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PS4 horror game Until Dawn is a pleasant surprise, even with its familiar horror tropes

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

If you watched this weekend's PlayStation Experience keynote, you have a good sense of what to expect from Until Dawn, the PlayStation 4 horror game that was once a PlayStation Move-powered PS3 title. It's a bit of a campy horror adventure in which a group of teenage victims are attacked in sequence by a creepy serial killer.

Until Dawn is rife with slasher film cliches; the on-stage demo at PlayStation Experience showed a blonde girl in a towel being pursued by the relentless masked killer, running, hiding and ultimately being captured. It was a quick presentation, lacking some of the context of the hands-on demo at PSX. But it highlighted one of the game's strongest components: Until Dawn lets you make the choices of horror movie victims, the characters we often yell at onscreen for their idiotic behavior.

That gameplay mechanic clearly resonated with the PlayStation Experience crowd. During the keynote, they shouted out en masse their choices when prompts popped up on screen. Run? Hide? Jump? These are some of the frequent decisions players are asked to make while playing. But there's more to it than that.

Until Dawn's playable demo kicked off with a survey. The game asks whether you have a fear of the dark, or a fear of crowds. Do you hate needles or have a fear of suffocating? Does blood and gore bother you, or are "creepy crawlies" more upsetting? At least one of those questions has an obvious impact on the demo. If you confess your fear of needles, the killer is armed with a large syringe. If you choose suffocation, he'll carry a gas tank filled with anesthetic.

Once your "preferences" are set, Until Dawn's take on teen horror kicks off. You're presented with Sam, played by Heroes star Hayden Panettiere, taking a nighttime bath while listening to Yo-Yo Ma. She's relaxed and oblivious to the creepy clown mask killer watching her bathe. He slips out of the room, silent as the night.

Until Dawn

Then comes the "Haha, really funny guys!" moment when Sam gets out of the bath, puts on a towel and realizes that someone has swiped her clothes (save for a single sock). Sam, naturally, sets off for a quiet — perhaps too quiet — look around the house, loudly reprimanding her fellow teens for the prank that has gone too far, guys. Knock it off. Seriously.

Here's where Until Dawn settles in as a slower paced adventure game. You can direct Sam around the dark house, looking for clues and subjecting her to a share of jump scares: A grandfather clock chimes loudly! A TV turns on unexpectedly! Players can pick up a bit of background on the story by listening to an answering machine. You can venture around the house, exploring other rooms (but mostly finding locked doors in your way). Or you can just send Sam to her untimely demise by following a series of obvious pointers that lead her right into the killer's clutches.

Developer Supermassive Games makes a few interesting cinematic camera choices during these moments, lending the game some genuine horror movie atmosphere. Sometimes your vision of an area is obscured, but in one camera-switching shot, you get just the tiniest glimpse of the serial killer creeping down a set of stairs. It's a well done "Did I just see that?" moment.

Once players encounter the killer, they'll be presented with choices. Do you run, or throw a vase at his head? Later, do you run again or hide under a bed, or behind some shelving? These choices are made by tilting the DualShock 4 controller in the direction of your choice. Sometimes, you'll have to quickly hit a button when prompted. Tap the triangle button to turn off Sam's flashlight or prevent her from taking a misstep down some stairs. Jerk the controller to one side to slide a deadbolt into place.

For the most part, the choices players are presented with feel obvious. Running often seems like your best bet, but occasionally it needs to be done at the right time, when the killer turns his head slightly. Sometimes, the developer will provide little clues that indicate which might not be the best option. In one playthrough, I ran right into the killer's path, mistakenly thinking I'd be safe. Until Dawn's executive creative director Will Byles said that I led Sam to her death because I failed to notice a quick flash of the killer down the hall I was headed toward.

And while those deaths are permanent — and typically a punishment in horror games — it's no fun if everyone survives, Byles said. Your game will continue on with that character dead, and the impact of that will thread throughout the remaining narrative.

The game is structured a bit more like a television series than a movie, Byles said, in part due to its length, which he estimated at roughly nine hours. Expect story arcs and mini-story arcs throughout the course of Until Dawn, he said, all of which players can explore through playthroughs with different consequences.

Until Dawn, which hits PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015, looks like it has a chance to be a sleeper hit on Sony's console. The game looks fantastic — it certainly doesn't look like a PlayStation 3 holdover — thanks to some impressive animation and realistic motion captured performances, and may offer some genuine scares. It's not quite the grisly psychological horror of Kojima Productions' P.T. nor does Until Dawn appear as campy as we were once led to believe. Instead, the game's decision-making gameplay feels like a rarely explored take on horror, giving players the opportunity to test their survival skills or relish in watching a group of prototypical horror movie teens meet their gruesome fate.

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