Until Dawn PS4 Review
Until Dawn puts players in the shoes of the dumbass people in horror movies that make horrible decisions that lead to their inevitable death. You are the horrible decision maker, pondering over a selection of poor choices. You get to inhabit those who either run away from terror in the worst way possible, or dart right towards it. The cast is composed of girlfriends, boyfriends, a bunch of their exs, and some other close acquaintances. Almost all of them initially seem like the jealous, aggressive, unredeemable jerk types. They are a bunch of people that seem to have resting bitch faces that are happy to let their asshole tendencies shine through brighter than the brightest star in the night sky.
They introduce themselves as sex starved assholes, and for the first 3 hours of the game want to talk about sex every few minutes, and make innuendos about it. The female characters seem to hate all others of the same gender simply because they are female. It takes about 5 minutes for Until Dawn to show someone holding a Selfie Stick, and social media lingo inserted into spoken language happens soon after. Please don’t do that! These people are completely irredeemable!
With all of this, and more to follow, Until Dawn could easily be described as a trope filled nightmare factory. Thankfully it manages to revel in everything listed above, inexplicably overcoming that tag to become something a bit special. I’m just not sure how.
The most easily comparable game to the style of Until Dawn is Quantic Dream’s 2010 effort Heavy Rain. Like Heavy Rain, you don’t play as one single character from the line-up, you end up playing as all of them – jumping back and forth as you work your way through the hellishness laid out before you. However, Heavy Rain and Until Dawn are very different beasts when it comes to story and gameplay. If Heavy Rain was a strange remaking of a police procedural TV show, Until Dawn is most certainly a slasher movie. Where as Heavy Rain asked players to pretzel their fingers into a knot to push 4 buttons at once, Until Dawn never asks for more than one button at a time – instead asking its players to do things quickly.
Due to the way the game is set up, using basic Quick Time Events prompts to escape sections where your characters are in peril, the QTEs are truly heart thumping affairs. Aside from the QTEs, the game has a few sections where it asks players not to move whilst hiding. This is tracked using the accelerometer tech built into the Dualshock 4. It is a pretty smart new idea I don’t think I have seen in games before. It is not over used, but the few times it pops up work extremely well, making already tense moments in the game that much better. When the game is at it’s best, it asks players to quickly make instinctive choices at a time they may feel paralyzed by indecision – which is a perfect mirroring of how characters must feel trapped in a slasher movie.
Choices certainly matter in Until Dawn, or at least the game makes it feel like they do. This faux openendedness was at the core of why I grew to enjoy the game so much. It very much feels like the first true implementation of “choose your own adventure” style narrative in a game. Whilst there will always be a final scene to work towards, along with many events that are destined to occur regardless of player involvement, the game still gives the impression it is moulding a personal story.
The game is highly reverential to horror movies of the past. The trademark dark basements, snowy woods, flickering lights, slow piano music, menacing foreground shots, and constant walking into oppressive darkness are all there. There’s always weird indistinct noises to hear, letting you know something horrible is coming. Characters even refuse to believe something terrible is happening to them until something terrible actually happens, and then they complain something terrible is happening. Due to the game’s slasher-like nature, nods to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Evil Dead are expected, but Until Dawn does not stop there. Characters are forced into situations very much akin to Saw, The Descent, and even Alien to name a few. Rarely does the game revel in being eerie or mysterious, and is more happy to constantly poke its audience with jump scares. It can be exhausting at times.
The game uses sessions with a psychiatrist (played by Peter Stormare), who can chew scenery for days, to further its narrative. One excellent facet about his involvement is that many of the sessions feel like they are talking out of the TV, and that players themselves are being analysed. If people remain attentive his analysis may even surprise you. Alongside Mr. Stormare, a bunch of recognizable faces appear too – namely Brett Dalton, Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek. If you don’t keep up to date with the cult of celebrity, these are “…that guy from S.H.I.E.L.D,” “…that girl from Heroes,” and “…that guy from that new Robot show thing.” Voice work is well done, and the game is well acted with some great emotive reads by all involved. It is not afraid to go a bit campy when it feels the need to.
Aside from the core story, a huge portion of Until Dawn’s backstory is hidden behind collectables lodged away in the games many hidden dark corners. If you want a full explanation behind what is happening and why, then you must take time away from the scares to hunt these down. Wholly uncovering the backstory in non sequential order is a pretty solid secondary mystery to partake in. On my first playthrough I nabbed about 70% of the items available, which gave some solid information to wrap my head around.
The game makes a big deal about its “Butterfly Effect” system right from the get go – which has nothing to do with the above-average Ashton Kutcher thriller of the same name. This system is there to remind players that decisions matter, but it is not wholly unique. It works similar to what Telltale and Dontnod have used in their episodic games in recent years. This system is however a welcome reminder that Until Dawn is not a game about “winning” by saving all characters – at least the first time through. Many scenes can play out dramatically different depending on what happens before. If one character meets their end early in the game, then later on some scenes may not even take place. Characters can not only die, they can die in different places, and at different times. Make the right decision, and they may not even die at all. However, if you go into the game with the mindset of “winning,” you might not have a good time. Forcing choices seems like a great option for a second playthrough – where you can kill characters, or at least hurt them by not pressing QTE buttons in some scenes. At the very least, you can make their lives much worse by picking harsher decisions.
If you value my opinion, it is best to roll with what happens on your first playthrough, and see where it takes you. You can restart chapters, but that feels like cheating. Even if you end your adventure with a miniscule number of survivors you still get a well tailored story unique to your playthrough. Even with all the options available, and a huge web of narrative possibilities, the story always comes together well, and remains coherent throughout.
Due to the homage-like nature of almost everything on show, Until Dawn may very well turn out to be a one-off game. If it sells well enough to get a sequel I don’t think it would be well met. If the franchise is to continue after this effort, I think it would have to tackle another subgenre of horror other than slasher to gain my interest again. If an Until Dawn 2 comes to pass, and turns out to be influenced by Asian horror with nods to Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge and more that might be an interesting way to go.
Until Dawn is a fantastic blood scrawled love letter to all things horror – the slasher genre in particular. Even though all its ideas come from decades worth of scary movies, seeing these elements uniquely worked into a game is highly effective. It may not be a masterpiece, almost solely relying on jump scares to shock, but it is fun to play, and that’s what matters most. Once it gets going, it is a non-stop rollercoaster of visceral excitement. Letting players have control as they take a selection of disparate characters through the nastiness awaiting them is a fantastic idea that is also well executed. The fact these characters quickly go from looking fine and dandy to resembling someone that’s been dragged through a hedge backwards only adds to the fun!