A stone cold killer
I’m honestly at a loss with words from Until Dawn, a title that was admittedly on my radar but exceeded my expectations entirely. For the next few minutes, I shall sing its well-deserved praise as I feel many will overlook this underrated title; it’s not the greatest game ever made, undoubtedly lacking innovative qualities in the gameplay department and will be a polarizing topic in the discussion on what constitutes as a game, but when perceived with the right intentions and understanding its true nature and intent, Until Dawn is an amazing title that successfully achieves what it set off to do, it’s engaging, thrilling, intuitive, and most importantly, it’s scary. Until Dawn is a successful homage to the tried and true formula of the stereotypical slasher film genre, mirroring the likes of the iconic Scream series, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the recent classic, Cabin in the Woods. Every single trope, stereotype, plot twist and staple that are affiliated with the genre is present and developer Supermassive Games flaunt each idiosyncrasy with the utmost confidence which in return shows that game is, in and of itself, aware of these idiosyncrasies and further enhances its success. Until Dawn impressively weaves player choice into the overarching narrative with a unique “Butterfly Effect” system which will have small or, what would seem to be, insignificant decisions affecting certain outcomes of the story and determining the fate of corresponding characters. All 8 main characters can be killed or saved based on the vast number of decisions you make throughout your experience, and unlike many other games with similar intentions, Until Dawn’s decisions bare significant weight as the results are extraordinarily haunting and can shift relationships and interactions into multiple directions. Yes the story and characters can be one-dimensional and predictable at times, but this campy nature is part of Until Dawn’s identity and instead of desperately trying to justify it, Supermassive Games just owns it, not second guessing their intent for one second. Until Dawn is not a game for everybody though, at its core, it’s an interactive horror flick merging with the ideologies of a “choose your own adventure book”, the only instances of gameplay are the interactions which create those decisions. If you strongly detest the interactive gaming experience, then this title won’t change your mind, but if you’re a little more open-minded to its intent, then Until Dawn might surprise you. Although it may be too presumptuous of a statement, Until Dawn is the Heavy Rain of this generation and collects all the best parts from its inspirations, creating a wonderful experience.
Until Dawn follows the bare boned template of a typical teen slasher narrative; a group of friends hold a reunion gathering atop a secluded mountain lodge, exactly one year after a tragedy that befell two lives after a prank gone wrong. Does this all sound familiar? Well that’s because it’s supposed to. The narrative was written to be the embodiment of an archetypal slasher plot, so if it treads onto familiar grounds, then it’s simply doing its job. The perspective shifts between eight different characters, who must survive against a malevolent force that wishes to pick them off, one by one. The story is fairly well written overall, including the occasional plot twist or two that will undoubtedly turn some heads; there’s no denying that Supermassive’s fruit of labour is dripping with tension and commitment thus creating such a gripping, interactive experience like no other. The latter half of the narrative does take a slight 180 with its thematic nature and could possibly turn off some players as it begins to stray from the well-crafted slasher world that Supermassive created so meticulously. I, myself, welcomed the change in exposition as it brought along new unimaginable horrors, while retaining that brilliant sense of uncertainty and tension that Until Dawn rigorously built thus far. I personally wished that the story was more flexible to branching paths and even though our decisions slightly alter the course of events, player choice predominantly dictates the fate of our protagonists. Though this revelation was slightly disappointing, it never detracted from the excellent experience that ensued. The story is told through an episodic medium that feels rather disjointed and misplaced. Until Dawn feels like a campy horror film, not a television series; episodes will rarely ever end on an enticing cliff-hanger and each episode begins with a redundant “previously on Until Dawn” graphic that feels out of character and unnecessary. While the core story remains fairly stagnant for each playthrough, character relationships and interactions remain to be the varying factor, fluctuating key events. Through Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect mechanic, the choices you make throughout your experience will gradually change certain characters’ perspective on you, whether good or bad, which may or may not lead to certain scenarios that can present fortunate or hostile possibilities. Until Dawn’s heavy emphasis on character interaction also works in its favor. Many horror titles focus on the unsettling nature of their respective narrative and dreary atmosphere, while character development admittedly takes a back seat. While Until Dawn does take a visual and audio cue from the typical eerie foundation that we’ve come to expect, character turning points play a prominent role, having their very own persona drastically change throughout the experience, which provokes further attachment and melancholy when faced with life threatening choices, a fear not commonly found in horror games past and present. Characters are created with shallow and clichéd intentions in mind, so don’t be put off by their initial one dimensional nature as they were created to be just that, living embodiments of each horror stereotype. Witnessing a typical repugnant character become a dependable leader and unsung hero, only to be shredded into tiny bits and pieces is a tragedy that you, the player, let happen and this effect on choice and consequence is what truly sets Until Dawn apart from the competition. Of the four characters that I got killed, I was extremely saddened by the death of certain characters as I grew attached to them and their corresponding relationships. Each death was my fault and mine alone; the tragedies could’ve been avoided if I hadn’t acted hastily and given Until Dawn’s “tough love” treatment, every decision I made was final and couldn’t be altered. All I could do was continue and live with the regret that followed each poor decision which cost the lives of my two favourite characters. None of this really matters if Until Dawn fails to bring the signature scares of a horror medium. So is Until Dawn scary? Absolutely. The true heart of Until Dawn’s terror lies within the dreadful unknown and its uncertainty. Yes the plethora of jump scares and unsettling figures prove unnerving enough, but like any other successful horror medium, it preys on the imaginative possibilities floating around in your mind. The daunting environment, dreary sound design, and feeling of uncertainty all culminate as one to distill a profound sense of terror that will leave you paranoid and your heart continuously racing with anxiety until the very end. Not knowing what lies behind that corner is the greatest fear of all.
Aesthetically, Until Dawn successfully captures the essence of a campy 90’s slasher film. The dreary uncertainty captured by the opaque fog, the open ended threats that permeate throughout dangerous locales, and the sparse lighting that is second to none, all of which intensifies the horrific nature of a simple jump scare. Attention to detail is also a forte of Until Dawn; character models and facial animations are extraordinarily realistic, giving LA Noire a run for its money, and technical effects such as the accumulated foot prints in the snow or the simplicity of a flickering light are greatly appreciated, showing the amount of love and dedication that went into this project. Any medium of horror is not complete without an appropriate musical score accompanied by bombastic sound design. Until Dawn’s sound direction is absolutely stellar, and truly highlights the sheer talent that’s composed at Supermassive Games. The score, which is immaculately conjured by the illustrious Jason Graves, is drastically eerie and will undoubtedly make your skin crawl, cranking your anxiety up to eleven. Audio cues are also masterfully placed and well timed, increasing the tension and paranoia of the player, for the imminent scare around the corner. Every jump scare would’ve been rendered futile if it weren’t for the excellent sound work that accompanies each tantalizing instance. Character performances have a similar grade in quality although certain roles lack a sense of consistency. Hayden Panettiere, for instance, does impressive work as a strongly independent female lead while Nichole Bloom’s portrayal of Emily seems unbelievable and too over the top for my liking. Supermassive meticulously crafted this immaculate sense of immersion and it’s such a shame that poor performances are enough to break down their hard work. Until Dawn’s presentation is perfect for what it builds itself up to be; it aims to be a cinematic, interactive horror experience and succeeds with flying colours. Yes the story may be extremely unrealistic and even downright ridiculous at certain points, but this is a well-known custom of the horror genre, regardless of its medium. Understand what you’re getting yourself into and keep your expectations leveled, and I’m certain that you’ll have a thrilling experience like no other.
Admittedly, Until Dawn’s amount to gameplay is rather sparse when interpreted through traditional means; in a manner similar to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, Until Dawn will have you control the respective character of each chapter as you meticulously explore certain areas and points of interest in order to drive the narrative forward. Interaction with certain items will either reveal further exposition that enriches the narrative, provide an uncomfortably well-timed jump scare, or unlock clues that shed light on the mystery that surrounds you. Finding clues which reveal the truth about the tragic events one year ago, the mysterious psycho-killer, and peculiar events that took place on this very mountain back in the 1950’s add context and a sense of revelation to the overall story resulting in a more coherent and fleshed out experience. Characters can also find and collect a vast array of totems which will provide guidance on this daunting nightmare. Certain colour totems can show you how your current character can possibly die, possible guidance on how to avoid unpleasantries, and ways to achieve the best possible outcome. It’s not necessarily a straight-cut guide to the best ending, but it may surprise and aid you in moments of need. Now the lack of traditional gameplay might put off some as it may seem limited, resulting in a watch rather than play assumption, but I surprisingly liked the lack of gameplay. The lack of traditional gameplay structure resulted in a heavier emphasis on the gripping narrative, character interactions, decision making, painful outcomes, and the game’s overall intensity, all of which are highlighted strengths of Until Dawn. Decisions are made in a number of ways that are simple to comprehend; whether you like them or not, quick time events play a prominent role in Until Dawn as they are frequently used during intensely, frantic sequences. At certain points throughout your experience, you’ll be stumped with a dilemma and must choose between two options, which could start a ripple of effects that could jeopardize relationships that you have built and lead to unfortunate events, so be sure to choose wisely. Although choices can be selected through the motion advancements of the Dualshock 4, I personally opted out on this option and decided to stick with the traditional controls of the trusted analog stick. At certain points, players will be tasked with shooting, attacking, or throwing objects at particular points of interest, however the omission of proper inversion control make these instances extremely dangerous and could result in potential character death if not handled with care. Other scenarios will require you to “stay still” in order to avoid immediate detection, which proved to be unbelievably tense thanks to the bombastic sound of your constant heartbeat and high pitched musical cues. There’s no comparative intensity on par with the desperate struggle to keep the controller idle since your character’s fate can be determined by this very moment. It may evoke a trivial nature at first but trust me when I say that a good couple of characters could meet their doom from this mechanic alone. So Until Dawn’s take on gameplay is all a matter of perspective, it may seem absent-minded and nonexistent at times, but I found that the idiosyncratic gameplay and tense nature of this obscenely crafted world worked beautifully hand in hand, and helped shape Until Dawn into the horrific experience it wanted to be. Lastly, Until Dawn includes a fourth wall experiment that will shape the horrors of your experience, based on the answers you give when psychologically evaluating your fears. Portraying the aesthetic of a therapist’s office, these segments are undoubtedly intriguing and slightly change the environment based on your answers, ultimately using your own fears against you. Even though these experiments prove to be questionable and narratively confusing, the fourth wall segments begin to make more relevant sense as the story progresses.
Until Dawn is a peculiar work of art as it rose up from development hell and committed to delivering a horror experience like no other. The vast majority perceived the game to be anything from good to great, but I found the experience to be amazing and was invigorated for every second of it; yes I wish my choices had a greater effect on the over-arching narrative and certain plot points and gameplay mechanics frustrated me, but none of these detracted from the gripping sensation that Until Dawn brilliantly weaved. My playthrough clocked in at about 7-8 hours, which may seem to shift onto the shorter scale of things, but this is a game that is ripe with possibility and is begging to be played over and over again. After just finishing my second playthrough, I can confirm that plenty of tragic instances are waiting to unfold, further discoveries surrounding the horrific mystery can change certain outcomes, and dictating the fate of all eight characters is a profound sense of responsibility. Did you want to sacrifice it all and watch each of them die tragically, one by one? Well, you can. Did you want to become a saint and be their saving grace, having them all live to tell the tale? There’s nothing stopping you from doing that. Are you fed up with the pretentious, superficial princess and want to see her meet her gruesome demise? Then by all means my cynical friend. Until Dawn allows you to, essentially, play as god and pull the corresponding strings of each character, it’s evidently intriguing to test out all of the possibilities and see how a simple mistake made early on could unknowingly trigger a character’s death towards the endgame. Watching certain friendships mutate and decay, and having romance blossom from unrequited love are events that were only possible through my decisions and though these choices effect the characters more so than the story, it’s still a rewarding sensation nonetheless. Until Dawn is one of the best modern horror titles to date and an interactive experience that continues the legacy that Quantic Dream started with Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls. Absolutely terrifying from start to finish, Until Dawn quickly crawled its way onto my “favourite horror games of all time” list. If you own a PS4 and happen to be a fan of quality horror titles, then there is absolutely no reason to not pick up Until Dawn, as it may also be the last good PS4 exclusive of 2015.