I wasn’t sure what to expect playing Resident Evil 7 on PSVR. After the words “Before Kitchen” flashed onscreen during Sony’s press conference (referring to Capcom’s PSVR horror tech demo from last year), it was pretty clear to me that this was either a new genre IP from Capcom or the next Resident Evil proper, which possibly holds the unofficial record for the hardest-going reboot ever — after the silly, action-film insanity of RE6.
Whatever the case, it looked surprisingly promising. It’s been fascinating to see how the ghost of Hideo Kojima’s P.T. has rippled out into the larger industry, both in Kojima’s new Norman Reedus-led Death Stranding and with RE7, which operates as a rejoinder to the ill-fated Silent Hills teaser.
But the fact that Capcom was building it from the ground up to be optionally played on PSVR – an experience P.T. was, one imagines, robbed of the chance to have – was a sign of real interest in Sony’s headset and Resident Evil’s development team taking the future of the once-beleaguered series quite seriously. I wasn’t sure it could look as inhuman as P.T.’s paranormal horrors did (though the parallels between P.T.’s introduction in 2014 and presentation for and immediate availability of RE7’s demo were not lost on me), but at the very least, I figured it would make for an atmospheric experience.
I still hope it does. Playing the so-called “Beginning Hour” chapter in VR didn’t scare me much. There weren’t any differences from the same trial that’s now available to download in standard visual format on PSN, but for the difference that playing in VR was incredibly nausea-inducing.
By now its been widely reported on that RE7 made a lot of people sick when they tried it using VR. Though the game is still under development, and the VR component still needs to be tweaked, it was overwhelming enough that the user couldn’t concentrate on the narrative or psychological aspects of the horror in the game.
Given the wide swath of VR titles I’ve played now with various headsets, I doubt the developers will find this problem insurmountable. For what it’s worth, the new first-person perspective helps build the right mood; despite how motion sick I was while playing it, the ability to peek around corners or turn around to see if there was something behind me – you always feel like there might be something behind you – was a great effect to see in a triple-A horror title. Little details, like staring up at a bunch of figurines hanging in a dank-looking room, were also particularly impressive from within the VR space.
Beginning Hour takes place before the events of Kitchen and after those of RE6. Though the developers have said the game will feature weapons, the demo doesn’t, so the scariest weapon it has in its arsenal is to use psychology against you. Undeterred by my bad experience with RE7 in a virtual world, I was determined to test it out again when I got back from LA.
Replaying the game helped me appreciate what Beginning Hour is attempting to capture. To this day I’m scarred by P.T., and as a result I was a little bit nervous rummaging through the ramshackle house in RE7. It’s a similar space in the mind’s eye, though its rot and refuse are different from Kojima’s creaking, eerie portal to hell. Without VR, sound and musical cues in RE7 actually had more impact. I felt a little of the tension the developers wanted me to feel.
More important, playing Beginning Hour allowed me to poke and prod, which I couldn’t have done at E3 even if I’d been able to stomach it. Like P.T., the demo hides some secrets, a few of which the collective internet has yet to figure out. There at least two endings to the demo that I know of, though, from what I’ve seen the outcome is the same. Only the location changes.
Part of makes P.T. such a feverishly demonic experience is that its design feels randomized, in that not every player would have the same experience. I turned it on once, months after starting a new game, to show a friend, only to find that it had unsettlingly left me at the end of the game seemingly on its own, prompting me to immediately turn it off again.
Accompanied by some of the most upsetting sound design in gaming history, P.T. is not a fun game to play. A paranoid unpredictability governs it. There’s a touch of that in RE7 as well, since, much like P.T., it’s not entirely clear what may or may not have an effect on what happens. There’s no guarantee that whatever hidden aspects of the design, like choosing to activate a hidden switch before finding the tape that shows you what it does, wouldn’t be more frightening in VR with proper implementation.
But for now, that feeling of “what’s going to happen?” may keep you a little on edge when replaying Beginning Hour on a regular PS4. (Interestingly, I did notice “movement acceleration” buried in the options menu when experimenting with the demo – whether or not this setting would have any bearing on getting sick in VR is still just a guess.)
With its promise to shift back towards a more traditional horror, RE7 may end up being a red herring. The seemingly corporeal enemy that shares Beginning Hour’s house with you can’t hope to compete with P.T.’s erratic, malevolent ghost, Lisa. Depending on how the final game unfolds, perhaps using typical weapons to kill a new brand of viral enemies, RE7 won’t be anything more than a good monster closet filled with things you can ultimately explain, or at visions you can reliably trust to be eventually explained.
In that sense, Resident Evil has almost always been a harder sell, as fun as it may be, than a Silent Hill or even a Fatal Frame.
With the touches toward the surreal Beginning Hour has, like a ringing phone whose caller will give you different cryptic messages depending on what you’ve done, there’s hope the developers are really going to re-invent Resident Evil in more psychological terms, particularly in a virtual reality space. (The trailer below seems to indicate that there will be a ghost story involved in some capacity.) If they succeed, VR could have its first major horror hit. For now, its a theoretical pandora’s box that’s best played on a widescreen TV in the dark.