The following game is not for the faint of heart. ‘Until Dawn’ is an interactive movie, much in the same vein as titles such as ‘Heavy Rain’ or ‘Beyond Two Souls’ only this time it’s a game based in the horror genre. Light on gameplay and heavy on story, ‘Until Dawn’ will test your nerve and ability to make decisions under pressure, all to answer one simple question. Do you have what it takes to survive a horror movie?
Note: I will be covering the story up until the end of the tutorial (the first five to ten minutes of gameplay), after which this review will remain as spoiler free as possible.
The story begins in a luxury cabin high up on an isolated snowy mountain, where a group of teenagers are spending a drunken weekend. Two of the young ladies (sisters, Hannah and Beth) end up running off into the night after the group played a cruel practical joke on Hannah. Hannah fled the house in embarrassment with a concerned Beth in pursuit, only for them to end up going missing.
Fast forward a year and the girls have still not been heard from (presumed dead). In an attempt to help the group move forward and deal with their grief, another weekend break has been planned at the cabin by their brother ‘Josh’. Not long after the group arrive all manner of spooky occurrences begin to happen. After a number of unpleasant encounters ranging from suspecting stalking to the paranormal, the group soon come to the conclusion that they are all in danger and need to survive ‘until dawn’ before they can be rescued.
You play the game from the perspective of all eight of the main characters. The character you control will alternate depending on how the story is progressing. The game revolves around a branching path system which has been labeled as ‘the butterfly effect’. The way you handle situations and the choices you make have an impact on character statistics and ultimately which path the story heads down. There are several situations throughout the game where each of the characters will be placed in peril, as such it’s possible for all eight of the characters to die before the game’s conclusion. The aim of the game is to try and get all eight of the characters to survive ‘until dawn’ (or failing that, as many as you can).
Being an interactive movie, the gameplay itself is kept relatively simple. A lot of the game is spent exploring the cabin and various neighboring locations. You interact with clues and limited inventory items, although the items you pick up are usually used and disposed of within minutes of finding them. During action sequences there are usually quick time events and occasional targeting segments where a target and crosshair will appear on screen. You’ll be given a short period of to choose which target you would like to shoot in these situation.
Providing you are comfortable with quick time events you should have no problem handling this game. The action sequences are all relatively easy to deal with. The bulk of the challenge actually comes from the decisions you make. You need to be smart, have your wits about you and pay close attention to what people are saying. One badly judged decision in the heat of the moment is all it takes for a character to die.
‘Until Dawn’ is an incredible game with a lot of atmosphere. Sure, there have been survival horror games in the past such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but by focusing less on conventional game play mechanics and more on the story / dialogue we end up with something closer to a cliché horror movie. All of the classic elements are here from the Evil Dead influenced cabin in the woods, the Friday 13th inspired teenagers, the Saw inspired mini games, the Poltergeist style aberrations, the Sinister like jump scares. There is so much horror fodder rolled into this package.
Horror games have become very popular recently, especially since the rise of Twitch and other live streaming services. Titles such as ‘Five Night’s at Freddy’s’ pride themselves on their ability to create tension in players and make them jump with sharp scares. However this is the first time I’ve seen such a horror game on such a grand scale, with full motion capturing, voice acting and really high quality 3D graphics. If anyone was left hanging after Silent Hill’s Playable Trailer then I seriously recommend taking a look at this.
One aspect of this game that I really like is the inclusion of a psychiatrist who speaks to you between chapters. Seemingly breaking the forth wall, this character will engage with you and ask you a series of questions in an attempt to get inside your head. These segments made me feel really uneasy, as if I was being toyed with by the developers. It really had me on edge and is a testament as to how well designed this game is.
For the most part the graphics are of a very high standard. This game boasts fully motion captured cut scenes during dialogue segments, really well detailed character models, dramatic lighting, realistic shadows, and really nice weather effects. There are terrific particle effects for the snow and even dust in well lit areas. As far as the quality of building interiors and the tunnel complexes go, they do not seem to be far away from decent PS3 titles, but that’s still pretty good in my eyes. There were points while I was exploring where the characters facial expressions looked a little ‘derpy’ for lack of a better word, but on the whole the graphics really helped to keep me immersed in the experience.
As for the sound, I was very pleased that there are separate sliders in the settings menu. This allowed me to adjust the volumes of the dialogue, music and sound effects separately. I took it upon myself to turn down the music and sound effects just a touch in order to favor the dialogue and help me pay closer attention to what was being said. The game doesn’t have “music” as much as it has atmospheric, ambient noise.
There is only one story mode which lasts around 8 to 10 hours. Once you have reached the end of the campaign you have the option of replaying specific chapters in order to mop up collectables or play around with the branching paths. Depending on how well you do, you may wish to consider starting the game from the beginning to experiment with different choices and hopefully improve your ending. It is not impossible to get the best ending on your first attempt although judging from current the trophy statistics it is proving to be very unlikely. If you wish to explore the various possibilities for outcomes, find all the clues / collectables or even earn all the trophies then you can end up potentially tripling your game time.
Any problems I had with this game are superficial in the grand scheme, although I did find player movement to be very stiff and slow. You play the game from a variety of fixed camera perspectives, which is understandable as giving a player too much control could potentially remove the player’s feeling of vulnerability or even telegraph the jump scares. However, this combined with the extremely stiff turning controls make you feel as if you’re playing a PS1 game. I found that I couldn’t turn from a standing position and had to take two paces forward before I could bend left or right. Also if there is half an inch of banister obstructing you then you won’t be going anywhere. On one occasion it took me almost a minute just to navigate around some furniture.
One other small criticism I have is that there is a short recap of event between episodes. I like how the game is split into manageable episodes and I actually think that the inclusion of a recap is a good idea, but only if I was coming back to the game at a later date. Since I marathoned through the game in a single sitting I actually found these recaps to be interrupting. I think an opportunity to ‘continue without the recap’ or ‘save and exit’ between chapters would have worked a little better.
Overall I think ‘Until Dawn’ is a terrific game. Given that it is story driven in nature I’m guessing it will not stand the test of time in the same way that ‘Doom’ or ‘Resident Evil’ has, however it is certainly a gem of its time. If you enjoy horror of any type, be it in the form of games or movies then I can highly recommend buying, renting or borrowing this game. Whatever you have to do to get your hands on it, it is well worth playing.
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