Until Dawn is the big budget interactive teen slasher movie you’ve always wanted
There’s something unique about Supermassive Games’ interactive horror experience, Until Dawn. While games that came before it have attempted to infuse tension with gameplay sections that require quick decision making and urgency, there’s nothing quite like an entire 10-hour experience in which you know something bad could happen at any time. Until Dawn is an interactive survival horror experience.
Over the course of several chapters, you play as each of eight friends trapped inside a mountain retreat in the middle of a snowstorm. As you would expect, there’s someone (or something) out to get them, and it’s your job to see them through the night. Or you can choose to do the opposite and orchestrate each of their gruesome deaths. You know, for funsies. Gameplay in Until Dawn is fairly straightforward. There’s a lot of exploring, finding collectibles and clues that talk more about the game’s universe, which I must add, is fairly deep for a game of this type. There’s a lot of back story about the town, its people, and the events that have led to our protagonists’ predicament. Then there are situations that require quick decisions to be taken – again, fairly straightforward.
Simple and unique
There are times when you’ll be able to take your own sweet time to pick conversation choices and times when your decision will result in a character living or dying. All your decisions have an impact on the game’s story and characters (literally every choice you make, even if minor), there are some key ones which have the chance to trigger a ‘butterfly effect’, or major change to the storyline. Since Until Dawn has so many branching paths based on who lives and who dies, your play-through is likely to be unique. Which brings me to the QTEs, and boy, are there a lot of them. Most of the game’s tension filled set pieces require matching of button prompts all while the director is shaking the hell out of the camera, which adds to the tension, but doesn’t make life any easier for the player.
Finally, there’s some target acquisition and trigger pulling involved, and there’s something strangely interesting about the game’s gunplay. It involves aiming with the right stick and pulling the trigger, but you don’t always have to indulge the game’s button prompt. You’re probably better off exercising restraint on occasion to guarantee survival, because, Karma. Expect to be making a ton of choices in Until Dawn, and always expect even the seemingly dumbest choice to have major consequences. This, unfortunately, is the game’s main issue. While the game lets you take both the director’s lens and viewer’s couch, for the most part, it doesn’t let you have it both ways. It’s much easier to let one of your eight stooges die than save them, and with the inability to replay a section or chapter until you’ve completed the whole game, this means that your poor decision making or lack of twitch reflexes to press Triangle when the game asks you, could result in your favourite character meeting his or her gruesome end in the matter of milliseconds. While I can understand the design decision from a creative standpoint, it should be pretty obvious that players don’t want to fail, even in a game of this type.
Choice and consequence
The issue is compounded by the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of trial and error involved as well—for instance there’s a chase sequence in which making one incorrect path choice (out of six or seven) could result in a character being caught. Then right at the end, the fate of one of the characters hinges entirely on finding two clues through exploration. This might be asking for too much, but a system of an interplay between the game’s systems would have been a welcome feature.
For instance, find clues, gather facts to make decisions, and include some skill based gameplay rather than QTE driven live-or-die set pieces. Make no mistake, Until Dawn puts the ‘Triple A’ in ‘Triple-A Production Values’. While the voice acting does tremendous justice to the writing and story, the characters are spitting images of their real-world counterparts. The cast is chalk-full of celebrity talent, featuring Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), Brett Dalton (Agents of SHIELD) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) among others. Yes, there’s some uncanny valley stuff going on here, particularly when characters emote in an unrealistic/disturbing fashion, while frame rate drops are apparent outdoors or when there are several particle effects on screen, but even these can’t take away from the visual bar set by this game.
More good than bad
Until Dawn thrives on atmosphere and jump scares, and the audio delivers—be it the distant howls of god-knows-what amidst a snowstorm, or the creaking metal sounds of a structure on the verge of collapse followed by (spoiler alert!) the chaotic loudness of the collapse itself. The game features wide audio dynamic range to accommodate the calm before the storm as well as the storm itself – while attempting to jump scare the pants off the faint hearted somewhere in between.
All things considered, there’s some mileage to be got out of Until Dawn even if you have a passing interest in slasher movies and are looking for a game that’s a little different from the usual Triple-A fare. It excels as a tech demo and is not the worst way to spend a night or two in front of your big screen TV with the lights off. Just don’t expect The Last of Us.
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