Q. What do you get if you chuck a teen horror film, Heavy Rain and Killzone Shadowfall into a blender?
A. Until Dawn
OK, you’re not getting any FPS elements or cover shooting mechanics, but Supermassive Games have used the very pretty game engine developed by Guerilla to produce a cinematic, jump scare filled tale of choice and consequence where your only objective is to keep as many people alive through a single night as possible.
Set in an old mountain resort hotel, Until Dawn puts you in the shoes of a bunch of teenagers partying in this isolated location, and as you’d guess, something goes wrong and tragedy strikes. Fast forward a year, and to commemorate the events the group get back together in the same place to put the past behind them before moving on with their lives. What’s supposed to be a weekend of reflection and celebration turns into a nightmare as each of the participants gets terrorised by a psycho, supernatural events and a distinct lack of overhead lighting. Your role as the gamer isn’t just to guide the eight poor souls through some nice looking environments – decisions you make influence which characters are going to survive and how others are going to die, and in many instances you’ll have no idea the effect it’s going to have.
The key selling point that distinguishes Until Dawn from other survival horror games is the Butterfly Effect. Make a choice early in the game and the results of that decision might not be known until the very end. An offhand comment from one of the eight friends to another can mean the difference between them helping or hindering each other later on. Each of the group (Sam, Mike, Jess, Josh, Emily, Matt, Ashley and Chris) have complex relationships with the rest, and it’s something that’s manipulated and updated as events unfold. For instance Mike and Emily used to be together, but after splitting up they’ve moved on to new partners and brought them along. This sets up a clear choice for you as the guiding hand – do you make them all cool about the situation, or do you thrown in some suspicion and distrust to spice things up? It’s great for the beginning sections to have some drama, and you’ve no idea what the consequence will be. Finding totems gives a peek into the possible futures of each character and that can help you make decisions, if you live long enough to see those sections.
Each of the protagonists have unique personalities, all lent credence through the selection of (mainly) TV actors who’ve given their likeness as well as their voices. There are stereotypes in there, and one in particular that you’ll dislike right from the off, but what do you expect? This is essentially a horror film in game form, so that means there’s a jock, a popular girl, a geek and a slapper. From a story and pacing perspective, it’s also by the numbers and if you’re a fan of the movie genre then you’ll see what direction things are going in fairly early on. There’s a slow build for the setup, followed by disorientation and confusion through the middle, then turning frenetic at the end. Until Dawn apes its gore laden live action counterparts well, knowing what works to make the audience uncomfortable and provoke the biggest frights, and does a sterling job of making it a tense experience at times.
With a large number of playable characters to keep track of it would be easy to get lost with what’s happening and why, so to manage that the game pairs most people up, or (rather disappointingly for one) takes them out of the action for the bulk of the game. This has the advantage of diffusing some of the tension present because you’ve got another person with you, even if they are AI controlled, and a drawback of telegraphing things are going to go badly wrong if you end up on your own. In case you do forget what you’ve done, there’s a “Previously on Until Dawn” catch up at the beginning of each chapter, which is completely unnecessary if you play for more than half an hour. It’s the one thing that sits massively out of place for two reasons: 1. it treats you like you’ve got the memory of a goldfish; 2. it doesn’t always show the actual choices you made.
The use of the recap would be great if you were reloading after a break from the game, but to recap actions you’ve taken a few minutes earlier is a bit patronising. Adding to this break in the flow of the game is the fact that the catch up sometimes shows different choices to the one you made, destroying the illusion that you’re determining the outcome. I made a cock up at one point, causing my character to get injured and leaving me feeling like I’d made the mistake that then drove some interesting dialogue and actions later on. A recap showed the injury but at a totally different point, and in a way that clearly highlighted that this was going to happen regardless of player input. It’s a bit sloppy that this happened, and more annoying that it was in a part of the presentation that doesn’t need to interrupt the game.
Graphically the game is stunning, and such a shame that most of it is in dark and shadow. Whilst this offers the opportunity to show off flashlights, torches and lantern lighting effects, it hides some of the immaculate detailing in the environments. Ambience and tone are driven by the surroundings, whether that’s out in the woods, in the mansion or exploring abandoned mines, and the audio design adds to what you’re seeing on screen. The focus is on character and situation rather than action, so facial detailing and voice acting are a cut above most other titles, and this translates into the use of quicktime events to deal with the more energetic sections of gameplay. You’ll control most of the movement through the fixed camera angles (a surprisingly welcome return to the Resident Evil style), allowing you to search out clues and collectibles, and keep the director in control of your nervous state throughout.
Whilst not a new style of game, it’s one that we don’t see often, and it’s welcome because of that alone; the fact that it’s a polished and entertaining distraction is a bonus. Until Dawn is designed for several playthroughs so you can experience all the branching aspects of the story, and because it’s not an extremely long game you’ll be more inclined to find out what you can really change, and what is fixed. If you’re not a horror fan then this will probably not appeal to you, otherwise turn off the lights, turn the volume up, and have a cushion ready to hide behind.
Until Dawn is available now exclusively on PlayStation 4.