Until Dawn may be the horror-themed Heavy Rain you've been waiting for
PS4 exclusive using Killzone: Shadow Fall's tech is looking good.
In the dark din of Sony's Gamescom booth, I was waiting patiently. Conditions were perfect. With only an occasional flicker of the spectres wandering through Until Dawn's creaking halls, my gaze was fixed on an unsuspecting person playing right next to me. This punter, headphones cranked up loud and deep in the throes of Supermassive Games' choose-your-own-Cabin-in-the-Woods adventure, was going down the very same road I had taken. Excellent.
It's a setup that takes no time at all to grasp. Especially so if you enjoyed Quantic Dreams' cinematic Heavy Rain, from which, even down to the title screen's focus on a beautifully mo-capped Hayden Panettiere, it clearly takes a few pointers. And much like that divisive 2010 release, narrative and decision-making form the bread and butter of Until Dawn's appeal, where no single adventure is set to be quite the same.
In turn, you command one of eight American teens during a mountain lodge getaway, which - would you believe it - takes a turn for the grim and gruesome. With dialogue trees, hidden clues and item pickups to be found, the story's course promises to adapt to your actions, often in some pretty bizarre ways. But crucially, once a character from this starting octet is gone, they're gone for good. Hundreds of possible endings are promised, whether they all survive, face a grisly end, or their fates fall somewhere in-between.
How seamlessly each character's path ties up with the next is a mystery. That said, I did get to experience one strand of the tale, taking charge of the hysterical Ashley several hours in, having just lost her friend Samantha. Unlocking a dollhouse roof, I yank out a diary and rotate its cover using the DualShock 4's gyro controls, then flick its pages for clues with track-pad swipes. "I can't read this, it's so sad, Chris!" she wails to a nearby friend - the archetypal snob of the group, still in denial that something very nasty's afoot. From here, I'm set loose to pave my own way.
With a knowing, playful wink, Until Dawn clearly embraces the tone of a teen slasher movie, and all the character tropes that tag along with it. Being thrown in mid-flight though, I couldn't really attach myself to Ashley or Chris so quickly (cynical me), so it was the silly moments that stood out to me most. The ludicrous choice to split ways on a whim, and later, bumping into a dangling clown costume for quick, cheap scare. It plays up the terror, but as with Sam Raimi's early Evil Dead classics, there's a healthy measure of comic relief too.
The HUD is kept discrete, with item icons only appearing when I draw close to something of use. Meanwhile, major, tangential decisions are indicated through a blinking butterfly symbol to the top-right. This is a bit of a fourth wall breaker, but it tells me that picking up a pair of scissors is a something of a breakthrough for Ashley's future prospects. Or perhaps not. My choice to play it confident and venture down to the cellars is a potential fork in the road too, but what if I'd taken a more cautious tact? And how significant were the fake newspapers I found planted in the corridor corner?
The visuals are on point with their eeriness so far, if still in need of polish on the lip-sync front. After a stint on PS3, the team boasts that dialogue and cut-scenes are re-done on PS4 using the studio's modified Killzone: Shadow Fall engine. Skin shaders and clothing details are really standout, as is the dynamic lighting streaming from Ashley's torch (also adjusted by the gyrometer as you move). In the end, I couldn't get much practical use from this feature, but I suspect it might open some doors for clue-finding later on.
Reaching a nasty do-or-die cliff-hanger at the end of the demo, it's possible I may have made some wrong calls en route. The final scene sees us hanging on the words of a masked assailant, as both characters are bound on each side of a table. Chris is told he can either shoot Ashley with a ready-cocked revolver in front, or suffer a set of buzz-saws descending from the ceiling. Looking to the top-right, I know it's on.
After a fade to black, my place in the story so far is dotted on a glowing line, each butterfly effect moment represented as dots across its length, where new lines spindle outwards to show the paths not taken. This zooms out fully to reveal a massive tapestry of branches, seemingly hundreds; a butterfly diagram which handily visualises every possible route in the game. And where's my path? Right there, barely perceptible as a slither on its wing.
For me, this was where Supermassive Games' ambition for Until Dawn came across best. The dialogue is undeniably hammy, possibly by choice, and controls are a touch sluggish, but it stretches for a narrative breadth we rarely see outside of Quantic Dreams' efforts - and certainly in the realms of interactive horror.
A gradual collection of clues sets it apart from its lineage too, a meta-game where Cluelines are built ip across multiple play-throughs, helping paint the bigger picture. It's genuinely jumpy as well, I'll admit, and got my shoulders jolting more than once. Annoyingly.
Looking to the side at this unwitting player, I wondered if Until Dawn's balance between terror and horror would pay off just as well for others. A foggy hallway stretched ahead, and in complete silence they pressed forward - and then it hit. The sound of a sharp, ghoulish scream burst out from a pale, gurning face, on-screen for barely a split second. I see an upwards flinch, a fumbling of the PS4 pad, and then an embarrassed grin as they sheepishly scan the room for on-lookers. Damn it, they got me, the eyes said.
It's still in need of a tidy-up before its 2015 release, but there's some real potential in Supermassive Games' re-fashioning of a proven template. At least from this short line of its massive web, Until Dawn is catching people out.