Until Dawn is a very different kind of horror game, in that it's halfway between a choose-your-own-adventure novel, David Cage cinematic QTE-fest and a Saw film. A good Saw film, if you can imagine that.
Having played it for the best part of 45 minutes at Gamescom, however, I was initially reminded of a cheesy slasher flick. A group of eight attractive twenty-somethings decide to take their holiday in a sprawling old house in the middle of an icy forest. It's spacious, comfortable and the perfect location for a getaway, at least it would be were it not for the masked psychopath hell-bent on murdering everyone. As such, you'll leapfrog between the perspectives of the terrorised tourists as they desperately try to survive the night. Who will live? Who will die?
That, dear reader, is entirely up to you. Until Dawn promises one of the most wildly-branching narratives in videogame history; boasting over a thousand different directions for the story to diverge and more than one hundred endings. Everybody can die, but depending on the decisions you make, you might be able to save a few before the credits roll. Followed by several more playthroughs with totally different results.
The Gamescom demo put me in the shoes of Ashley, who bravely descended into the basement beneath the house with fellow survivor Chris, seeking their missing friend Sarah. Interestingly Until Dawn first posed me a short questionnaire asking me about my horror game and movie preferences, such as whether I prefer suspense or gore (the former, obviously), suggesting that the final game will adapt its tone to fit your particular tastes.
Speaking of which, the tone has now slightly shifted from all-out silly exploitation to more serious psychological horror (loaded with the occasional bit of cringeworthy banter, naturally), and this is just the smallest change that Until Dawn has undergone since we last saw it in 2012.
The first-person perspective has how shifted to a cinematic third-person camera, which hops between fixed positions, pans and a more dynamic follow-cam in key moments; an easy way to ensure that the scary moments are framed well as opposed to missable if the player happens to be gawking in the wrong direction or admiring a particularly impressive wall texture. It feels a lot like a traditional adventure game in parts as Ashley stalks through the brooding unlit corridors and interacts with key items for additional info, dialogue or puzzles. A stack of newspapers with an intriguing date, plenty of locked doors and an utterly terrifying dolls house complete with hidden keyhole, for example, all demand your attention and provide additional story tidbits.
Since PlayStation Move has now gone the way of the Virtual Boy (though I suspect that the peripheral will return in some form to complement Project Morpheus), motion control has now been offloaded to the DualShock 4. Waggling the controller directly aims your character's narrow torch beam, which is surprisingly intuitive in the main. Limiting the amount of light also makes for a brooding and claustrophobic experience, though the perspective can occasionally become confusing when your character faces directly at you, thus reversing the direction you'll need to rotate the DualShock.
It wasn't long, however, before Until Dawn started asking me to make choices, most of which were binary and fairly obvious. Should I stay with Chris or split up? Should we retreat back upstairs? Should I go through the door or err on the side of caution? Each of these decisions send the narrative off in a different direction, sometimes changing the area you'll end up in or kicking off a new chain of events. Supermassive promises that there'll be a thousand of these divergent moments, both presented as stark choices or evolving naturally through gameplay (such as where you decide to explore or what door you open).
Then, naturally, the killer showed up and all hell broke loose. There are quicktime events akimbo and snap judgements to make, with a stumble or even death just being another narrative diversion as opposed to a game over. Everyone can die, remember, and the story will advance regardless in a different direction. It's vaguely reminiscent of Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, in that failure usually just makes a bad situation worse rather than forcing an instant restart.
Finally, however, the killer did catch up with Ashley and Chris, and decided to put them through a Saw-esque trial. Two whirring buzzsaws descended from the ceiling towards our captive heroes, sitting facing each other over a loaded gun. Predictably, one had to shoot the other... and the decision was entirely down to me, the player. It was a haunting moment, not least because I had to aim and fire the gun myself.
We choose who dies. A theme that, I daresay, will underpin practically the entire game. Perhaps you'll save them next time?
Graphically-speaking, Until Dawn is already looking gorgeous, especially when it comes to facial expressions and character models. We'll need to genuinely care about the cast in order to want to keep replaying the campaign, so it's very much a case of graphics serving gameplay as opposed to meaningless technical one-upmanship. Voice acting also seems to be rather impressive at this stage, though I admit that my second abortive playthrough was entirely in German. Still, "oh shit" seems to transcend language barriers.
Sadly the same can't be said about the animations, which are often awkward and unintentionally humorous. Characters look in the direction of the torch beam, meaning their heads can loll about in hilarious fashion if you jolt the DualShock.
A breezy preview is nowhere enough hands-on time to make a value judgement, but it is enough to know that Until Dawn is headed down an interesting track. We love the idea of its branching narrative and eminently replayable structure, but whether it actually delivers is another matter entirely.
We'll find out next year.