Until Dawn looks like it's aiming at a couple of very particular groups of people. On the one hand there's horror themes writ large across everything we've seen thus far, from the overall concept to the smaller, more intricate details that only reveal themselves after repeat plays.
On the other hand it's a fairly on-the-rails experience, and it plays in a style similar to that of Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain. While these games cast their lenses on supernatural science-fiction and noir murder mystery respectively, Until Dawn has a very different (but equally cinematic) focus, however they're cut from the same cloth and will likely appeal to a similarly-minded audience.
The opening of the section we were privy to, if truth be told (and it always should be), had us groaning. In true slasher horror movie style, Hayden Panettiere - Sam - starts off the sequence in the bath, listening to classical music (she's a classy girl after all). A sinister man stands behind her, watching, but with the headphones on and her eyes closed, she doesn't notice him. It's not until he leaves and a subsequent gust of air from the closing door blows the candle next to her that she becomes aware that something is wrong.
Of course, the sinister figure has taken her clothes, and so, clad in nought a towel, Sam makes her way through a large house, berating her friends for the prank. Except, as we all know, this is no prank. A few moments later she gets trapped in the home cinema, and the killer starts up a home movie, first shocking her by showing her in the nude, and then scaring her senseless by showing her friend's stomach being cut open by a circle saw. Up until this point we've been guiding Sam around via the analog sticks. Walking her down stairs and through rooms, viewed from fixed camera angles, however, from here on in things change significantly.
The doors to the home cinema fly open and the menacing protagonist presents himself, spooky ski mask and all. We have a choice. Run away or throw a vase. We played it three times and first tried throwing the vase before later running away. As far as we can tell, the immediate outcome to this particular decision was the same. Indeed, some of the choices you're presented with seem entirely superficial and have zero bearing on the outcome of the sequence. They have the appearance of window dressing.
The act of making a selection is actually quite interesting. Two options appear on different sides of the screen, so you point the controller towards your choice and tap X, and the resultant cutscene plays out onscreen (presumably we'll be pointing the DualShock and using it as a torch too). There were originally more choices, but to keep the cinematic pacing the studio decided to strip it down to two choices at a time, although it should be said that the player is asked plenty of questions.
It's not just decision making that makes use of the DualShock's unique properties; another neat trick sees tense moments when hiding, where the player has to keep their controller completely still. The first time we played we wobbled, and the result played out before our eyes: the killer grabbed Sam and subdued her, presumably so he could take her away and murder her theatrically during a scene later in the game.
The next pass was more successful. There's QTEs that pop up from time to time. Miss one and you'll trip over, for example. We were able to hit all the button prompts that were thrown at us, and during the chase sequence we decided to run hard and fast. And in case you were wondering, thanks to some truly world class towel holding skills, Sam's modesty remains intact throughout.
Whenever presented with the chance we opted to keep on moving, but that seems to have been the wrong decision, and the masked killer captured Sam eventually. When we came to the end of the third pass, instead of running we hid when given the opportunity. After keeping the DualShock completely still (this time) we were able to escape the clutches of the psycho and the demo ended.
According to the developers there's subtle clues that tell you which way to go, but they're keeping them well hidden; they don't want to signpost the path to safety too clearly, or where's the challenge?! The danger here is that the signposts are too subtle, and deaths will feel too cheap or even unfair. We're told that this won't be the case, so we'll have to wait and see how this one plays out.
There's eight characters all told, and all of them can live, and all of them can die. As such there's a plethora of permutations, and a multitude of endings. It's called "Butterfly Effect" tech. There promises to be plenty of longevity for those who have to know each and every ending, that much we can say with certainty. How much variation there is going to be in these different conclusions remains to be seen.
This looks like it's going to be a streamlined take on a formula made popular by Quantic Dream, with QTEs galore and some severe restrictions on player agency. We enjoyed both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, largely down to the quality character work and interesting stories, but these games were far from perfect; there were plot holes a mile wide and sometimes the controls were flawed. Until Dawn faces the same challenges, and a lot will come down to the quality of the writing and the execution of the story (even if it's bad, it can still be the good kind of bad). The spectre of perma-death certainly promises to make it a more tense affair than, say, Beyond: Two Souls, where you had to try pretty hard to screw things up.
Fans of the genre should certainly be keeping an eye on this one, but we're also expecting those who enjoy a cinematic, story-driven experiences to be curious about it. It's too early to say whether it's going to be any good. The options are limited and some of the choices (during our admittedly brief hands-on) felt redundant. If death doesn't feel fair then there's really no hope for it. However, we're not going to know for sure until we've played it through a couple of times, and have seen the different consequences of our actions played out. It's certainly a very prescriptive experience, but if all you want to do is take a ride and see some attractive young actors meet a gruesome end (or not, as the case may be), then this might well end up being worth taking a closer look at.