Resident Evil and survival-horror were once virtually synonymous, but Capcom's beloved franchise saw a distinct shift in gameplay with Resident Evil 4, and each main series entry since has been more and more action-focused. While this helped popularize the series and attract new fans, it also left many veteran players feeling alienated. Capcom took note of fan frustration when Resident Evil 6 received lukewarm reviews and undersold expectations, and they promised to do more to appeal to their core base.
As such, I was intrigued (but skeptical) when a reliable source leaked that a horror-focused Resident Evil VII would appear at E3 this year. While I trusted the source, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of Capcom truly taking the series back to its horror roots. I fully expected Capcom to take a half-measure, scaling the action back to the level of Resident Evil 4 or perhaps Resident Evil: Revelations, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. Based on what we've seen so far, Capcom is making a real effort to welcome in horror fans with open arms.
The game's reveal trailer at E3 was simple, but effective, focusing largely on nameless characters as they explored a creepy and mysterious house. Up until the title flashed across the screen, many viewers didn't even realize they were watching a Resident Evil trailer. Contrast that with the reveal trailer for Resident Evil 6, which was packed with machine gun fire, impressive displays of melee prowess, explosions aplenty, and a heaping helping of key plot points.
From a marketing standpoint, Capcom's approach to Resident Evil VII is drastically different from Resident Evil 6. E3 is one of the biggest stages in gaming (even if its popularity took a bit of a hit this year), which makes such a huge marketing shift a risky move on Capcom's part.
Playing the demo, you'll immediately notice a major change from previous Resident Evil titles: the entire game is in first-person perspective. The classic Resident Evil games used a system of fixed camera angles to emulator horror movies, but the more action-fueled style of Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 required Capcom to rework the camera and controls, shifting instead to an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. With Resident Evil VII, Capcom is aiming for an immersive horror experience, and that means changing up the camera to compliment the new gameplay once again.
"The final game is also entirely in first-person perspective. This is driven by the concept of Resident Evil 7, which is a return to horror. At this particular time in games, it was determined that first-person was the most advantageous way to present horror to the player. When confronting the enemy, there's no barrier between you and the enemy. This also applies to exploration and gimmicks and traps and things like that. They felt that it really gets you up close and personal with everything, which adds to that horror element." — Producer Masachika Kawata
This, too, was a risk on Capcom's part. Rather than simply catering to their existing fan base, the developers focused on finding the best way to present horror to the player. Creating a main series entry with a first-person perspective is a bold move that could turn off some existing fans, but it's also a big step towards courting horror fans who have either long since stopped playing Resident Evil or never played it in the first place. It's easy to see how fans of cancelled projects like the immensely popular Silent Hills or Allison Road could view Resident Evil VII as a potential replacement. Making the entire game compatible with PlayStation VR adds further immersion and gives Capcom the chance to establish itself as a leader in virtual reality horror, which is sure to be a hot market.
The actual gameplay of the demo is centered around exploration and mystery (and fans are still desperately attempting to figure out some of its secrets), reminding players of the series' roots in the original game while still feeling fresh. We know that the content available in the demo won't actually be in the final game, but it was designed to introduce players to the atmosphere of Resident Evil VII and to give them a similar feeling to the full game. Capcom intentionally left combat out of the demo altogether (another risky move), and Producer Masachika Kawata even downplayed its prominence (and especially the prominence of guns) when asked about the role of combat in the finished game.
"One of the main gameplay elements that is not in [the demo] is, as you stated, combat. In the final game, of course, there will be many types of game mechanics including combat, perhaps some gun-play. One of the things I would like to emphasize about this is that it's not always about going in guns blazing. It might actually be to your advantage to try to run away from combat at certain times, or use items against your enemies in a different way. This is to say that trying to survive the horror, the survival horror, is a key element to Resident Evil 7." — Producer Masachika Kawata
While some players are concerned that the demo doesn't represent the kind of gameplay we'll see in the final game (it wouldn't be the first time a promising demo turned into something disappointing), creating a separate teaser experience allowed Capcom to keep the game's story entirely under wraps. Players had a pretty good idea of what to expect heading into Resident Evil 6, and they also had the comfort of powerhouse characters like Leon and Chris to give them a sense of familiarity and empowerment. With Resident Evil VII, Capcom wants players to set aside the story and characters they know and love, entering the game with a clean slate.
Setting aside fan favorite characters for a new, less powerful protagonist is yet another sign that Capcom is prioritizing quality horror gameplay over sales potential. As Kawata explained to GameSpot, "If you don't know what's going to happen to you, or the person you're taking the role of in the game, it's much scarier than if you're an iconic character who you know is eventually going to make it through the day."
Frankly, it's hard to fear a game when you're playing as a muscular, machine gun-wielding, boulder-punching special ops agent who has already survived several zombie apocalypses. Capcom's even doing away with its ever-controversial quick time events, which were often used to showcase the action of its star characters in a cinematic fashion.
We can't really say for sure what Resident Evil VII holds until we get a good look at true gameplay, but Capcom's approach to the game's unveiling is cause for significant optimism. For the first time in a long time, every move from Capcom looks like a legitimate attempt to cater to horror fans instead of treating them like an afterthought.