Not to take anything away from Resident Evil 4, which is one of the best and most influential action games of all time, but there’s a case to be made that it set the series on a path to irrelevance. Subsequent entries learned all the wrong lessons, unsuccessfully attempting to go toe-to-toe with action genre heavyweights while forgetting what made the series what it was back in the day: a relentless, foreboding sense of horror.
If a playable teaser released on the PlayStation Network shortly after Sony’s E3 press conference last night is anything to go by, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard represents a major course correction. Although it is set in a spooky house, the demo, titled Beginning Hour, is nothing like any previous game in the series. In fact, the two games it has most in common with are both games you can’t even play today.
The first of these is Kitchen, an intense PlayStation VR demo that Capcom has been showing off by appointment since last year’s E3; I played it at Tokyo Game Show. The vibe is very Saw, placing you in a chair with your hands tied (which conveniently lets you use a regular DualShock 4 as a motion controller) as all manner of clichéd depravity surrounds you. But VR makes the experience incredibly immersive — at one point your character gets stabbed in the leg, and hell if it didn’t make my actual leg physically twitch in response.
'Kitchen' spurred Capcom into creating a radically new 'Resident Evil'
I’ve heard a few times that Kitchen was developed as a way to explore a possible new direction for the Resident Evil franchise, and it’s clear that the experiment was deemed a success. Beginning Hour is set within the same house as Kitchen, uses the same first-person perspective, and opens and closes with scenes from the VR demo. More pertinently, Resident Evil 7 will be entirely (and optionally) playable with PlayStation VR.
I have my doubts as to how well this will work out. Much of Kitchen’s effectiveness came from the way it restricted your movement, and no-one’s cracked the formula for traditional first-person motion in VR yet. Resident Evil 7 is also coming to PC and Xbox One, meaning it probably won’t feel like a made-for-VR experience — Polygon’s Mike McWhertor says "controlling the camera through head-tracking and the right analog stick wound up being disorienting," and that it’s unlikely he’d play the whole game this way. But if nothing else, Kitchen has spurred Capcom into creating a radically new Resident Evil, and it’s enough to make this the most intriguing entry in the series for at least a decade.
The second influence it’s impossible to ignore is PT, because the parallels are just too apparent. PT was also a teaser for a total reboot of a PlayStation-era Japanese horror franchise — in this case Silent Hill — released immediately after a trade show press conference. Konami’s subsequent cancelation and collaborators Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus’ new, apparently unrelated game Death Stranding suggest we’re less likely to see it as a finished product, however.
The more substantive parallel is that both Beginning Hour and PT are slow-paced first-person horror experiences that aim to return their respective series back to the business of scaring you. PT was more esoteric and ambitious, with an unsettling ambience and abstract looping structure compared to Beginning Hour’s more straightforward found-footage story. But both games take similar approaches to the question of how to make a modern horror title for an audience that may well have given up on the genre.
There’s nothing truly spectacular in Beginning Hour, and it’s too short to really pass comment at this point. But PT and Kitchen are two of the most original, effective horror games I’ve played in recent years, and I can’t think of a better way for the Resident Evil series to return to its former glory than to take inspiration from the pair. We don’t have to wait too long to find out how well the experiment works out, either — Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is coming out for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on January 24th, 2017.