Thursday, June 16, 2016
***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***
Just when we thought that Resident Evil's 20th anniversary was only going to be marked by remasters and spin-offs, we awoke to Tuesday's Resident Evil 7 announcement with much excitement. The teaser video would have been enough to keep us going until release, but the added bonus of a playable demo on PS4 tipped us over the edge and was the first game in months to drag us away from marathon sessions of Elder Scrolls Online (admittedly, it did help that it happened to be down for Dark Brotherhood maintenance!)
The idea of a first-person Resident Evil is nothing new, having been used to varying degrees of success in the Survivor games and Dead Aim. Even back then, it was able to create feelings of claustrophobia despite feeling clunky and frustrating at times. There are no such problems with Resident Evil 7. The camera and controls feel smooth and intuitive, even though we are far from expert at first person games.
From the beginning, it is clear that Resident Evil 7 is an incredibly immersive experience. You really feel the sense of isolation and confusion as you wake up in a strange, dark room with nothing but a torch for company. As you take your first steps, your eyes will want to examine items in front of you - that note on the table, for example - but as you walk towards it, you can't help getting distracted by that creak behind you, and you find yourself whipping the camera around to look just as you would in real life. But then there's another noise from the other direction, and soon the paranoia and fear begins to build and you really have to pull yourself together and focus if you're to see this through. That's just the first room of a teaser demo - we're clearly going to be nervous wrecks in the game proper!
Any doubts about this new direction for Resident Evil are soon put to bed in the initial stages. After summoning courage and continuing to examine the first room, the demo actually feels a lot like playing the first Revelations game. Very often nothing actually happens to make your heart race, it's just the unnerving feeling that something is about to jump out from the shadows. Remember the first time you heard the Communications Officer in Revelations? Remember how long it took before you actually saw him? Imagine that in first person. You're getting close to the feeling of playing Resident Evil 7.
Like Revelations, the teaser demo soon throws up some familiar Resident Evil problems. There's a VCR, but no tape (hardly surprising for a game set in 2017, but everybody knows that a VHS cassette is scarier than a USB stick). There's a fuse box missing a - wait for it - fuse (once again triggering memories of Jill's starting point in Revelations). There's a piano, but there's no Moonlight Sonata this time, just a hearty jump. It's this familiarity that actually makes you relax momentarily. You breathe a sigh of relief and think "ah, that's the Resident Evil we know and love." Then you leave the room, and find something new to disturb you all over again.
Fear dictated that our first playthrough was pretty straightforward. We examined everything - at least, we thought we did - and went in the direction that the game seemed to be pointing, despite not wanting to do so! Paranoia provides unwelcome company throughout, but that mannequin definitely wasn't there before and those three dummies were facing the other way before we turned around!
Soon we had found some bolt cutters that allowed us access to a chained cupboard which housed the missing VHS tape, before taking it back to the starting room to watch. That's where we got a very pleasant surprise. As we watched the found footage, the two men in front of the camera (Andre and Pete, who sounds uncannily like Quint from Revelations) started walking away and we quickly realised that we were controlling Clancy, the camera operator. Taking direction from them, we followed the men through the house, not even noticing that Andre had suddenly disappeared until Pete pointed it out. Then we continued following Pete, discovering a secret about the fireplace along the way, before meeting a grisly end at the bottom of a ladder. When even a cutscene isn't as it initially appears, it's a nice touch that adds to the immersive nature of the demo.
Back with the main character, and feeling immediately afraid by the fact that the earlier note had moved - and changed! - we soon took advantage of the fireplace trick pointed out in the video. We quickly found a Back Door Key before running to make our escape, not before jumping out of our skins as a yellow-suited figure walked past the open door, and again when a mannequin fell across our path. Any remaining relief came to an abrupt end as the demo closed with a thud, and we were left with an overwhelming feeling of wanting more, plus of course enjoyment and excitement for the main game's release next year.
For most demos, that would have been it. You might play it again further down the line closer to release, but it's generally just a taste of things to come. Not so with Resident Evil 7. As we lay in bed the next morning talking about the game (as you do), we suddenly realised that in the VHS section, nobody said that we couldn't have had free roam around the farmhouse and the grounds outside. Similarly, we realised that maybe the missing fuse wasn't a red herring as we initially thought, but was hidden away somewhere to allow that mysterious button to work. Also, what if we had stayed focused on Andre instead of Pete whilst operating the camera? The game had created such feelings of unease that it had never crossed our minds to go off the beaten track as we would normally do (Elder Scrolls being a prime example). We soon realised that if we had overlooked those points, what else had we missed? The only thing to do was once again enter the world of survival horror...
We had a new sense of bravery as we began our second playthrough, armed with the experience of everything we had done before. We didn't wait to find the VHS tape this time, instead heading straight for the fireplace to reveal the secret passage. On this occasion, there was no back door key waiting for us, but that elusive fuse was staring right at us from a table. That definitely wasn't there last time, right? With paranoia rearing its head again, we excitedly placed it into the fusebox and rushed upstairs to use that mysterious button that had no effect during our first playthrough. This time it brought down a hidden staircase. Success!
As we reached the top, a telephone started ringing on the other side of a door. Heading into the room, we also found a picture of a helicopter with - ah! - an Umbrella logo on the side. Examining the reverse, we discovered a message; "are they watching us from that helicopter?"
The only thing to do was cautiously answer the ringing phone. A female voice says "I know who you are" before delivering a message and hanging up. You pick up the phone again only to hear a dead signal. Who was that? We have since discovered that many people speculate that it is Ada Wong, but we think that's too obvious (especially for a demo that is based on the concept of nothing being as it seems). We actually think that it sounds more like Jessica Sherawat from Revelations, particularly if you compare the telephone message with Jessica's "I could get used to that!" taunt in Revelations' Raid Mode. It's not completely out of the question. Jessica was surprisingly absent from Revelations 2, particularly considering the Epilogue after the credits of Revelations. But for all we know, it could just be Chris Redfield putting on a girly voice. That's the great thing about this demo. Just when you think you've found a solution, another question pops up which can only be answered by speculation. Until the final game is released, there are no wrong answers. Even then, you can't be completely sure!
By our third playthrough, we were convinced that every corner of the game held a secret. We soon set about examining every single piece of scenery, which led to us discovering a kitchen drawer in need of a small key - or perhaps, as had been the case with similar locks in the original Resident Evil, a lockpick. But despite our thorough sweep of the building, we found nothing but a Dummy Finger in a hallway desk which - at the time of writing - seemingly has no use. None of the mannequins even have arms, let alone a fingerless hand! It was during this playthrough that we also discovered that you can only follow Andre so far with the camera. As he leaves the kitchen, the game prevents you from going any further.
For our fourth playthrough, we decided to investigate what would happen if we collected the fuse first and then proceeded to follow our initial linear path, collecting the bolt cutters, video tape and Back Door Key. Thinking that this may lead to the discovery of the small key/lockpick, we instead came to the same sticky end in the upstairs telephone room. But, we did receive a different telephone message.
Finally, we could resist no longer and headed online to discover the secrets other players had found. Firstly we learnt the location of the lockpick - it was just within reach between the microwave and the wall during the VHS sequence, not dissimilar to a Gillette Fusion razor we discovered when we moved into our house! Using it while playing as Clancy allows you to get into the same drawer once you're back with the main character. Inside, you'll find an axe, but try as we might you can't do anything with it other than smash a few boxes and mannequins. We tried it on the two barricaded doors within the house, but all it did was stick in the wood. We even tried to defend ourselves as we exited the back door, but only succeeded in smashing the glass.
We then discovered that there is a third telephone message which can be achieved by basically performing a speed run of the demo - get the fuse, place it, run upstairs, hit the switch, run up the other stairs into the telephone room and answer the phone. When we attempted it, we managed to obtain the third message first time but had forgotten to record the video on our PS4. We tried a dozen times afterwards to replicate it, all of which were faster runs, but each time received the second message. This at least proves that you don't have to go to the trouble of obtaining the fuse and the back door key in order to hear it.
We tried quitting out of the game completely, and still had no luck. We then speculated that perhaps it was impossible to obtain the third message if you were recording video on the PS4 - that's how much this demo gets to you! But we still had no luck. Eventually, we had one more last ditch effort before stopping for the day. This time, despite accidentally picking up the helicopter photo first, we got the third message. So was it actually a combination of speed run and picking up the photo that triggered the message? No, because we've since tried that and only got the second message. Similarly, it doesn't seem to matter whether you stand by the button waiting for the stairs to lower or run over to them as they come down. Our conclusion is that the third message relies on you answering the phone within a very specific time range, rather than in the fastest time possible. But of course, it could just be that it's completely random.
The joy of this demo is the way in which it is bringing the Resident Evil fan community together. Its release came as a complete surprise and everybody has been playing it from the same starting point. It's the equivalent of programmes like Most Haunted, where a bunch of people wander around in the dark jumping at nothing, creating a domino effect of fear and paranoia. Soon, what started as a seemingly normal demo release has turned into something so layered, they still haven't all been peeled away. It's quite interesting and amusing to see some of the knee-jerk reviews which were posted immediately after an initial linear playthrough, accusing the demo of having little depth and being no more than a PT rip-off, which are now having to backtrack as the true nature of the demo is revealed.
We love the demo, and we're still convinced that there are more secrets to be revealed. It is our opinion that the short game is simply a Prologue for the main event, that the only mention of any of the demo characters will be in the form of a discovered tape or document by Resident Evil 7's main characters - whoever they may be. With this in mind, we strongly believe that the demo is completely self-contained and that every item has a use. Without doubt, it's just a little Easter Egg when you spot a Simplygon sticker on the microwave that disappears during the VHS section - it's just a nod to the company that provided 3D graphics support for the game. Probably. And yes, the Dummy Finger may just be a red herring, but doesn't that piece of metal sticking out of the end look like a key of some sort? There must be somewhere to use or attach it! We accept that the axe may only be present to illustrate combat physics in the full game, but why go to such lengths to hide it away? And one more thing that's bothering us; the dripping tap/faucet in the kitchen can be turned off to stop the flow of water, but seems to have no other effect on the outcome of the game. Is there more to it, or is it just a leftover from Capcom's Kitchen VR demo of 2015 upon which this teaser is undoubtedly based?
Many people claim to have seen a ghostly figure of a girl in various places, but after numerous playthroughs we're not ashamed to admit that we haven't seen a thing, unless you count the distortion effects in the VHS sequence. Is it just power of suggestion, like the ghost in Three Men And A Baby, or are we just not looking in the right place? We have noticed that there is more than one attacker in the game - the man in the yellow boiler suit (who also appears in one of the photos in the house looking like an old John Lennon) and also a slim, long-haired female character who performs the final act in the cutscene at the end of the demo. So anybody could be lurking out there!
Theories like this - and there are many more out there - are what make this demo such a pleasure to play. The best games get under your skin, becoming more than just entertainment. You talk about them, think about them, wake up in the middle of the night with another ingenious idea that amounts to nothing. Remember, this is just a demo - we don't remember the last time a full-price, full-length game threw up this many questions. We cannot wait for the full version of Resident Evil 7 next year. In the meantime, we will keep trying to uncover more secrets even if we have to be really brave to do so!
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