Developer: Supermassive Games
Rated: M for Mature
Released: 25 August 2015
Completed: 10 October 2016
Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were so popular in the 80s? If you're unfamiliar, they were a series of game books where the reader could make decisions that would affect the outcome of the story. At certain points, the story would branch off and you'd be told to skip ahead to a specific page number depending on which route you wanted to take. Sometimes this could have disastrous consequences, bringing your adventure to an early end. It was an interesting way to coax children to read, and incentivized repeat readings to see all the different paths.
That's Until Dawn in a nutshell, and it's bloody brilliant.
Interactive Fiction isn't a new genre by any means. To some degree, all games are "interactive fiction," but more specifically, auteurs like David Cage or the folks at Telltale Games are more focused on crafting stories that draw you in rather than testing your skills with a controller. Typically, these games rely heavily on QTEs - quick-time events where you're given a limited number of seconds to press a button or perform an action - leaving little in the way of actual interaction, but they make up for it with interesting narrative branches that can drastically alter the experience, warranting repeat playthroughs if you want to see every permutation of choices and consequences.
Until Dawn is no different in that vein, but its setting - that of a teen slasher flick - makes it feel incredibly fresh. Coupled with some impressive graphics technology and excellent sound design, it's remarkably engaging for a game with little to do other than press a button every now and again.
One year after a prank gone wrong inadvertently causes the deaths of twins Hannah and Beth Washington, a group of friends reunites at the Washington family lodge, at the behest of brother Josh, to share memories, good times, and cheer up the only surviving sibling. The remote lodge is located on a snowy Canadian mountain, far from civilization, and an ongoing snow storm make it a perfect setting for all manner of things to go haywire.
The first and most noticeable thing about Until Dawn is how spectacular its graphics are. Several very recognizable actors appear in the main cast including Hayden Panettiere as the plucky Sam, Swedish actor Peter Stormare as unsettling psychiatrist Dr. Hill, and the one and only Mr. Robot himself, Rami Malek, as Josh Washington. The actors are brought to life with stunning detail, particularly the close-ups in the menu screens or when you leave the controller alone for a bit.
The environments are equally as exquisitely detailed. The Washington lodge is opulent, but oppressive. As you explore the darkened halls, illuminated only by candles or flashlights, every shadowy corner or closed door feels like a potential death trap. Shafts of blue light filter in through the windows, giving everything an eerie glow. Despite the presence of nine souls, there's a stillness to the house that instills dread.
Outside, the raging snowstorm is both harsh and beautiful. The new-fallen snow glints realistically, broken only by the footprints of your character as they huddle against the biting cold. Nowhere feels safe. When you're not being stalked by a psychopath in a mask, you'll still have to contend with the environments and wild animals. One wrong move, and the number of survivors may be reduced.
Throughout the game, you'll switch between all nine friends, each with their own well-defined personality. Mike is the jock, Matt is the nice guy, and Chris is the sort of nerdy, socially awkward one. Sam is the all-round lovable girl, Emily is the catty one, and Jessica is the flirtatious type. Each player will identify differently with each character, making it a very unique experience for everyone, and potentially affecting who lives and who dies - though every character can survive if you make all the right choices.
Between levels on the Blackwood Mountain, you'll be tested by Dr. Hill, who progressively becomes more aggressive and unhinged himself, berating you for your choices. What's interesting about these short sections is that your responses will determine some of what you'll see in the rest of the game. If you indicate that you're afraid of clowns and needles, for example, the psycho stalking you and your friends will be wearing a clown mask with a hypodermic needle for a weapon. It's a small touch that ultimately doesn't amount to much more than visual flair, but it helps tailor the experience to each individual player.
The game follows many tropes of slasher flicks. There's a heavy reliance on jump scares, but the build up to them is expertly paced and they almost never failed to grab me. Remember the first time you played Resident Evil 2 and you just knew something was going to come crashing through the glass in the police station, but it still got you anyway? The whole game is like that. Even when you can see the scare coming, which to its credit is not always so obvious, it still works, then the tension starts building again until the next big release.
A little over halfway through, the plot takes an interesting tonal shift, and this is where it could potentially lose some players. I won't spoil it, but it completely veers away from the slasher motif and into the supernatural. It's a major dramatic shift, and you'll either enjoy the ride or get off. Personally, while I was a tad disappointed the more immediate danger of the psychopath was cast aside, I didn't dislike the twist. I was still on board until the very end. I think it's important to understand that the game, while scary, is still very tongue-in-cheek, so I found the shift worked, though not necessarily as well as the abject terror of the game's first half. Would I have preferred it stayed the course with a crazy killer? Sure, but I still enjoyed the interesting twist, due in large part to its roots in real Indian folklore.
The score accentuates every memorable moment with surgical precision. It's typical of horror movie scores, laden with swelling strings pierced by sharp notes, and just nails it. It heightens the tense action sequences, sets the big scares up to bowl you over with screeching violins, and even at times sounds mournful.
The control is one of the major sticking points. Due to the set camera angles and sometimes slow animations, it can occasionally be hard to get your character to do exactly what you want them to. Just turning around can result in a weird sort of chicken dance. Meanwhile, the game can be persnickety about interacting with the world around you. Objects you can investigate or interact with gleam, but sometimes you'll be standing right in front of them and it won't give you the option to look closer unless you move around and get to the exact spot it wants you to stand in. It's also kind of strange that there's no run button for a game where characters are surrounded by life-threatening situations at every turn. You can "walk faster" by holding the L1 button, but it's only a marginal improvement and if you're scouring every environment looking for clues and totems that will help explain the backstory, things can definitely start to feel a little slow.
In addition to the quick-time events, you'll occasionally be required to hold your DualShock4 as still as possible to avoid an untimely death. Unfortunately for me, my favorite character didn't make it as a result of one of these sequences, even though I set the controller down! I'm guessing the rumble of my subwoofer caused it to move just enough to blow my cover during the game's final confrontation, and I was bummed out because I felt I had been cheated a bit.
Because of the nature of the gameplay and the multitude of choices you'll be faced with, Until Dawn does have decent replayability. The overall story won't change - the psychopath is always the same, and the twist always occurs - but certain characters may live or die in subsequent playthroughs, and dialogue options will almost certainly change. If you enjoyed the story as much as I did, that's definitely incentive go back through and see how things play out differently, even if the end result is the same.
I picked up Until Dawn on Black Friday last year, and purposefully held off on it until October to kickstart my annual horror game marathon. The wait was definitely worth it, despite some flaws. It's chilling enough to keep you on edge, scary enough to make you jump off your seat at times, and funny enough to make you laugh out loud and let your guard down for another big scare. It was a great way to kickoff the Halloween 2016 season. I'd love to see this be the start of a new franchise because I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can choose to buy it online or in store, but avoid it at your own peril (see what I did there?).
Until Dawn was completed on a PlayStation 4 with no cheats. For the record, two of the nine characters did not survive. Sorry, gals.