Earlier this week, Sony held an event in San Francisco featuring all of the PS4 demos that were shown at this year's Gamescom. Which was rather handy for those of us unable to make the 15-hour trip to Cologne to attend Europe's biggest expo.
One of the games on display had a name I vaguely recognized – Until Dawn. I discovered later that it was announced a couple of years ago as a PlayStation Move game, but has since undergone a thorough conceptual overhaul, and has now re-emerged as a PS4 game. And very impressive it looks too. It's basically a horror-survival game that features action sequences, plus dramatic QTE choices whose consequences have significant ramifications regarding the way the game's events play out.
The player takes the role of one of a group of eight young adults who find themselves stuck in a ramshackle mansion along with an axe-wielding, homicidal maniac. Although this sounds like a recipe for a tongue-in-cheek, schlocky horror show, it's not. Until Dawn plays it straight, channeling movies like Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre to serve up palpable tension, scares and graphic brutality.
Almost the moment I started playing, I thought of Heavy Rain. The game seamlessly blends dramatic, fabulously-rendered cutscenes, choice-driven sequences, and third-person exploration reminiscent of the fixed-camera Resident Evil games of yore. It looks absolutely terrific, and features an exceptionally lifelike cast. The only flaw I could see – and it's something I've recently seen in several other games too – is an odd white pixelation on very bright highlights. Almost like the lighting filter hasn't softened those pixels properly, ending up with an incongruously high contrast cluster of them. Other than that, though, this is top-drawer stuff. The skin textures and fidelity of the cast's expressions makes it all highly believable.
A thumbstick guides the character around in third-person mode, while the Sixaxis is used in a variety of ways – pointing a flashlight, manipulating objects and making choices during cutscenes. I'm not that great of a Sixaxis fan, and Until Dawn doesn't look like it'll change my point of view. I found I was looking at the joypad too much, trying to reconcile the position of an onscreen object with the position of the joypad – and that kept pulling me out of the game.
That's a shame, because when Until Dawn does draw you in, it's exceptionally gripping, and has high degree of suspense. The lifelike cast is complemented by top-class, cheese-free voice acting, and the action plays out over a very nicely rendered and beautifully lit series of sets. Clever, crisp editing and spot-on sound effects further enhance the movie-like effect. Even in the midst of a full demo room, I still felt myself tensing up and feeling impending dread as I walked through a dark basement in which I knew was hiding some person or thing. I couldn't be sure.
One thing that happened that did piss me off, though, was a really cheap jump-scare as I walked through a door. It was like one of those stupid YouTube videos you're told to watch closely, and you do as some innocuous video plays out, then all of a sudden some ugly zombie face fills the screen accompanied by a very loud screaming noise. Yes, it made me jump, but not in a good or clever way. I'm hoping that particular jump-scare is for this demo only, because when a game is perfectly capable of providing genuine chills, that sort of thing feels really bottom-of-the-barrel and unnecessary.
Because like I said, Until Dawn really does work as a horror game. Wafty control issues and cheap jump-scares notwithstanding, it's looking very promising. Even though the exploration and choice system feel simple, the quality of the visuals keep you drawn into the action. While I was playing, a spokesperson from Suppermassive Games explained that the game uses a "butterfly effect" type system when it comes to choices, so certain things you do can have big (or small) consequences later on in the game. So much so, that it gives Until Dawn high replay value. Quite how that will work remains to be seen, but it's a certainly a compelling prospect when combined with a game as potentially dramatic and immersive as this.
However, we do have a fairly long wait before we can find out. There's no firm release date yet for Until Dawn, but at the very least it'll be early next year.