Ashley and Chris sit down across a table. Look deep into their eyes and you only see fear. Naked fear, as well as horror, pain, madness. Above their heads rattle circular blades that move slowly downwards.
Ashley's hands are fixed with gaffer tape to the chair. Chris has one free hand, and in front of it is a gun. A madman's voice from somewhere unseen offers two options: "Chris, you've been making bad decisions today. Now you have the choice again. One can survive: you or Ashley. Shoot her or yourself."
And it's a decision we'll have to make as we play Until Dawn. One that could have been quite different, had our previous decisions until now played one way rather than another. Maybe.
Supermassive Games have brought a whole new Until Dawn to Gamescom after two years of silence. Now exclusive to PS4, it's a horror game with a different twist. Eight friends are stranded on a mountain during the winter holidays, and they soon discover they're not alone. Everything starts to go horribly wrong, and throughout the game we decide who lives and who dies.
There are, according to the developer, hundreds of possible endings top the game. Between the game's opening and those are moral dilemmas aplenty as we investigate the game world for clues to discover what's happened in these mountains.
The experience is powered by the same engine as Killzone: Shadow Fall, giving us an elegant, truly new-gen look. The story's being scripted by two indie horror writers. Every single character can die or survive. And dead means dead. There's no turning back the clock, as the only save point available is your most recent one. The story adapts to these changes.
This most adult of horror games focuses on three ingredients: terror, horror and disgust. There's a permanent sense of terror, horror through those moments that shock, and disgust at the rare, gory moments that are so effectively used in Until Dawn.
It's a third-person action title, and a fancy one at that. The developers claim the facial expressions "are the best there ever was". A little exaggerated in our opinion, but there's no denying how superb they look. Gameplay is slow, reminiscent of Beyond: Two Souls, Heavy Rain or the original Resident Evil.
Your character's walk is slow, and moving the controller moves their head. The camera perspective changing automatically to ensure perfectly staged scenes that'll shock. Many objects in the world can be used and manipulated when they are in your field of view, with a contextual icon flashing up to show how you can interact with them.
Until Dawn is one big story puzzle. Items must be analysed. This includes flipping through books, or watching a scene play out in a miniature doll's house - one that reminds both Ashley and Chris of something. The two fit the character stereotype found in this corner off the horror genre - the Avril Lavigne clone and the high school nerd. We find out they're searching for their friend Sam, who's disappeared.
Accompanying their walk through a creepy basement is a continual, suspenseful score, subtle but slowly increasing as tension moments, suddenly, and loudly, cracking to life during scary moments. It's a classic genre trick, but works perfectly. Adding to the effect are purposely staged shadows, scurrying insects, creaking doors and muffled sounds straight out of Capcom's horror library. Dilapidated rooms, with beautiful light particle effects striking through cobwebs, hint at the new-gen heft powering these scenes. It's good stuff.
And again and again you must make decisions. Such as those made through dialogue that dictate what happens next - stick together or split to explore. The game switches us between characters as decisions split the cast off from one another.
Everything has ramifications, every decision limits future choice, and all leads to our possible fate. Our end is defined by decisions made on the way. The single playthrough takes around nine hours, all decisions made are permanent, and expectation is every player will have a different experience. Superficially, this is little more than a remix of everything we already come to expect from the genre, but it's incredibly well done from what we've seen so far.
Choices then. Exampled no better than a scene occurring prior to the situation described right at the start of this preview, as Ashley and Chris are attacked by a psycho clown. Ashley rams a pair of scissors she found just before the attack into the clown's shoulder, deflecting its lunge. Scissors that she might have left on the drawer where she spotted them. As it is, the clown retaliates by punching her in the face, and the screen suddenly turns black. What's the new consequence of her actions? We have to wait until next year to find out.