On the face of it, Until Dawn might look like a bog-standard horror game indulging in far too many genre tropes for its own good, and in some ways, it is; from the masked antagonist to the recognisable set-up (eight friends, remote cabin etc), it’s not a narrative that’ll leave fans or casual dabblers of the genre in awe. But in some ways, it doesn’t need to. By allowing the player to control what happens to this hapless set of teenagers through quick time events, dialogue choices and your own potentially morbid desires, developer Supermassive games have crafted a clever, interactive and thoroughly engaging game.
As mentioned, the set-up isn’t anything out of the ordinary. After the mysterious deaths of his sisters a year earlier, bright young thing Josh invites seven friends back up to his family’s remote mountain cabin to mark the occasion. If you’re thinking this is a recipe for disaster, then give yourself a pat on the back, as a maelstrom of crap is most certainly on its way, although not before a relatively quiet first few hours. This slow start might prove too uneventful for some but it’s somewhat vital to the experience, with the game introducing its mechanics and fleshing out its key players. Without delving too deeply into this (at first glance) clichéd ragtag bunch of sexual promiscuity and overt bro-ness, Until Dawn does quite a decent job of developing each of the main cast to the point where your initial, unflattering first impressions are challenged, which will certainly make your experience of playing the game more interesting given that their lives are constantly in your hands.
Which is great, considering that death is very much the game’s central theme. The intricacies of Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect system might seem slightly pretentious in the game’s opening explanation, but it has the stones to back it up; plenty of your actions during the game will have significant consequences further down the line. It pushes your perception of what doing the right thing in certain situations actually means, and puts you on the spot on several occasions where your choice could well result in one or more fatalities. The beauty of it is that through careful planning, you can tailor the experience to suit your own desires. If you fancy saving some of these characters but not others, you can. If total preservation is your thing then there’s a way that every character can last the night, or if you’re feeling particularly masochistic then there are a handful of ways for each character to die before the sun rises, each death scene more grizzly and graphic than the last.
Thankfully, Until Dawn doesn’t overdo it in that sense. This is absolutely a horror game and you’re never that far from a gory moment or two depending on your choices once you’re a good few hours in, but they’re not used to excess. The game’s actually more effective when it’s trying to make you uneasy, anyway, with much of its running time dedicated to exploring dark corridors and environments which only exacerbates the sense that something terrible is always lurking around the corner, even when it isn’t.
As mentioned, this story won’t be remembered as one of Unit Dawn’s strongest elements. The intention appears to have been to set up a somewhat generic horror tale but with the added spice of directing what happens to the cast, and Supermassive Games have absolutely succeeded in that respect partially because of how carefully they’ve crafted their gameplay. It’s not particularly difficult by any stretch of the imagination, mostly boiling down to walking, using the right stick to select conversation options and interacting with the 100+ clues scattered around the game’s environments with plenty of prophetic totems awaiting discovery and offering guidance or warnings of upcoming danger.
In the game’s more high-pressured moments, control of movement is taken away with your ability to react to quick time events or holding your controller incredibly still during moments of tremendous peril determining your success (if you feel like succeeding, of course). In some ways, it’s welcome that the game doesn’t demand too much from the player in these tense scenarios purely because it spends so much time trying to unsettle you, what with its lack of light in almost every single building you enter, from log cabins to cable car shacks to signal towers. Elsewhere, the constant use off snow and shadow add a real menace to a forest that you’ll find yourself wandering or stumbling through on more than one occasion, with its ever-present layer of darkness creating a suffocating atmosphere.
It’s a great package, to be honest. The presumably extensive motion capture work carried out in order to bring the main cast to life has yielded a great, natural looking game with sharp facial animations and believable performances, which only adds to the high level of presentation. It’s a bloody, tense and frequently satisfying 10-12 hours, despite the well-trodden ground that its story treads. The thrill of guiding these characters through it is probably Until Dawn’s greatest triumph, and its ability to make even the smallest decision feel like it carries some weight (which it frequently does) gives it plenty of replay value. On the downside, the inclusion of so many collectibles does dilute those tense periods of exploration and stretches the scares out somewhat, and whilst the ability to replay the story’s ten episodes in any order after your initial playthrough is welcome, having to sit through every cutscene and piece of dialogue again without the ability to skip them is a brutal, enjoyment-sapping decision. Still, once you work past the generic set up and get to grips with your role of story tinkerer, you’re offered one of the most rewarding and downright enjoyable experiences on PS4.