Game system: PS4
Developer: Supermassive Games
Date of Release: August 25, 2015
Summary: When eight friends become trapped on a remote mountain getaway gone wrong, things quickly turn sinister and they start to suspect they are not alone. Gripped by fear and with tensions in the group running high, you will be forced to make snap decisions that could mean life or death for everyone involved. Every choice you make while playing as each of the eight friends – even the seemingly trivial ones – will carve out your own unique story.
Review: 4 out of 5 Dogwoods
At its best, Until Dawn is a gleefully cheesy homage to horror movies. The choices you make in Until Dawn have more far-reaching consequences than in most other survival horror games: the butterfly effect it so heavily relies upon is highly effective, adding weight to seemingly innocuous choices and creating a game that feeds into player paranoia of making the wrong choice. Couple this with the game’s tongue-in-cheek exploitation of horror slasher film tropes – including over-the-top gore and flirty teenagers – and you have an enjoyable experience controlling your own 1980s horror film parody. Despite some ugly visuals, Until Dawn delivers an engaging experience where story and controls meld for powerful meaning.
Developer Supermassive Games has threaded horror slasher movie cliches into Until Dawn’s set-up and amplified them to extreme degrees. Eight attractive teenagers, all fulfilling different horror movie stereotypes and all played with great gusto by a well-rounded cast, have gathered together to “party like porn stars” to mark the one year anniversary of the mysterious disappearance of two of their friends in the surrounding woods in a remote cabin on top of a snowy mountain that can only be accessed by an unreliable cable car. The party soon turns into a complete disaster; within an hour, everything goes to hell as a feral creature and a masked madman begin terrorizing the teens.
Between each in-game chapter, you visit a mysterious psychiatrist where you, controlling an unknown person, answer the analyst’s questions, all of which revolve around what scares you and how you feel about each of the characters. You are asked to choose between spiders and snakes, needles and gore, and clowns and zombies. This is the game’s way of setting up the horror story you will experience, placing needles or knives into the hands of your attackers and throwing out elements that the game knows will scare you.
Until Dawn’s game world is small, but Supermassive has made it as entertainingly hostile as possible. Its beautifully detailed cabin is huge, cold, and full of secrets, while the surrounding area features a sanatorium with a large morgue, an abandoned mine shaft, and a range of aggressive wildlife. This bitter landscape is filmed with a keen eye on isolation, and Until Dawn does a great job at encouraging the sense that you are always being watched through high angles, tracking shots, and darkening/low lit settings.
It is a ridiculous place to spend any length of time, of course, and during its first half Until Dawn really revels in the slasher genre’s idiosyncratic idiocy. Characters take baths with their headphones in; couples go to dangerous lengths to have sex; everybody seems to think scaring the hell out of each other is really ‘fun.’ I enjoyed Until Dawn’s familiarity, from the dumb jock arguing with the bad boy over the queen bee to Hayden Panettiere’s character being stuck in a towel for half the run-time.
I do not want to downplay how seriously scary Until Dawn is, despite its gleeful abuse of slasher film tropes. I screamed and jumped throughout the entire game; my heart raced and my palms got sweaty. Supermassive has an excellent handle on the visual language of horror movies, and Until Dawn is at its most scary when a character is ever so slowly backing out of a doorway or approaching a rattling trap door.
Your goal is to save as many characters as you can over the evening as possible, and every decision they make under your control shapes their fates. Small choices will have major consequences in future events. Bend a weapon out of shape? Do not expect to have it later when you are under attack. Be cruel to another character? You won’t have his support when you need it the most.
Some decisions I made in Until Dawn had minor consequences, some left me genuinely shocked, and all felt satisfyingly connected to an action I had made. I played through twice to mess around with its systems, and was delighted to find new storylines and information I had missed the first time around by choosing different options. By attaching the branching narrative to not one but eight separate characters, you have a massive playground on which to control your own horror story.
Once you make these choices, there is no rewinding. Only when you beat the game can you go back to the beginning or restart from later, individual chapters. The aggressive save feature prevents you from undoing anything, forcing you to live with the choices you make. It is a courageous move locking players into choices in such a far-flung branching narrative, but it is a move that makes the narrative-and your experience controlling it-more powerful.
Some of Until Dawn’s most thrilling moments came when I was being pursued and had to make split-second decisions on my method of escape, all the while trying not to fumble at a prompt which would result in my immediate capture or death. I also loved Until Dawn’s use of the DualShock 4 controller’s gyroscope feature. One command requires you hold the controller still while hiding from an attacker. You are frequently given the option to run or hide; in the latter, if you jostle the controller even a little, you will be caught, and like every other decision in this game it could mean death. During these segments I began holding my breath and it pulled me deeper into the experience of the game. On top of it all is a chilling soundtrack by Dead Space composer Jason Graves, which crescendos and subsides to highlight panic, terror, and anguish.
Less than an hour in, I was already hoping certain characters would just die already. But when one of my favorite characters died halfway through, I found it hard to continue. Until Dawn does that to you: each character has a distinct, fleshed-out personality and with their fate completely in your hands, it is difficult not to get wrapped up in the moment-to-moment when protecting your chosen ones.
Until Dawn is a fun experience. It is an entertaining homage to the traditions of horror movies which pays off your in-game decisions with occasionally shocking consequences. This is a horror game you should not miss.