Until Dawn Review: Depth Deception

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Posted August 31, 2015 by Sean Mesler in Video Games

Until Dawn

Developed By: Supermassive Games

Published By: Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date: August 25th, 2015

System: PS4

Supermassive’s new PS4 exclusive cinematic-adventure-horror-game, Until Dawn, puts you in the role of eight college-age friends as they try to survive a night of horror while uncovering a mystery that could shed light on why their lives are in danger. Any (or all) of them can die or survive, and the narrative plays out differently depending certain choices, offering a lot of replay value for players willing to see how it all plays out. Gorgeous to look out and a lot of fun to experience, it should be noted that fans of action games who want control over every single thing they do need not apply. For the rest that enjoy interactive cinematic experiences like Heavy Rain or Telltale’s Walking Dead, you will find plenty to enjoy. It’s not a perfect landing, but it’s a really good one.

After a seemingly harmless prank that goes wrong results in the disappearance of twins Beth and Hannah Washington, eight friends return to a remote lodge on the one-year anniversary of the incident. Things take a dark and sinister turn as death lurks in the snowy woods of Blackwood Pines. One by one, their lives are in peril as the group must confront their guilt over what happened as they discover another, even deadlier secret looming in Blackwood Pine’s shadow-drenched past.

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That’s the basic set up for Until Dawn. Paying homage to 80’s slasher films, the game gets the tone down perfectly while throwing in new twists on the formula so that nothing is as it seems, until the truth comes out and the whole narrative is turned on its head. Depending on your perspective, you will either embrace what Until Dawn is doing, or you will roll your eyes and question the thuddingly stupid character decisions and behaviors made for the sake of horror and suspense. While I lean towards the former, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have more than few moments of the latter.

Running the gamut from separating when they should be together to acting perfectly normal moments after seeing one of their friends brutally murdered, Until Dawn has the vibe and tone of 80’s horror films down to a tee. As a fan of these films, I accepted and even enjoyed how well writers Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick evoked the spirit of the era without being self-referential to the point where it becomes a laughable contradiction. That being said, I’m still me, and boy do these characters make some bone-headed decisions and behave like no human beings would in their circumstances. Not to mention some gaping plot holes that really serve to bring the narrative down once the true nature of the threat is revealed. The game also suffers from superfluous interstitials with actor Peter Stormare playing a therapist. The main plot does employ an inspired twist that I really enjoyed, which makes the game something quite different than what I had originally thought. Appearances can be pleasantly deceiving.

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Had Until Dawn simply relied on this narrative being linear and straightforward, the game would be a much lesser experience for it. Thankfully, its real hook and star of the show is its reliance on the “Butterfly Effect” mechanic. Culled from the real world theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that one incident can set off a series of unpredictable scenarios as a result. As such, the game gives you several scenarios in which the player can make a choice; this choice will have consequences later on in the game that could make all the difference in life and death. Upsetting someone early might find you alone or without a much-needed weapon later in the game. While not every decision plays out that way, it’s neat to see the variables unfold, changing the story of the game. For example, in my first playthrough, I managed to save all but one of the characters, and going back to make slightly different decisions at a key moments caused that character to live. While I haven’t finished my second run-through, the scene they appear in later does cause the narrative to play out differently. It’s neat in concept and downright cool in execution.

Until Dawn’s gameplay consists of these choices, exploring environments for collectibles and discovering clues, and a heap of quicktime events. Not as controller intensive as Heavy Rain, most of the controls are simply walking around and interacting with objects highlighted in the environment with a periodical “twinkle,” for lack of a better word. Choosing between two dialogue and character options requires moving the right stick in the direction of the preferred option, and the QTEs do require quicker-than-usual responses, which does create a great deal of tension when you have no idea if a mistake will lead to your death. The most tense moments come when you have to keep your controller perfectly still for an extended period of time. It’s harder than it sounds if your holding it in your hands.

Unlike a lot of other games with collectibles, Until Dawn values the player’s time and rewards them by making the things they fumble around in the dark for useful in terms of fleshing out the mystery and actually offering guidance to the player in terms if choices they will make. Collectibles come in the form of clues that add back story to the game, and Totems which show glimpses the character’s futures if certain choices are made. As mentioned above, there are other things going on in Blackwood Pines beyond surviving the night, and finding anything from photographs to memos to medical reports add depth to the goings on and peel back the layers of the bigger picture. You will also find Totems which inexplicably reveal short glimpses of either death or a possible outcome for a choice later in the game. It’s all incredibly vague without the context, but once you get to the moment, you know what they were alluding to. And on more than one occasion, the flash I saw helped me save a life or two. In short, it’s worth exploring and your experience will be better for finding these items in the world. Don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path to find them either….well, not too afraid.

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On the presentation front, Until Dawn is stunning. Gorgeously rendered character models, exceptional lighting, and pre-rendered environments make for a truly impressive looking game. The sound design is equally as good. The actors commit 100% to their roles, for better or worse, and the score by Jason Graves is, as always, exemplary. At times hauntingly atmospheric and others discordant and harsh, it serves the tension and environment incredibly well. I should also mention that gorehounds like myself will find plenty of viscera and bloody chunks to delight in. The game also has a fun series of bonus “making of” features included which are unlocked as you progress. These range from actor interviews, mo-cap sessions, an interview with Jason Graves, and more.

While Until Dawn does a lot right, it does come with some disappointment. Some of the characters are written to be as annoying as possible (Emily) or bland (Matt), making some of the relationships feel forced by narrative design rather than inevitability. This makes it hard to care if these characters live or die. There are also the aforementioned plot holes that I unfortunately can’t get into without giving away massive plot points, but let’s just say, the events in Until Dawn have been going on for a while, so how is it that none of the people in the game ever experienced something like this prior? Also, characters, despite being alive, disappear from the narrative completely until post credit interviews with the authorities which, considering the nature of the game and how hard you work to keep them alive, is unsatisfying. Lastly, moving the characters around the environments is fairly clunky and heavy. Even using the L1 button to make them walk faster doesn’t really do much to pick up the pace, which can make subsequent playthroughs a bit more of a chore than I would have liked. Even with these minor (and mostly subjective quibbles) others less inclined to obsess over story will still rate the game pretty high.

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As a jaded horror fan, I didn’t find the game to be very frightening; however, it is rather suspenseful and interesting. The more easily spooked will definitely fall victim to the great deal of jump scares, both cheap and earned, whereas I was far more interested in trying to save as many people as possible. Without exploring, the game cane be beaten in about six to seven hours, with multiple playthroughs adding value to the overall experience.

Not a horror masterpiece by any stretch, Until Dawn is a worthwhile experience for those looking for a fun, suspenseful horror game that can be bested in weekend or one long session. I truly enjoyed my time with it and hope it’s a success so we can see what Supermassive does next with the genre, if not this story and these characters. If you’re a fan of horror, adventure games, or both, Until Dawn is definitely worth surviving.

Copy reviewed was not supplied by publisher.


About the Author

Sean Mesler

Sean is a semi-retired hardcore kid, semi-grown up and transplanted from his original home of New York to Los Angeles. A lover and critic of movies, music and video games, Sean is always quick with an opinion, a heaping dose of snark, and a healthy dose of pragmatism. PSN & Live Gamertag: N2NOther