Until Dawn Preview - E3 2015
We try to survive a cinematic horror adventure
Despite being first announced a few years ago, it would be a while until we heard about Until Dawn again. The PlayStation 4 exclusive horror title was first planned for PS3 release with motion controls at the core, but has since re-emerged as a more focused and perhaps serious title. Motion controls are still an option, but the game defaults to the classic button layout. We had a chance to play through a short section of the game at E3 2015.
Before starting, the game showed off a recap of events based on simulated choices a player would have made thus far. We observed a group of college friends arriving at a ski lodge for a getaway vacation, without a care in the world. Unfortunately, they soon realized that there's a serial killer on the loose in the area, and things don't go well for their friends. There's also some relationship drama that occurs within the group, in a classic teen horror film style. We pick up on the plot of Matt and Emily as they meet two survivors of the serial killer. Shocked, they decide the best course of action is to reach a nearby forest guard tower and radio for help.
They lose their way and somehow end up on a cliff. No problem – except they are suddenly surrounded by angry looking group of deer. As Emily begins to freak out, playing as Matt we get a dialog option to either insult her fear or comfort her. The choices that players make in conversation will decide their relationships with others, and maybe even their fate. As we cautiously began to move forward, most of the deer gave way, but one stood firm in the path. At this point, a prompt to attack appeared. Not knowing any better, we decided to take the hatchet to the deer's neck. This freaked out the animals, and they pushed forward. Matt had to step back – and lost his footing. He grabbed on to the edge below the cliff, and we had to follow a series of QTE inputs in order to climb out. The inputs left surprisingly little time, perhaps giving an indication that this won't be a forgiving story.
Indeed, given that almost all characters can die, and with a multitude of story and sequence branches, there will be a lot of replay value in Until Dawn. Looking over at other demo stations, we saw some players ignore the available prompt to attack the deer – and they passed safely through. Doing nothing is an option, and sometimes a good one, giving players another layer of choice. The developers call these branching story lines the Butterfly Effect, where presumably almost any action can have far reaching consequences.
Having made it back to the cliff, the deer have seemingly left, so we carried on to the guard tower. At this point the control switched to Emily, and we walked up the snowy road, using the left stick to move our flashlight around the environment. We found a totem on the side of the road, and upon inspecting it (holding R2 to pick up, using the stick to rotate) we got a vision of a character death. It didn't amount to anything in the scope of the demo, but it''s likely these items can foreshadow possible events. The final game will jump between the story threads of different characters and attempt to link them together at one point or another.
After walking up the steps and climbing a series of ladders to the guard tower, we found it to be without power. We had to guide Emily to the outside catwalk of the tower and flip the generator. Back indoors, there were a few interactable objects. A printer and a locker contained posters of missing students, said to be mysteriously gone over the past few weeks. But the goal here was to call for help, so we used the radio and actually got someone on the air.
Once again, with the signal being poor and the man on the other end acting rude and unsympathetic to our panicking heroes, we had a few conversation choices. Keep Emily calmly answering basic questions, or losing it and yelling for immediate help. Despite picking a calm approach, the man on the other side of the radio wasn't much help. Suddenly, there was a noise outside, and a cutscene showed someone cutting the supporting cables of the tower.
It wasn't long before the whole thing started to collapse. The two characters tried to hang on for dear life, but for a few moments all seemed to be lost. When the dust finally settled, we were in control of Matt again. He managed to reach the top of the tower and could see a safe ledge he could reach. Suddenly, he heard Emily cry for help – she was helplessly hanging on some railings below, above what appeared to be a deep cavern.
We had a few conversation choices again - keep Emily calm or just tell her to stop freaking out. At one point, we even had an opportunity to bring up earlier relationship drama that we learned about from the introductory recap. It would have been cheesy, but at least the option is there and some players would agree it perfectly fits the teen horror movie dialog cliches. But the most important choice came minutes later – try to save Emily or simply jump to safety. Given how very far down she was from Matt, it seemed a better option to leave her... so we did. Matt jumped to safety, and Emily plummeted to her doom. The demo ended.
Again, peeking over to other players, we saw those who saved Emily instead saw a graphic death for Matt. Player choice and consequence is at the heart of Until Dawn, and from what we've played in the demo, it seems very competently executed. The atmospheric soundtrack, decent voice acting and good facial animations and level of detail means the game also looks the part. The game was written in collaboration with Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, two creators that are well versed in the horror genre. It also stars some Hollywood talent in the form of Hayden Panettiere, Brett Dalton and Rami Malek.
If you enjoy the “choose your own adventure” games with a cinematic focus, this title may very well fit the mold. It feels like a combination of horror, Heavy Rain, and Telltale's TWD Season 1. And if Until Dawn can actually pull those great inspirations together into a satisfying experience, Sony will have another winner on their hands. Look for Until Dawn exclusively on PlayStation 4 this August.