Debate's long raged/wanked on about whether we in the West should really call the Resident Evil series by its Japan-given name, Biohazard. With the demo for the upcoming Resident Evil 7 [official site], that debate is over. There could be no more fitting name for its new house of horrors than Resident Evil.
Resident Evil 7 biohazard aka Biohazard 7 resident evil (they're up to something there, no?) also makes it clear-cut that this is a series about reinvention, even if it tends to return to familiar characters and tropes time and again. 7's the biggest shake-up yet, ditching the age-old third-person camera in favour of a claustrophobic first-person view, and broadly replacing action with investigation. At least, that's the case in the enormously unsettling demo, Resident Evil 7 / Biohazard 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour - much may change in the full game.
Comparisons to P.T., the notorious PS4 demo for an ultimately axed Kojima/Del Toro Silent Hills project, have been made, and fairly so. Both are first-person and combat free, both are set within a locked house strewn with grotesque sights, jump scares and low-key puzzling, and both yield different secrets depending on how they are played.
Granted, this is somewhat academic given that Silents Hills is canned and it's near impossible to get hold of P.T. any more, but in any case I'll note that these similarities don't make the two into copies of each other. P.T. was more about weirdness with sporadic moments of nauseating terror, whereas Resi 7 is straight-up horror from the get-go.
It's trope-tastic from the get-go too, and doesn't let up: spooky cabin, fridge full of rotting food, flickering lights, staticky VHS tapes, mannequin's fingers, random animal carcasses, jump scares on the stairs, ruined dolls, something in the basement. The works, basically. But, thanks to a combination of pure mood and a structure that means much of this stuff spools out according to how you explore rather than playing out linearly, it works bloody well. I should mention that the demo looks great and runs well too - the tech powering it seems to be extremely efficient.
The setup: you, as an unnamed, first-person protagonist, awaken in a darkened and decrepit room. Your only directive is to escape the house. You look around, find other rooms, find objects which open up other rooms still, and in the main you encounter decay - but there is no knowing how long this has been the case, or even the cause of it. There are noises from around, above and below, but in the main, little happens. Apart from when it does. At which point, the demo may end - or you may be funnelled into new areas.
Generally, horror games don't get to me. They're too campy or too obvious or I just can't buy into the idea that it's actually me, not a Gameperson, in that place. Like P.T. before it, Resi 7 changes all that. It's combination of perspective, pace and tone: when walking down a corridor, every step feels like agony, that dread certainty that something unspeakable is about to happen. It's because it so rarely does, and thus always unexpected when something does kick off, that I can never relax.
Compare this to Resis past, where the general feeling is that, when trouble is encountered, it will be a question of how to deal with it, not a) oh god oh god oh god what even is it b) will it or will it not kill me immediately? I was terrified. No amount of scoffing at cheap stunts such as things falling over or something walking past the doorway then disappearing could change that. Can Resi 7 possibly sustain this for a whole game, or is a move to fisticuffs and gunplay only inevitable?
Because, please, do not let this reference to Stuff lure you into thinking Beginning Hour is even remotely an action-led affair. It is about evil being in residence in a place you are trapped inside. There is a videotape-based interactive flashback, and further clues to what has gone on can be assembled if you choose certain actions (particularly, if you are able to resist the voice in the back of your head that screams 'GET OUT AS FAST AS YOU CAN'), but most cards are held to its glowering chest regardless.
Was I invested in the mysteries it conjures? No, not particularly - they are as I say assembled from familiar elements, with no sense that Resi 7 can tell me a tale I've not heard before.
But it's all about tone, and the tone in Beginning Hour is bang-on what one could hope for from a modern horror game. There's plenty of cinema in there, yes, but it knows how to use its first-person camera - that creeping fact that you are the one in this place - to full effect.
Resi's long been a series that stumbles wildly between brilliance and mediocrity, and the last couple of games have suggested it might have become intractably stuck in the latter. Though a little on the obvious side at times, as a statement of intent to make Resi fresh, thrilling and abjectly terrifying all over again, Beginning Hour is a spectacular success.
Resident Evil 7 / Biohazard 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour is available for free via Steam now. Resi 7 itself is due for release on January 24, 2017.