating sense of paranoia the series was known for. In this way, Resident Evil 7′s return to a familiar sense of tension and paranoia but using the first-person perspective is welcoming. Stevivor was invited to preview four hours of the game, experiencing Capcom’s clear and modernised vision of the franchise.
The world of Resident Evil 7 is surprisingly beautiful. There’s a glistening polish to environments, dynamic lighting, and even small textures are well-detailed. An outdoor garden near a deserted caravan felt photorealistic, with the moon illuminating through branches above, and a bed of overgrown weeds, debris and random items tangled up near the caravan door. Small details like stacks of newspapers, their individual headlines, vibrantly colourful plates of rotten flesh and insects crawling through walls create a disturbing and unsettling atmosphere. Everything about its visuals suggest that this is Capcom’s attempt at bringing the series to the forefront of graphically stunning and immersive horror.
Character animations are great, too. The Baker family is exceptionally well-animate and expressive. A scene where I sat with them at a family dinner early in the demo demonstrated their distinct character traits fairly well. Each of them are grotesque, bizarre and at times supernatural, reflecting the series’ history of varying enemy designs. The mother, Marguerite, is utterly ghoulish. She waves a lantern to command swarms of insects to draw you out, cackles and nervously fits; while the grandmother appears at random moments in the corner, whistling and humming as if she were possessed.
World design is in many ways an appeal to the fandom. Like its character design, each of the buildings you explore reflect a different style. The main house is traditionally spooky and reminiscent of the original Resident Evil. In it, the father of the Bakers, Jack, breaks down walls, chases after you wielding a shovel and is incredibly tenacious. Mould growing on walls and body bags hung like dried meat in the basement. Long-armed grotesque Molder creatures prowled in tight corridors, overwhelming me in numbers and with limited ammo. Very disturbing, the evolving change in tone and pacing made environments feel consistently dynamic and new.
The level layout is also large-scaled and complex. Each environment is designed like a sandbox and multi-levelled, with one of the family members hunting you down. While avoiding the Bakers, your objective is to find plaque pieces in these sandbox environments to open a door to the next level. This cat and mouse dynamic should in theory feel formulaic and linear but is incredibly tense and fun. The Bakers’ unclear AI patterns help create a unique experience. There are rewards for those that play cautiously, listening for nearby footsteps, quips and the creaking of doors opening. The sound design is extraordinary and what best captured my growing fear of the unknown and sense of paranoia.
There are times where you can freely explore environments without fear of being discovered. Although these moments were evenly paced in the narrative, some of my favourite experiences with the demo were when I was exploring the house in fear of being hunted. The risk-reward dynamic of exploring the house while being cautious of your surroundings is powerfully effective and immersive. The Bakers are resistant to most of your weapons; guns only temporarily stun them. Boss fights often result in trying to outsmart them and fleeing rather than attacking. There are hidden passageways and shortcuts too, and you’re rewarded for exploring and backtracking. While there’s an autosave feature before boss fights, you can save at safe rooms by using a tape recorder, which typewriter-loving franchise fans will certainly appreciate.
There’s a lot of classic puzzles to solve as well. In the main house, I noticed several animal-shaped doors that required a matching animal-shaped key and a few light-reflecting puzzles, similar to the spider sculpture in the Lantern demo. Another involved a shotgun and a statue of a soldier, while solving a riddle by playing around with furnace doors in the morgue rewarded me with a key to advance. I didn’t solve every puzzle during my time with the game, but the variety of puzzles and optional content is incredibly refreshing.
Another familiar mechanic to the series, item and inventory management, returns. You can combine ingredients to create more useful items, such as mixing herbs and chemical fluid to craft medicine. Your inventory is limited, however, and there’s a lot of unnecessary inventory management. In several occasions, I was forced to discarde rare items to make space for those needed to advance the story. The inventory menu doesn’t pause the game, either, so crafting ammo or medicine in the middle of a fight will leave you unfairly vulnerable.
Fans of the franchise and those that like a challenge will appreciate this archaic choice of game design. The real-time effect of crafting items definitely adds to the tension in boss fights, but in tightly-spaced environments felt cheap. Weapons are also quite diverse and have their strengths. More advanced weapons, such as a more powerful pistol and grenade launcher, can be crafted or rewarded for solving puzzles. Others, such as the flamethrower, are strong against insects and Marguerite, burning nests of wasps and spiders to clear your path.
There’s a clear vision to Resident Evil 7; one that the series hasn’t seen for some time. The blending of modern horror gameplay and graphics with traditional Resident Evil storytelling, puzzles and enemy design is organic. Despite only playing four hours of the game and not wanting to spoil any of its big moments, I was left feeling very impressed. Capcom has created a very fun and intense horror experience that both classic fans of the series and newcomers will enjoy, but without the expense of one over the other. Resident Evil 7 looks to be the game that brings the beloved franchise back to the forefront.
Resident Evil 7 heads to Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4 (with PS VR support) on 24 January 2017. A demo is available now on all platforms, and provides access to an in-game item in the full release if obtained.
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