Capcom has done a lot of smart, interesting things with the Resident Evil franchise over the past few years to bring it back into the video game limelight. After the diminishing critical reception of Resident Evil 5 and 6, we got Resident Evil 7, which brought the franchise back to its survival horror roots while simultaneously exploring new territory with the shift to first-person gameplay. At the same time, Capcom delivered updated versions of the classic experiences that helped build the genre, with remakes of both Resident Evil 2 and 3, as well as an all-but-confirmed update of the iconic Resident Evil 4. Yet one of Capcom’s greatest accomplishments with the series might just be its Resident Evil demos.
As strange as it sounds, one of the things that has impressed me most about the horror franchise over the past half decade has been how Capcom has taken the idea of the video game demo and elevated it from a slice of video game marketing, to a standalone experience that exists complementary with the finished products of Resident Evil 7 and the upcoming Village.
When Resident Evil 7 was first revealed, the shift from third-person to first-person was a dramatic choice that left some longtime fans initially skeptical. In a bit of smart foresight, Capcom released the Beginning Hour teaser demo alongside the game’s E3 2016 reveal. In its hour-long duration, the demo effectively communicated that, despite the POV swap, the core horror that was the beating heart of the series was absolutely still there in Resident Evil 7.
What’s unique about both Beginning Hour as well as Resident Evil Village’s Maiden is that the demos aren’t simply small slices of the full game, but rather prologue vignettes that act as tone pieces to what the full thing is going to be. Beginning Hour introduces you to the Louisiana home, the Baker family, and a bit of the backstory of the Sewer Gators reality TV show that was filming there before Ethan arrived at the start of the full game. Likewise, Maiden serves a similar introduction to the titular European village that Ethan and Chris will brave in the upcoming game.
Maiden doesn’t have any combat, and the puzzles inside it are pretty simple. But what it succeeds at is establishing the Castle Dimitrescu setting, what we can expect from the sisters, and how good the game’s going to look on the new consoles. And it accomplished this all in just about 20 minutes. This is a really effective way to get people invested in the world of an upcoming game, while also keeping everything inside the final product feeling fresh once you finally get to play it.
Maiden did a great job of also dropping breadcrumbs on various mysteries that might be explored in the main game. House Dimitrescu, who seems to be using the blood of kidnapped women in the production of their wine, is one of four noble houses in the village. Given the vampiric nature of this one, and seeing as how we’ve already seen plenty of werewolves in Village promotions, does each house have its own creature association? On top of this, the daughters had the ability to transform into a swarm of bugs, which looked incredibly similar to Marguerite in RE7. And finally, Lady Dimitrescu’s massive height and ability to grow long claws feels like some sort of evolution of the T-Virus. Is this game going to shed some light on the origins of Umbrella?
Of course, the demo that comes to mind when discussing all of this is what Hideo Kojima did with P.T. back at Gamescom 2014. Although we didn’t know it right away, the playable teaser was a prelude to Silent Hills, a survival horror reboot from Kojima in partnership with Guillermo del Toro and starring Norman Reedus. Sadly, as most of you are aware, Kojima’s very public falling out with Konami led to the project being canceled and the formation of Kojima Productions, which gave us the eerily prescient Death Stranding just over a year ago.
With dozens upon dozens of games being released every week, developers and publishers are constantly navigating this deluge, seeking a way for their games to stand out. Demos are obviously a major way to help translate a design vision to an audience — the best way to wrap your head around a game and get excited for it is to actually play the damn thing. The Steam Game Festival, which runs Feb. 3-9, promises to have demos of over 500 recent and upcoming games for millions of people to try for free. This is an excellent opportunity for smaller games to generate buzz without the AAA budget and first-party marketing alignment that a game like Resident Evil Village has.
Using demos to highlight an upcoming game is obviously nothing new. In the past, I’ve written about how the PlayStation 1 Pizza Hut promotional disc featuring a single level from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remains one of the most successful video game demos that I’ve ever played. Unlike the recent Resident Evil demos, it had to teach us all about an entirely new genre. But as we replayed that Warehouse level time and time again, it became clear that this new method of play was built from familiar elements of the classic puzzle, platformer, and fighting games we grew up with.
And then there are the demos that have existed as a means of helping move copies of other less-proven games. The two that come to mind are Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Halo 3. A slice of the incredible Tanker opening of MGS2 came as a preorder bonus for Konami’s Zone of the Enders. Likewise, early access to the Halo 3 multiplayer beta was made available to folks who purchased Crackdown in early 2007 as a means of helping to boost sales of the less-known Xbox game. Both situations used popular known quantities to help garner interest and springboard sales of new franchises.
Lastly, Nintendo has found another successful route for game demos lately with some of its big Nintendo Switch games, like Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, and Dragon Quest XI. Those three all offered up free demos that began at the start of their respective games and lasted several hours. At the end, you were able to purchase the full game and transfer your demo save over, meaning you didn’t need to replay that opening again. It’s a really smart way to get people swept up in a game and then allow an easy way for them to just keep on going. It also works particularly well on games that don’t already have a massive built-in audience. Pikmin and Hyrule Warriors are much tougher to sell than something like Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., or a mainline Zelda game.
It’s clear that demos present a great way for developers to communicate the core concept of their game, while letting regular folks make more informed purchasing decisions — whether it’s first looks at a bunch of smaller indie games, the opening hours of a Nintendo adventure where your save can easily be transferred over, or a slice of a highly anticipated game to help sell something relatively new. But the fantastic Resident Evil 7 and Village demos stand out, serving as hype pieces while simultaneously delivering something unique unto themselves