Until Dawn Review
Teen slasher flicks really aren’t my thing. The hackneyed storyline, laughable acting, and generally ham-fisted approach to instilling fear just doesn’t do it for me. I might find them to be a silly diversion at best, and only if nothing else is on that’s worth watching. That’s why I went into Until Dawn with some trepidation. Despite my strong desire for a top-notch PlayStation 4 exclusive, I began this adventure with a wry, knowing smile, hoping the situations wouldn’t be too overtly stupid and the jokes didn’t tip the cornball meter. But after a few hours of play, it became clear to me that Supermassive Games had actually entered the realm of Quantic Dream.
…and then, everything changed.
But let’s begin with the visuals, which are admittedly critical for any game that relies on thrills and chills. Even the original Resident Evil, as dated as it appears today, wouldn’t have made us jump if we were still mired in sprite-ville from the 16-bit days. Well, it might’ve made us jump a little. At any rate, it’s the design and character models that stand out in Until Dawn: These are wonderfully realistic characters exploring a fittingly creepy environment, and the sharpness and excellent shadowing keep us riveted. It’s always hard to avoid making a horror experience too dark but here, I think they do a good job of balancing the meticulously crafted visuals. There are some facial animation snafus, though, which mar an otherwise top-tier presentation.
While the animations can skip a beat, the acting almost never does. This is perhaps the biggest – and most welcome – difference between Supermassive’s title and the standard teen horror flick. The latter historically has awful acting, while Until Dawn thrives on professional, believable performances. Obviously, the all-star cast (featuring the likes of Hayden Panettiere, Peter Stormare and Rami Malek) really helps, and it was an absolute must. When a game relies on evoking fear and suspense in the player, the acting absolutely cannot take him or her out of the experience. As for the rest, we’re treated to a creepy soundtrack from Dead Space composer Jason Graves and background effects that will whiten the knuckles and shorten the breath.
At its core, Until Dawn is a surprisingly ambitious ‘80s teen horror movie, but with much better acting and the obvious spin: We get to choose what the characters do. We all know people who yelled advice at the screen, especially when one of those pretty – yet decidedly stupid – teenagers was about to meet their imminent demise. Well, this game is for everyone who wanted the characters to actually hear them and respond accordingly, as the game depends strongly on choice. Yeah, we’ve got the obligatory scenes highlighting a bit of gore and a bit of sex, but there’s an erratically pulsating heart beneath that simple exterior, and it demands our attention. During the downtimes, we’re only preparing for the heart attack that lurks around the corner, and this, of course, is the hallmark of any good scary story.
As I said above, it started to remind me a little of Quantic Dream’s productions (Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy), only with more control. The narrative is a central focus, as the developers zero in on the butterfly effect: Essentially, this says that even the smallest decisions can have far-reaching and even disastrous implications and consequences. With this driving the adventure forward, you’re always on the lookout for ways to keep the 8 teenagers alive. It’s the anniversary of the disappearance of two friends, set on a snowy mountain in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, due to the conflicting personalities in the group, they quickly splinter off into couples, which is a big no-no in the world of scary movies. And that’s when things get interesting.
Some bizarre creature and a masked lunatic start terrorizing the stranded teens and we need to steer them out of harm’s way. In between the chapters, you visit a psychiatrist in his office, but he’s not speaking to any of the characters; rather, he’s focusing on you. He wants to know exactly what scares you, and he also wants to know how you’ve responded to the characters. Do needles really freak you out? Got a bad case of arachnophobia? Well, if you tell him, you’re likely to experience your worst fears when you rejoin the teens in their battle for survival. The only downside to this feature is that it’s simply too transparent and feels a trifle forced. I think there are subtler ways of determining the player’s biggest fears.
However, it does help to put a clearer focus on the aforementioned butterfly effect, which dominates the narrative. When you make an especially important decision, you’ll see “butterfly status update” on the screen, which means there will indeed be repercussions. The best part about this concept isn’t that it keeps you involved; it makes you feel as if your choices really matter. On top of which, it serves to greatly expand upon the story with multiple play-throughs. While the game might only take you 3-4 hours to complete, going back and making different decisions (in both the game and when talking to the psychiatrist) can dramatically alter the storyline, which, combined with the fact that events are permanent, very much reminded me of Heavy Rain.
Another nice little feature is the game’s tracking system, which allows you to actually see those branches you created. So, rather than simply wondering what might be different, or if a past decision directly impacted the present, you only have to check it out. Did giving this character a gun earlier in the game impact the current situation? The game will tell you if it did. This way, when you go to play through again – which you should definitely want to do – you’ll have a clearer plan of action. It’s not just about making completely different decisions; it’s also about learning and processing. And again, given the permanence of your choices, you’re going to be tempted to return and try new ideas. Didn’t want that character to bite the dust? Can’t reload; better luck next time.
The characters are well developed and fleshed-out even if I didn’t like some of them. There are a few who I just found stupid and obnoxious and frankly, I wouldn’t shed any tears at their untimely demise. But there are some notable characters to whom you might become emotionally attached and when they fall, you feel that loss in your gut. It’s like getting sucker-punched because you’re simply not used to the idea of permanent death. When you can’t reload, when you must press on, forced to live with your mistake, it gives the game – and each choice – that much more intensity and urgency. To lighten things up, there are a few puzzles to solve, which aren’t exactly brain-busters but they do serve to alter the pacing and offer a respite from the tension.
You will also find various objects in your environment that will give you useful clues. At first, these clues don’t seem like much. That is, until you stumble across something nasty later and go, “oh, that’s what that message meant!” Finding totems that predict the future is even more unnerving, because it warns of imminent danger and gives you the opportunity to prevent it…if you’re paying attention. The longer you play, the more you realize that just about everything is tied together. As for the quick-time events, which handle the action sequences, I don’t think they’re as well-implemented as they are in Quantic Dream’s games. They don’t give you enough time and they’re not always perfectly visible.
There are a few gameplay snafus, such as when a character walks out of the shot because the camera refused to follow. And I can’t decide if I like the use of the DualShock 4’s motion sensing in regards to the hiding element: If you’re hiding from a foe, you might have to hold the controller perfectly still. The slightest movement means you’ll probably be caught. Now, it’s a good idea in theory but I’m just not sure it was necessary; the tension of simply hiding while you’re being hunted is enough and I think the feature is probably too sensitive. Still, it’s an innovative concept that fits nicely into the horror genre, and Supermassive should be applauded for trying something new with the PS4 controller.
All in all, Until Dawn is a fun, gripping, immersive adventure that you’ll play on the very edge of your seat. It’s a little too short (even with the butterfly effect greatly enhancing the longevity), the story is only mildly impressive, and the camera doesn’t always cooperate. But spurred on by great performances, a disturbing atmosphere, a decision-making system that might be unparalleled in video games today, and a very personal approach to interaction, the game makes a strong case for a purchase. I wouldn’t say it’s the PS4 exclusive that system so desperately needs right now, but it’s a really solid addition to the library, and I love what the developers tried to do. This is a faithful blending of campy ‘80s horror and modern-day interaction and really, it works.
The Good: Fantastic character models. Top-tier voice performances and a great soundtrack. The Butterfly Effect is beautifully implemented and propels the experience forward. Important and track-able decisions dramatically increases immersion. A relatively decent story.
The Bad: Animations can go screwy too often. Camera is far from perfect. QTEs are a little too demanding. Maybe too short.
The Ugly: “Oh, making the wrong decision a few times in a row will definitely result in ‘ugly.’”
8/27/2015 Ben Dutka