Surprisingly, the anxieties over Resident Evil changing drastically don't seem to be quite as pronounced as the furor its fourth installment generated over a decade ago.
Then again, maybe it's not too surprising. Four years ago, the bombastic Resident Evil 6 brought the series' action game phase to its logical conclusion, to the point where it's incredibly difficult to imagine where this evolution of RE could possibly go from there. If anything, what we've seen of Resident Evil 7 represents a sort of "back to basics" approach: Though zombies are still nowhere to be seen, 7 sheds the awkward Michael Bay trappings of the last few games for a much simpler tale of survival, seemingly limited to the confines of dilapidated houses. For the first time in 20 years, the title "Resident Evil" is finally making a lot more sense.
Currently, Resident Evil 7's (recently updated) Beginning Hour prologue stands as the only way for the public to get a taste of what this upcoming release has to offer. Recently, though, I had the chance to check out what's known as RE7's "Lantern" demo: roughly, a 15-minute portion of the main game. While this small portion of the core experience didn't feature any combat to speak of—an element that could make or break this sequel—it's a lot less scripted than Beginning Hour, and even features an RE-style puzzle to solve. (One that someone doesn't involve the crests, emblems, and themed keys we've come to expect.)
While Beginning Hour tasks players with escaping a spooky house, Lantern plops you down into yet another spooky house with a different goal: escape the homicidal maniac who's trailing you. Unlike Jack, who pops out of nowhere to knock you out at the end of Beginning Hour (and some points before that), Margarite—Lantern's homicidal maniac—has much more of a presence. For the most part, this demo leans heavily on stealth, though the mechanics aren't all that complex. Margarite carries a lantern around the dank house, meaning if you can see the lantern, she can see you. Thankfully, she rants like a lunatic as she stalks you through the house, so you're generally given a clear indication of when to hide. Like Beginning Hour, though, once you're caught, there's no escape.
I experienced some genuinely tense moments in Lantern as I cowered behind stacks of debris, hoping Margarite would soon focus her efforts on another room. But I was also happy to see RE7 remove some of the annoyances that crop up so often with stealth gameplay. Checkpoints are plentiful, which is extremely important in a game that frankly involves a lot of waiting around, and RE7 also prevents you from interacting with puzzles if it could put you at risk of getting caught. And on that note, Lantern's sole puzzle doesn't amount to anything hugely difficult, but it does feel particularly inspired. After sneaking around Margarite and grabbing a statuette, you're asked to use a light source to cast a shadow that matches up with a spider pattern on the wall.
Of course, nothing seems to end well for the protagonists of the Resident Evil 7 portions we've seen so far. After opening a secret passage and making your way to a basement crawlspace—never a good idea—the lights go out, and the character you're in control of is presumably killed by Margarete. Following this, the demo ends with you viewing a scene from the eyes of a different character, strapped to a chair at the family's dinner table. It's a bit ripped straight from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with a cast of characters seemingly more dysfunctional than the Leatherface family. After bickers amongst each other and trying to force you to eat the disgusting bounty in front of you, the father of the clan turns a knife on you, bringing the demo to its ultimate conclusion.
Though Beginning Hour carries a slightly Chainsaw Massacre atmosphere, Lantern definitely delivers the message that this movie serves as one of RE7's key influences. It's a much gritter and far more exploitative brand of horror than Night of the Living Dead, which the original Resident Evil drew much of its inspiration from. And while I've definitely been impressed by the RE7 set pieces I've seen so far, I'm definitely interested in seeing how this new sequel stands up outside of these scripted and semi-scripted sequences—combat seems to be an especially risky proposition for an experience ostensibly designed for VR. With any luck, we'll soon see if Resident Evil 7 can possibly live up to the series' 20-year legacy.