There's an impulse that anyone who's ever watched a horror film has experienced many times: namely that of wanting to scream at the characters as they do something incredibly stupid.
Why are they running towards an enclosed space when they should be legging it for the exit? Why are they approaching a cupboard from which they heard a strange noise instead of calling the cops? Why are they following the directions painted on a bunch of balloons sending them down to the basement, when all their clothes have been stolen and they’re alone in a house that doesn’t seem to have one working light bulb?
That last example, as you might have guessed, is the situation presented in the demo of Until Dawn - a game that purports to be an interactive horror movie, but really feels more like a series of quick-time-events (QTEs) that lose every ounce of their ability to scare with each play-through.
READ MORE: Bloodborne hands-on review
YOU ONLY SCARE ONCE
The setting for Sony’s demo centred around a nubile young lady named Sam – played by Nashville’s Hayden Panettiere – who clambers out of the world’s biggest bath tub to find that all her clothes have been stolen. She then wanders around an empty mansion calling out for her friends and inexplicably not commenting on a series of balloons with arrows painted on them, which are directing her downstairs.
Once she reaches the ground floor, she enters a screening room where the doors slam shut behind her. At this point the bottom falls out of Sam’s world as the screen in the room flickers to life and shows a video of her reclining in the tub as a sinister voice hisses that’s she’s about to meet an untimely demise.
Suddenly the doors crash open and a muscular goon wearing a clown mask enters. Sam wisely decides to leg it. This is all very hair-raising the first time round. Tackle it again, however, and Until Dawn loses some of its ability to frighten; you've now experienced all of the impending jump scares, so you're mentally prepared. There’s no attempt to mix things up at all.
READ MORE: Dragon Age: Inquisition review
HEAVY RAIN MEETS THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
Until Dawn is anchored by an undeniably intriguing premise. You work your way through eight different characters trapped in a cabin in the mountains hunted by a psychotic antagonist in a clown-mask. Over the time it takes to complete the game, all eight characters can die and all eight can live. Whether or not they survive is down to the choice you make on their behalf.
Sounds like gold, right? In reality this isn’t the case and that's mainly down to the game’s mechanics, which offer you timed-response interaction with whatever’s going on around you.
A lot of the time you're expected to react to immediate threats – being chased by a psychotic, for example; would you rather run or hide under a bed – and this lends Until Dawn a rather ‘trial-and-error’ feeling. It’s like playing a rather badly designed platformer with very bloody stakes.
The developers would probably posit that the fact you can potentially save all eight characters – or lose them – makes this comparison rather facile. Once a character is dead, you can’t reload a save – the story just carries on from that point. That may be true, but it wasn’t backed up by the demo at the Sony showcase. After having played it through three times, Stuff can report that the protagonist we controlled came to a sticky end, regardless of how we tried to progress.
READ MORE: The 25 best PlayStation games ever
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
The setting of the game and the nature of the player’s interaction don’t complement each other. If any horror game – or movie, or book - is to have any power at a base level, it’s down to the notion that the audience doesn’t know what to expect.
The demo of Until Dawn showed that there is a set path through Supermassive Games’ latest offering, and that just doesn’t lend itself to future playthroughs. It almost felt like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where, if the reader could be bothered to work their way back from the optimum ending, they’d be able to clock the game they were playing by just putting in the legwork.
That said, Until Dawn did throw a curveball at the very beginning of its demo. Before delving into its dark delights, players were asked to answer a series of probing questions, for instance: do you find slithering insects or gore and blood more disturbing? Unfortunately, however, the answers to these questions seemed to have absolutely no bearing on the content of Sam’s harrowing encounter with the game’s clown-mask-wearing psycho.
Still, it’s early days yet, and Until Dawn’s demo is hopefully but a small slice of what players can expect. Here’s hoping the finished game provides more depth, more scares and the ability to get inside the player’s head.
If it can accomplish that, Supermassive may still be on to something truly and horrifically special.