Although the game mostly falls into the genre of survival horror, that term barely scratches the surface of Until Dawn, the latest game that's exclusive toconsole.
When developer Supermassive Games decided to start making Until Dawn, I wonder if the team was aware of just how big a challenge they were taking on. The plot premise is classic horror fodder: a group of teens in an isolated location being stalked by something in the woods.
The focus on exploration, mild puzzle solving and keeping any run-and-gun sections to the barest minimum isn't wildly different to some other survival horror games either.
But it's in the characters and the decision-making process, which Supermassive terms The Butterfly Effect, where Until Dawn really tries to innovate. It's also where it ends up gathering its comparisons, be they unfair or accurate, to games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.
So does Until Dawn blast a breath of fresh air into the increasingly stale survival horror genre? Sadly, it's not quite a yes or no answer.
I know that face
The game kicks off with a pre-credits sequence that serves as both a mini gameplay tutorial and an introduction to the game's tone. In classic horror style, the teenage characters are played almost exclusively by actors in their mid-20s and depending on how much TV you watch, you'll recognise a few of them, or at the very least "Heroes'" Hayden Panettiere, 26, who plays Samantha.
This is greatly helped by the fact the facial motion-capture is excellent. While one or two expressions can look a little cartoonish or "uncanny valley", for the most part these are clearly identifiable actors playing fairly well realised characters. Well, at least as fair as the animation goes.
After the opening credits, which includes a hauntingly beautiful cover of "O Death" by Amy Van Roekel, we jump to one year later and everyone is back on the same mountain for a bittersweet reunion.
As each of the eight "teens" are introduced we get a snapshot of them including their name and three descriptive words, such as "adventurous", "loyal" or "smart". I think it's supposed to give you some guidance on how to play them, but it actually just comes across like a really ill-advised LinkedIn page.
As the game progresses through its chapters, you'll get a chance to play each character, some noticeably more than others. Note that you don't get to choose who to play and when. Instead the game just hands you control of different characters at certain times.
Bizarrely, pressing R1 when playing a character brings up that character's stat screen. Here you've got various bar charts ranking that character on six different traits such as charitable, honest and romantic. There's also a similar system ranking your "relationship status" with the other seven characters. These all alter based on your actions, but I couldn't see any way that these stats had any impact on the game other than a passing interest. However, you'll also find your current objective listed on this page, so that's handy.
In true horror style all eight teens split into different groups pretty much immediately, even before things start going wrong. It works in terms of the narrative and splitting up the groups allows for some tense cliffhanger moments as the game switches between characters, as well as ensuring that the action gets spread around the whole range of environments.
Again, too much in the way of specifics will end up spoiling the game, but suffice to say there's a lot of dank, dark corridors, creepy underground sections, decaying institutional hallways and a lot of snow. Which all look amazing, I should add. The outdoor environments in particular are incredible, with excellent use of lighting and sound: the squeaking of snow, birds in the distance, animals crashing through foliage. It all adds up to a very atmospheric feel.
While you're exploring, the left stick controls your movement while the right waves whatever light source you might be using, be it torch, lantern, smartphone or whatever. There's an element of randomness to this control. Your light beam sometimes wanders around a little erratically and it's not a big surprise to learn that, back in 2012 when the game was first being made for PS3, this was envisaged as the player waving around the. Also, you can't run (unless you're in a running action sequence) but you can hold L1 to increase your walking speed by an almost imperceptible amount.
Items you can interact with will flash a white light to alert you and prompt you to hit X when you get close enough. Almost all of the time interacting with an item will involve the following: you hit X, the game moves to a closeup of your hand and the object. You then use R2 to pick it then the right stick to move it around. And that, quickly honestly, is your usual level of environmental control except in some rare occasions where you'll use the PS4 controller's central touchpad.
This how you'll locate the various clues littered around the game that will help you (possibly) solve the three different mysteries on offer. (Again, apologies for the vagueness, but too much info will be spoilerific.) It's also how you find the various totems.
These are small wooden carvings that come in five flavours: death, guidance, loss, danger and fortune. When you interact with them, show a short clip that can indicate something that might happen later in the game. These range from "quite helpful", to "mystifying", to "doesn't even happen because of a choice you've made" but like all gaming collectibles you'll find yourself scanning around for them pretty much constantly.