Resident Evil VII: Lanterns on PlayStation VR
Resident Evil VII: Beginning Hour caught the attention of many series fans when it released on the PS4 back in June. After watching the series evolve into more of an action/horror fantasy from humble roots as one of the premiere survival horror titles, many had given up hope on ever reliving the glory days of when it was just you, a handful of ammunition, and plenty of ways to die. Not only was the franchise returning to its horror roots, but it was also switching things up to be a fresh experience rather than just a cash-in on nostalgia. At NYCC 2016, I had the opportunity of playing the new demo for Resident Evil VII “Lanterns” and it helped nail a singular, but quite important, point home. This is not the Resident Evil of yesteryear, and that’s a very good thing.
The original entries in the series were all about placing you in horrific, seemingly impossible to survive situations. A haunted mansion where zombie experiments were let loose, a city thrust into chaos by a horde of monstrosities, and other equally disturbing scenarios. What helped make these situations bearable was the fact that you could not only fight to defend yourself, but you could fight well. Yes, ammunition was limited, but thanks to the third-person view, you were given an extra layer of safety and the danger was really never pointed at you, the player. Instead, it always reared its ugly head towards your controlled character, allowing just enough disconnect to where you could easily take chances.
Resident Evil VII, however, has players controlling a character from the first person point of view, something we’ve had the opportunity to experience in the Beginning Hour demo that released during E3 2016. Yet, while there was an underlying threat in the home, it was clear that you could explore for some time while being alone, allowing you to breathe in relative piece as you worked to solve the demo’s puzzle. That safety net of sorts was completely removed for Lanterns, and it was from that moment that I felt true fear in a Resident Evil game for the first time since the original released back in 1996.
Players are once again in a dilapidated house, full of creaks, bugs, and general creepiness. But you are no longer free of a present and persistent danger. Marguerite Baker, the maternal figure of the band of psychotic killers you’ve become acquainted with in the previous demo, is on the hunt and you are her prey. Another interesting fact is that you’re not playing Ethan, the protagonist of Resident Evil VII. Instead, you’re in control of a girl named Mia, and this entire segment is actually one of the many videos you’ll find in the game.
Previous Resident Evil games utilized notes, journal entries, and other forms of written word to help develop the overall narrative as well as backstories for each of the important players. This time around, you’ll still find little notes, but there are also videos that contain optional excursions in the past. These can show you how to solve puzzles, where to find hidden items, or even help you piece together the motivations of other NPCs and enemies in the game.
I didn’t learn much about Marguerite on a personal level while playing as Mia, other than that she’s clearly homicidal and does not like when things don’t go her way. What I did learn from this matron of the Baker family is that vulnerability plays a very large role in Resident Evil VII. The majority of the demo played out like a game of cat and mouse inside of a home that the predator knows very well. I had to run and duck behind cover as she stalked into rooms I was in, flashing her lantern around as I cowered in some corner. I could see her just slightly through cracks in my cover. It was clear that if she caught wind of my location, I was done for, and I couldn’t muster up the courage to risk my life to escape quickly. Give me any other previous entry in the series and I would’ve tried multiple approaches, dying and learning from each failure. But in first person, I was frozen. I had forgotten that I was controlling some character in this universe, it was me that was the target of this madwoman.
The feeling was compounded by the use of the PSVR headset. I was able to look around as if I were actually in that run-down shack with the murderer. When she stormed in, I ducked behind crates, hoping I chose the right spot, as I listened closely for footsteps and tried to peek through cracks in the wall. Dashing for an exit as her back returned set my heart racing as if I was running for my own actual survival. There was a path, under the house, and it would be my road to freedom. I crawled through, trying to ignore all of the bugs crawling around me until the candles in this space started going out, one by one. Again I froze, not used to being faced with such an imminent demise. In an instant I was discovered, unable to run as I stared into Marguerite’s twisted face while she chastised me. I could see the rot between her teeth, and while I knew it was just in my head, I swear I could smell her fetid breath as I tried to stifle my fear.
The screen went black and suddenly I was Ethan again. I felt like the nightmare was over, but only for a moment, because my brain finally registered that I was sitting at a table with the entire Baker family. I was tied to a chair and they were trying to force-feed me what I can only guess to be rotting human flesh. Naturally, I bit the hand of the father. As each of the characters freaked out, throwing food at me and stomping out of the room, it was the father who managed to almost give me a small heart attack. In his rage, he grabbed a sharp knife and swung it towards my face. The screen cut to black once more and I was left sitting in silence trying to catch my breath and reason with myself that I was just playing a demo.
Capcom is making a point of returning the Resident Evil series to its horror roots, while providing something that is fresh and far more immersive. I was ready for monsters, puzzles, and everything else I had come to expect, yet Capcom had found a way to catch me off guard. All they had to do was truly put me at the center, unable to hide behind a controller or the face of another person. If I am to survive it will have to be me who bites the bullet and faces my fears, and you know what? That’s a great feeling. If Capcom can manage to keep that sense of vulnerability and dread throughout the experience, horror fans are certainly in for a real treat.