Full disclosure: I don’t watch many horror movies. I don’t deal with them very well, mostly because I’m a big scaredy-cat. So, maybe you won’t find Until Dawn quite as frightening as I did but you’ll probably still enjoy the ride.
Until Dawn is set in a creepy lodge atop a snowy mountain, where a group of friends have returned for their annual party weekend, on the year anniversary of the disappearance of their friends Beth and Hannah. Beth and Hannah disappeared on that same mountain so the teenagers really shouldn’t be surprised when strange things start happening soon after their arrival. Your job is to help them survive until dawn (title name drop) and solve the mystery of what’s going on. Seriously though guys, don’t return to the site of your friends’ probable murder. This really shouldn’t need to be said.
Until Dawn’s main selling point is its choice system. The story will change based on your decisions and actions, affecting who will die and who will survive the night. This isn’t a new or revolutionary system, we’ve seen it before in Telltale’s games and Heavy Rain, even though the game seems to think it is (one of the characters actually says “Boom: butterfly effect” at one point). Regardless, Until Dawn pulls off this system well. Most of your choices feel weighty and an explosion of butterfly icons in the corner of the screen, accompanied with an ominous noise, makes it feel like you’ve set something irrevocably in motion. Speaking of irrevocable, there’s no reloading save points. If you get a character killed that’s it, they’re gone. This can be annoying if they died because you missed a QTE but you’ll just have to pick yourself up and move on.
Anyway, you might not particularly mind some characters dying off. Most of them play as typical horror movie archetypes and, as a result, can be fairly irritating. When I got to the end I actually wished that I’d gotten one of my surviving characters killed because I hated her so much. There’s some minimal development (‘the jock’ in particular becomes much more likeable over the course of the game) but, most of the time, what you see is what you get. Characters are introduced with a flash of three random adjectives that describe them (like ‘confident, trusting and irreverent’) that seem like a strange icebreaker exercise and an awkward example of telling, not showing. Even if they’re not the most likeable bunch, you’ll still feel a real investment in keeping most of them alive, since anything else feels like failure. What’s more interesting than the characters themselves is their interactions: depending on how you choose to play scenes, your actions will either improve or damage your relationship with the others which can affect how they will treat you in dire times.
Although the characters are thin, the actors playing them are fantastic. Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Rami Malek (Mr Robot) and Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), among others, all lend their likenesses to the game. Peter Stormare (Fargo) also appears as ‘The Analyst’ in brief interludes set in a psychiatrist’s office, where he asks you psychological questions that will make slight tweaks to the game based on your preferences and fears. It’s mostly superficial but it’s an interesting idea.
The game looks absolutely beautiful, especially the facial animation. I particularly like that, if you’re inactive for too long, the game will zoom in close on your characters’ worried face. I found this out when stalling going down into a dark, ominous looking basement. “Something terrible is absolutely going to happen down there” I thought and, if my character’s facial expression was any indication, he was thinking the exact same thing.
Which brings us to the story itself. Until Dawn does a great job of building up tension and atmosphere in its first few hours, having much more time to do so than its movie counterparts would. The game is only set in a handful of gorgeous locations, setting a claustrophobic atmosphere. The main plot stems from figuring out what happened to the twins, Beth and Hannah, a year ago and who or what is terrorising the protagonists now. There are clues scattered throughout each location which, if collected, can help both you and the characters figure out what’s going on before a big reveal. This is actually a great system: it makes you feel as if you’ve earned figuring out the twist as opposed to the disappointment that usually comes with pre-emptively figuring out a twist in a movie.
That said, the story basically becomes a mess in the third half. It feels like the game is trying to tell a few different stories at once and, because of this, it fails to tell any of them well. There’s also annoyingly frequent “Previously On: Until Dawn” segments that seem totally unnecessary: I know what happened game, I played that part a few minutes ago.
The third act also puts a focus on the touted “Don’t Move” mechanic (a mechanic brought over from the game’s days in development as a Move exclusive) in which you must hold the controller perfectly still to avoid being detected. While I loved this mechanic and found it really immersive (the pounding sound of a character’s quickening heartbeat would have the same effect on mine, making it more difficult to hold still) I can imagine others finding it irritating. God help you if you have a tremor.
While Until Dawn has its fair share of problems the game is definitely an experience worth having. The choices you make have real weight and make your experience unique. The branching paths are so significant that it warrants multiple playthroughs or, if you’re like me, just google all the possible outcomes after you’re done. Best of all, you can compare with your friends how many people you got killed (mine’s two, by the way). It’s a worthwhile ride, give it a go.