Until Dawn Review
Until Dawn is an interactive survival-horror story game for Playstation 4, developed by Supermassive Games and released on August 25, 2015. Until Dawn was originally slated for release on Playstation 3 with Playstation Move support, but was changed to a PS4 exclusive.
Each year, ten friends take a vacation at the mountain lodge owned by the Washington family. The games opens with the year that the two sisters, Hannah and Beth Washington tragically go missing. Saddened, but not willing to let a tragedy ruin their tradition, their surviving brother, Josh, invites the remaining friends back for their yearly retreat. Until Dawn follows the exploits of Josh, Sam, Emily, Matt, Jessica and Mike as they return to the lodge one year later. But, as is oft to happen in horror stories, the mountain isn't as it seems.
Until Dawn places the player in the shoes of each of the eight characters as they try to piece together the secrets of the mountain and figure out what is lurking up there with them.
Characters will explore various parts of the lodge, mountain and surrounding mines, inspecting items, navigating obstacles and, well, running for their damn lives.
When not being hunted by some ominous threat, the interaction that the player has with the game mirrors that which the characters have with the things around them. There's no fiddling with the camera as the angles are all fixed and movement, when you're allowed to control it, is as simple as pushing the left analog stick to walk. Narrative choices involve holding the right stick in a certain position until a icon fills. Despite the previously mentioned simplicity, one does not simply open a door in Until Dawn. You must push R2 to grip the handle and move the right stick to turn. One does not simply turn on a radio. Push R2 to push the power button. Once again, hold R2 to grab the knob and twirl that right stick to tune it. If you are in danger, every important action is reduced into a Quick Time Event – the prompt for which is placed at the appropriate locale in the scene. Need to grab a ledge? The prompt will appear there. Like not getting smacked with a shovel? Better press the button next to your head. One refreshing option, though, is a QTE that requires you to literally do nothing. The aptly named “Don't Move” events require the player to remain as still as possible. Hope you like not breathing.
Choices, choices, choices
As my professors tried to impress upon on me back in college, every game has to have that thing, or things, that makes it unique. Besides the “Don't Move” QTE, Until Dawn has a special class of collectibles, totem statues, and boasts its “Butterfly Effect” system that governs it's narrative choices.
Until Dawn isn't satisfied with merely asking its players to make choices. It's nice enough to throw you a bone and let you in on what's to come by way of the totems, should you be fortunate enough to find them, with varying degrees of usefulness. Totems are separated into five different categories, Death, Loss, Danger, Guidance and Fortune, and show the player a short portion of an event that may happen or a choice can be made. Once all are collected, they will reveal the backstory of this whole debacle.
The “Butterfly Effect” system, named after the popular misnomer that grew out of Chaos Theory, is the sister mechanic to the narrative choices offered in the game. This is accompanied by a character stat screen detailing things such as bravery, charity, honesty and their relationship status with the rest of the cast. Together, these two things help the player make sense of the numerous choices and events within the game.
Having breached the topic, lets address the elephant in the room. Until Dawn and games of its kind can easily fall prey to what many would consider frivolous choices that don't actually amount to much. Until Dawn avoids this illusion of choice by not trying to be more than it is. It, in no uncertain terms, points out that your actions and relationships all culminate in the life or death of the characters. All of your choices either affect your relationships, which can prove fatal later, or determine your mortality immediately.
Atmosphere: the atmosphere is great. It feels like a genuine horror movie. The fixed camera angles allow for some fun things like ominous moving shadows. The whole game takes place during the night (thus the moniker “X hours until dawn”) so environments have their fair share of dark, damp, cramped corridors. There are enough straight examples and subversions of the jumpscare trope to keep the player on their toes
Totems and Butterfly Effect: The meta elements meant for the player are a nice touch. Having a file cabinet organizer for my choices in game helps to suss out what choices are relevant to each other and which aren't.
Sluggishness and QTE sensitivity: The characters usually move at a leisurely pace. While not infuriatingly slow, you may find yourself concluding your input before the characters respond, leading to characters running into walls or only half completing an interaction before resetting (e.g. someone grabbing the door knob then, instead of turning it, letting it go). Furthermore, if you're not careful, “Don't Move” QTEs can catch the player mid movement. It would be nice to have a few seconds to prepare first.
Script blemishes: There are a few choices in the game whose consequences seem a tad bit contrived. They are definitely “guide dang it“ moments that will make sense in hindsight, but are hard to navigate through without prior knowledge. More importantly though, due to the nature of the game, plot armor is much more apparent than it would be had this been a movie. Anyone, and everyone, can die but not until they've made whatever plot contribution they're destined to make. After that, unfortunately, certain characters plot presence starts to dwindle to the point of them merely being present in the scenes – especially the final one. I have a few thoughts of how this could be alleviated that I'll share separately.
All in all, Until Dawn is a beautiful, satisfying experience. This game is literally the reason I purchased a PS4 and I wasn't disappointed. Telltale games seems to have had a lock on this genre for the last couple years. While I enjoyed the Wolf Among Us, I must admit that Until Dawn felt a bit more refined. I was right at home playing this and I welcome this new offering to the genre. Despite it's flaws, I would definitely recommend Until Dawn and happily await what's next from Supermassive.