Until Dawn is a horror/adventure game which plays like something akin to a Telltale or Quantic Dream game. Supermassive Games, previously known for developing downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet and a small selection of augmented reality games, has crafted a tight and satisfying experience where your choices really matter.
The game follows eight characters as they travel to a cabin in the forested mountains one year after a backfired prank led to the death of two of their friends. As soon as your characters arrive, it’s clear that something is “off”, with threatening graffiti and wanted posters in evidence around the property. It’s your job to guide your characters through the night as events take an inevitable turn for the worse. There are lots of influences to Until Dawn’s story, and the game pretty much wears them on its sleeve with nods to Saw, Halloween, Evil Dead, and The Descent, amongst myriad other references. Influences aside, though, Until Dawn’s narrative manages to take itself to interesting places, with the several mysteries introduced from the very start of the game tying together and emerging in a satisfying way.
Until Dawn plays like a modern adventure game. It knows where its various mechanics come from, but uses them cleverly and knows how to turn its genre to its advantage. Game sequences tend to take the form of either making binary choices in interactive cutscenes (for instance whether to take a safe path through a forest or a potentially risky shortcut), or walking around as your currently-controlled character picking up tools and clues to move the story on. While the “walky” bits are littered with interesting clues and totems, which provide a small premonition about an upcoming event to help you make the “right” decision, the real draw of the game comes from the way that your choices affect the characters and story direction. You can very easily make a seemingly-innocuous decision which leads to good or ill for your characters down the line; the game even has a “Butterfly Effect” feature to help you keep track of your actions and how they’ve affected future occurrences.
Sometimes, though, the consequences of a decision can be more immediate and deadly. All of the characters that you control can be alive or dead at the end of the game, and it’s much harder than initially thought to keep everyone alive till the end. It often helps to have a knowledge of the horror genre: horror and common sense fans will likely know that the correct answer to “Investigate the noise, or rejoin the group?” is “Of course I’m not splitting off from the group. What am I, a moron?”. Not that all decisions are informed by trope awareness; often the game just needs you to read the situation correctly. For instance, if you’re controlling someone that’s not in great physical condition, maybe they should hide from an approaching threat rather than try to outrun it; I learned this the hard way.
The balance between both immediate and far-reaching consequences of your actions as well as the interactive cut scenes means that Until Dawn has a fantastic sense of tension to it. You’re never quite sure if an upcoming decision or small failure will spell death for one of your characters, and the atmosphere this creates is simply palpable. In some sections, you’re required to make tough, on-the-spot decisions, react to QTEs, and, making interesting use of the motion sensor in the PS4 controller, hold your control pad still in order to not be found by your pursuer. Juggling all these gameplay elements while trying to guess which decisions are most beneficial informed by totems and clues build up a well-rounded, intelligent game.
Aside from its well realised mechanics, Until Dawn is brought to life with superb graphics, especially in the capture of the performances of the actors. I often found myself very impressed by the subtle facial expressions showcased by the characters, with only brief dips into the uncanny valley. Overall the level of performance by the actors was excellent, although a couple of lines are a little bit hokey and stilted (for example, “what did our naive sister get herself into now?”). Sound design is well utilised, particularly in the creation of a tense atmosphere and accentuating jump-scares with playful stabs of the soundtrack. Special mention must go to the game’s theme song “O Death”, which sets the atmosphere of the game beautifully over the intro sequence.
I think what’s most interesting about Until Dawn is how the modern adventure game format so well suits it as a horror story. We’ve all watched schlocky horror films and shouted at the characters on-screen, and now you can put your money where your mouth is. I can imagine it’d be a fun group evening, passing the controller with character switches and either trying to keep everyone alive or driving everyone to a disaster-strewn death. It is truly fun, interesting and engaging to play the director in this game’s narrative.
Until Dawn is a slickly presented slice of modern horror with well-written characters ably acted, an engaging story, engrossing gameplay mechanics and a fascinating atmosphere.
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