Review: Until Dawn
Back in January of 2005 I learned a very valuable lesson that’s stuck with me for a decade. A little game you all might know came out then, called Resident Evil 4, and it contained cut-scenes that flirted with traditional gameplay scenarios. The most memorable one definitely had to be that knife fight. In it, you had to not only watch the wonderfully choreographed fight, but also remain fully attentive, waiting to see what button prompts flashed on-screen. Fail to respond in time and it was game over. A decade later, and we have entire games built around quicktime events like that. And in the survival horror genre, this could work amazingly well. Enter: Until Dawn.
With games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream productions like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, gamers have had a good amount of cinematic experiences to sink their teeth into, where interactivity is more limited and the focus is more on storytelling. Supermassive Games’ PlayStation 4 exclusive, Until Dawn, is built in that style, but I was surprised to find it much more interactive than the aforementioned games. Playing Until Dawn, I never once felt like I was just going through the motions of quicktime events and the occasional moment of action.
The game gives you control over a group of friends that decide to take a little getaway at a cabin in the Blackwood Mountains. As expected, this getaway doesn’t turn out to be as smooth as the beautifully rendered snow covering the ground outside. Things quickly take a turn for the worst and our characters find themselves in a sick game all orchestrated by a mysterious masked slasher. Until Dawn is the definition of an interactive slasher movie, and being as such, it keeps you at the edge of your seat with each twist and turn as you anxiously await to see what will happen next, and ultimately, who the killer is.
Aside from some minor annoyances and a few moments of flat dialogue, each character you play as doesn’t feel like a generic character type you’d find in a horror film of this nature. The characters are brought to wonderful life by some great acting (including actors like Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek) and a mostly solid script. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself attached to some of these faces. And don’t be surprised if you end up wanting to restart entire sections if they end up dying. Or, hell, you might even be lucky enough to have everyone survive by the time the credits roll. It all depends on the choices you make, which is the key component of this game.
Until Dawn is all about player choice, which then fuel’s the game’s advertised Butterfly Effect system (which then encourages multiple playthroughs to see the many, many different outcomes). It’s what you’ve come to expect from games developed by Telltale, for example, but in this game it’s even more complex and, dare I say, rewarding. You truly feel like your choices matter immensely, and it’s all reflected as the story continues, whether the effects have short term or long-lasting ramifications. If you ask me, this is currently my favorite game that deals with player choices. Everything you do adds up and you’re rewarded accordingly. Hell, I even made some choices based on my own personal experiences. Ah, good times…
Being a horror game, and one where you have a masked murderer stalking you, you never really know what’s going to happen next. All you have to do is just prepare yourself, and respond to situations in a way that you feel is right. One minute you could be enjoying an intimate conversation and a few minutes later you could be in a highly intense chase sequence where failure to follow the button prompts can result in…well, I think you get the picture.
You do have some guidance, though. And that comes in the form of totems you find scattered around the environment. These come in different categories. Some totems could give you visions that can help guide you forward, while others can show you someone’s grisly death (and the deaths in this game are pretty brutal, it’s beautiful!). This foreshadowing system works well and adds even more urgency to your active role in each character’s survival. But even with these totems, things still aren’t easy. It’s still up to you and you alone to make the hard decisions, and sometimes you might find yourself tempted to restart a checkpoint in order to undo something horrible (I did this whenever it had to do with my favorite character).
Another noteworthy element of this game has to do with “the analyst.” This character breaks the fourth wall and gives you a series of examinations to answer. They deal with subjects like your own personal fears to ones pertaining to the game’s characters, and how you feel about them. These sessions are tucked in between each episode of the game, and they always increase in suspense as you reach the end. I was actually quite unsettled in some parts thanks to this mysterious character and his chilling performance. And speaking of performances, Rami Malek absolutely kills it as Josh (the one who put this whole getaway together for his friends). I won’t spoil anything here, but he ended up becoming one of my favorite characters in gaming this year. Truly great stuff.
Until Dawn is more than an interactive movie. This is an immersive survival horror experience that has just the right amount of action that thankfully makes sense in relation to our characters and their given situations. This leads to some great variety, and you never feel like you’re performing the same mundane tasks on loop. There’s always something new to tackle using the mechanics established right from the beginning of the game. Oh, and I haven’t had this much fun using a flashlight since Alan Wake.
Careful to not overstay its welcome, Until Dawn’s length feels just right at around 6-8 hours. It all depends on how much you explore, the act of which rewards you with not just the aforementioned hidden totems, but also objects that serve as clues towards the identity of the masked killer. Piecing everything together is fun and adds another story thread that’s weaved throughout a huge portion of the game. Let’s just say that the horror doesn’t end with just the killer and his identity. The game ends up taking a surprising and really satisfying turn for its later portions.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be amazed by Until Dawn. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself really loving the entire experience from start to finish. I was extremely engrossed in its story, playing for a few hours at a time, taking it all in like I would with a great TV show that I can sit through multiple episodes at a time. It may not be the scariest game in the genre, or anywhere close to that title, but Until Dawn is definitely one of the most engaging ones I’ve recently played.