Until Dawn Review (PlayStation 4)
By now, we all know how slasher movies go. The blonde girl gets killed first, the black guy doesn’t last much longer, and only the Last Girl (and possibly her male love interest) lives long enough to see the credits roll. Why? Because these characters tend to make very bad decisions, and never seem to realize just what kind of movie they’re caught in. But you, dear player, you know better. You’d get everyone to the end of that slasher movie without breaking a sweat. Now’s your chance to put your blood money where your dismembered mouth used to be in Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn.
Until Dawn’s set-up is something we’ve seen in countless horror flicks: after a prank gone wrong leaves dead bodies behind, the group of prankster friends come back together on the one year anniversary of this mishap to atone for their misdeeds and celebrate the lives of their fallen friends. This group of eight good-looking teenagers contains all the stereotypical horror movie characters— the ditzy blonde, the bitchy girl, the jock, the nerd, the girl who’ll make it to the end of the movie because she’s more famous than everyone else. Here, however, the lives of these characters are entirely in your hands.
Until Dawn offers up a branching series of “Butterfly Effect” decisions which impact events down the line. Brush off one character in chapter two and they may not be inclined to believe you in chapter five, which means you’re all alone in chapter six and getting torn apart in seven. Since you play as each of the eight main characters (and since each- or all- of them can die on a given playthrough), this makes for tension the likes of which few games offer. In other horror games, if you screw up a section you can simply replay it right then and there; Until Dawn autosaves, so if you make a bad choice, you’re stuck with it until after you beat the game. While this makes for some seriously pulse-pounding moments, it can also lead to serious frustrations when characters die due to you picking the wrong option between two seemingly equal choices. By the end of the game, don’t be surprised if you’re both relieved and disappointed by how everything turned out— since anyone can live and anyone can die, sometimes you’re probably going to feel like a serious screw-up.
When you’re not watching a cutscene (or making decisions mid-cutscene), you’ll either be walking around looking for clues or reacting quickly to the countless quick-time events Until Dawn likes to throw at you. These QTEs are lightning-fast, trying to emulate the sort of panic the characters themselves feel in these situations. It’s a great idea, but for many players these QTEs are going to be just too fast; since they happen so rapidly and randomly, even gamers with finely-honed reaction times will miss some, and this can lead to unnecessary deaths. If you’re the kind of gamer who loves making tough decisions but lacks coordination, good luck. Not everything is left purely up to chance, however. Those who explore thoroughly will find Totems which provide tiny video clips of possible futures, helping guide you by offering vague, but generally helpful, tips. If a Totem shows you a character falling to his death, you’ll know to be more careful around that cliff. If another shows you not firing a gun, you’ll probably be better off not shooting when the time comes.
Seeing these characters suffer such painful deaths wouldn’t be such a big deal if they were just the kind of stock goobers we see in most horror movies, but each of the eight leads has more to offer than you’d expect. The characters each have a pretty good sense of humor and will get you to laugh and like them quickly, plus there’s a real sense of camaraderie here— this is a group of friends that feels like a real group of friends. And thanks to some excellent (albeit occasionally eerie) motion capture, Until Dawn’s cast is brought to life by a real cast of excellent actors, including Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Brett Dalton (Agents of Shield), and several other talented actors. Peter Stormare, who you’ll probably recognize as that guy from every movie, gives a particularly strong performance as a mercurial psychologist, bouncing from being mysterious to ominous to outright unhinged often in the same sentence. Stormare is fantastic and used just enough to have maximum impact in all of his scenes.
Until Dawn’s detailed backgrounds and motion-captured characters are generally easy on the eyes, though there are frequent frame rate issues which detract from the immersive beauty and horror of what you see. The aptly-named composer Jason Graves created a soundtrack wrought with tension, punctuating the action perfectly with discordant sounds to make your skin crawl and tragic chords mourning each lost character. The controls, however, don’t fare as well as the aesthetics. Your characters move excruciatingly slowly, and for a game built around the premise of enticing you to replay it to see how different decisions will play out, this is a serious oversight. Plus, while investigating things up close you have to use the R2 button and right stick in an incredibly uncooperative combination— don’t be surprised if you accidentally pick up and drop things repeatedly, or awkwardly twitch around while trying to look at something from just the right angle.
Ultimately, Until Dawn is a bold experiment that pays off far more than it doesn’t. Though the story’s set pieces are set, the outcomes are not, and if you’ve got the snooping skills to find all the totem guides, the reflexes to ace every QTE, and the luck to pick Hide instead of running away at the wrong time, everyone just might make it out alive. Clunky controls, occasional graphical issues, and brutally fast quick-time events mar the experience, and while most of your branching choices lead to logical conclusions, a few lead to frustratingly random outcomes. But, if you’re the type who likes to sit around with their friends screaming at how stupid the characters are in the movie, or if you’re tired of standard jump scares in most survival horror games, Until Dawn’s unique brand of storytelling makes for a gaming experience unlike any other.
This review was completed based on a purchased digital copy of Until Dawn for the PlayStation 4.