Until Dawn Review
Sony PlayStation 4
Do you like scary movies? Do you like video games? Then Until Dawn is a game designed for you. Effectively an interactive movie in the vein of Heavy Rain or anything else done by David Cage and Quantic Dream, only this time Supermassive Games want to make you jump, make you laugh and make you fidget in your seat, all the while wondering what horror will befall you and your avatars next.
Set almost in real time, Until Dawn tells the story of a group of friends meeting up at the top of a snowy mountain one dark night on the anniversary of a similar event one year hence. Only, in that case, two friends - twins Hannah and Beth - ran from the house after a prank and never came back. Presumed dead then, and from the prologue which introduces us to this bunch of teenagers, quite right said presumption is. We have ten chapters (an extra one if you have the special edition) and eight youngsters. We get to play as each one of them at some point during the night and the goal, really, is to get each of them safely through to dawn. Along the way there are multiple mystery strands to piece together from clues which embellish the backstory and help you to understand what’s going on whilst having the bejesus scared out of you. The scares might be a big part of it but aside from one gimmick the developers focus on other things rather than just ramming this down your throats. In other words, they let the game do the talking and don’t have to force anything.
Which is a good thing for a number of reasons, not least the fact the scares aren’t very scary. Not even the bits where if you’ve got a camera, and the setting is turned on, you can watch your reaction thanks to the game automatically recording it (unless it’s dark - which is how you should play the game so…). I guess this is an incredibly subjective point but for wily old folk who’ve devoured countless hours of classic Craven and Carpenter and know these things as well as any character in Scream (spoiler alert - it follows conventions, not upends them like the aforementioned post-modern horror) a few jump scares are well signposted and not that difficult to handle. Despite this, the story is told well, the tension is ratcheted up at multiple choke points throughout the game and it keeps you on tenterhooks. No doubt it will do more to many. It would probably make a good accompaniment to an evening in with like-minded friends where the plan is to gorge on slashers and horror films. It takes longer but there’ll be more chance to laugh at each other if one of you does jump at a particularly non-threatening scene.
Arguably the best aspect of the game and really the one where it becomes its own, new, thing and not just a Quantic copy, is where your choices really do have impact. Not in a Telltale way, either. You get Matt killed? I got him home safe. You choose to take Ashley down that path? For me it was Chris. Every choice you make impacts the story down the line on any number of occasions. Highlighting these when they occur by way of butterflies flapping in the upper left of the screen, these Butterfly Effect moments can seem so miniscule but they resonate in the biggest of ways. Can you get all eight safe come daylight? Or, like me, do you manage to get six of them killed. Oops. Try again.
As we’re playing an interactive movie here there are quicktime events. Not too many though - and they never outstay their welcome. Controls of characters are simple: left stick to move them, right stick to move their light source (which you will always have available whether it’s a torch, lighter or mobile phone as in one case). When there’s a choice to make you hold the right stick in the direction of your preferred option and then the game carries on. When you choose to interact with something you might press a face button or move the right stick in a particular way. If things speed up - you’re chasing someone or being chased by someone, then you get to partake in a QTE. Maybe you’re doing something particularly challenging too, like climbing a sheer rock face, and to illustrate best the terror, you get microseconds to press that damned Triangle button.
Alongside the collectibles which help flesh out the various story strands, there are so-called totems which hint at the future and if understood can help you in the game. You might see some gruesome death you can then try and avoid, or a relationship interaction which would benefit you if you made it happen. Another collectible basically but also useful for the story you choose to tell. Whilst telling that ripping yarn you’ll always be well catered for in the looks department - as Until Dawn is pretty basic in terms of game engine, at least to this observer, the visual quality is ramped up making things very pretty indeed. This is all helped by the mocap of the actors who look stunningly real, including Hayden Panettiere who will likely be the most noticeable to players, although some of the others will be known too.
Supermassive Games deserves credit here. The game began life as a PlayStation Move vehicle until it became pretty clear that wasn’t going to fly in this day and age. They went away and revised the whole thing, presenting the new-look game last year to fans excited by its potential. It’s safe to say that potential has been delivered and exceeded in many cases. What we have here is a fun story with enjoyable game mechanics and a true feeling of it being your story, with actual impactful choices lending a level of replayability unseen to date in similar games.