Until Dawn (2015)

Sstem: PS4 | Publisher: Sony Computer Interactive

Developer: Supermassive Games | Reviewed On: PS4

There is a common theme amongst the major slasher horror movies during the 80s. They primarily feature a group of people within a close setting or reasonable proximity, hunted by an antagonist of murderous intent & slowly taken out one-by-one. We have seen many films over the years try to replicate this formula with varying results, some falling into the category of “just another Friday the 13th clone” with others providing a refreshing experiences like my personal favourites; Cabin in the Woods & Midsommar.

Applying this same analysis to video games, we often see our protagonists knowingly walk into a place of potential or actual danger. We rarely see them in an initial comfortable setting, only to have the carpet ripped out from under them. Today, we’ll be looking into a game that’s to the latter end of this spectrum, whilst incorporating a gameplay mechanic where each of your decisions will impact its final outcome. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the 2015 interactive horror game by Supermassive Games; Until Dawn.

The setting is a lodge located at the top of Blackwood Mountain, where a group of 8 friends gather for a reunion following a tragic event that took place the previous year. Whilst they all have their reservations, they proceed to meet at the request of Josh, whose parents own this remote home. As they get comfortable, this switch will eventually be flipped as a masked figure lurks in the shadows, ready to wreak havoc on our group. A simple setup; one that we later learn isn’t just a puddle, but a deep lake once you’ve cracked its icy surface.

Over the game’s 9 hour runtime, you will learn more about the relationships between our group of friends & the intentions of our antagonist, as well as the Mountain’s rich history. But there is more than one threat present here; that’s all I’ll say on the subject. Coupled with the fact this all takes place on a remote peak, there is nowhere for our protagonists to run away & they must do what they must to survive until dawn......see what I did there?

Our characters feature of a range of different personalities; ranging in terms of their confidence, humour & honesty. It features couples, crushes & ex-lovers all thrown into the fold, helping to create connections & conflicts for entertaining & trivial moments during the story’s events. Chris & Ashley’s nervous affection for each other was a personal highlight. All of them work well to balance & bounce off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to face the dangers ahead. You’ll have an opportunity to play as each character at various points in the game, helping build your appreciation or disdain for them over time.

Its setting is a picturesque wintry location with limited resources; the perfect playground for a horror story. Whether you’re walking through the dormant rooms of the lodge, exploring the dark caverns of its underground mines or seeking answers in the nearby broken & abandoned sanatorium, these locations will have you under a constant state of caution & provide a delightfully fearful atmosphere to traverse. Jump scares will be there to alert you when you least expect it, but this trait will naturally be hit-or-miss depending on if you favour them or not.

The plot’s progression contains several stories that work well with each other, taking inspiration from movies such as Evil Dead, The Descent & Grave Encounters. It starts off very well & concludes in a satisfying manner, however its middle section can feel a little bloated at times. This is more of a generalisation & don’t get me wrong; I loved that I got explore three overarching & unique storylines. Their omission would’ve limited the overall experience, but it could be perceived that you‘re playing through three different experiences. I would still argue that the way they all remain their mystery certainly makes them worthy of their inclusion.

The game is split up into ten chapters, roughly one hour each in length, making your playthrough feel manageable & easily digestible; like you’re engaging in an interactive episodic TV show. This is further complimented with a recap of the story thus far and will include plot points unique to your playthrough. It's the little things I guess and I feel it helps maintain the professionalism of its presentation.

The controls & general look of the game reminded me a lot of Quantic Dream’s titles such as Heavy Rain & Beyond: Two Souls. You play in the third person as you travel round the environments looking for clues to uncover the past, which are highlighted by a bright circular light. I found the movement of characters to be a little heavy at times, but it took a little while to get used to & acknowledged this was done to make their motions feel more realistic.

Quick-Time Events also make an appearance during the game’s more action-based sequences & dialogue options are present to sway conversations in different ways with some being important to the plot’s events. Some of these QTEs were a little different with one involving you keeping the controller still to avoid being detected & another involving your choice between quicker or safer paths to a destination, creating some suspenseful moments.

The game’s main mechanic is known as The Butterfly Effect. In the game, there approximately two dozen points where the story can branch off, based on the choice you make for each of our characters. This can happen from obvious ultimatums & even simple conversation topics, all of which can be tracked in-game. Once the choice is set, it will let you know with a flicker of butterflies on-screen. Some of these moments may not have an impact right away & can swing around like a boomerang to strike one of our characters at a later point. Its frequent auto-saves do prevent you from backtracking, if you make a wrong choice. You must live with each outcome & whilst it feels trivial, it means a little more effort must be put in if you’re curious of the impact these decisions have on the plot throughout.

There is an opportunity for each character to die or be saved which, if I do the math correctly, means that there are 256 different combinations of endings. However, using the plural of “endings” is not entirely accurate. Whilst this does create different combinations of survivors at its conclusion, the game’s story still feels quite linear & its general flow will generally conclude in the same fashion.

Along the way, the game offers the ability to foreshadow certain events in the story that may dome to pass via a hidden collectible. On the floor of any environment, you may notice a carved wooden totem piece. If you pick it up and look into it, you’ll see a brief clip of something that may happen in the game. This ranges from deaths, warnings, hints or positive moments. These can be interpreted in whatever way you perceive them, to help you make key decisions but sometimes they can be too obscure until they potentially come to pass. They are worth collecting to aid you where possible.

At the end of each episode, you’ll be part of a small session with psychiatrist Dr. Alan Hill, who will break the 4th wall & ask you various questions involving your experience. Although it may seem a little pointless on the surface, the game does incorporate some very minor elements into the main game based on your choices. A nice little touch that acknowledges & exploits common fears in a delightfully unique way.

From a presentation standpoint, the game looks fantastic. Environments appear well designed with an effective use of lighting that retains its eerie nature, whilst characters have been composed using mocap technology; so their faces are identical to the cast with an exceptional level of detail. Motion & facial capture are also used to further drive its realistic aesthetic. There are times I just stopped playing to appreciate its scenery in its downtime moments, however there are also notable moments throughout when the game drops in framerate, particularly during cutscenes. It felt very choppy & from what I've heard from PS4 Pro players, their upgraded hardware did not drastically change this. Like some horror movie victims, it looks good but can sometimes run awkwardly.

Moving on to the cast, it’s composed of a variety of actors & actresses, primarily those who are still up and coming in the industry. Some of them are of notable success with Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville) & Peter Stormare (Prison Break, Fargo). Special note to two names, who have found success after this game with Brett Dalton securing a major role in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D & Rami Malek in Mr. Robot and the Freddie Mercury biopic; Bohemian Rhapsody. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed their performances and whilst we’re weren’t many big moments, I felt they all did a great job in portraying their respective characters.

From the sound side, the game is layered with heavy orchestral music, designed to build tension. These tracks would nicely compliment each scene, but felt generic enough not to leave a lasting impression. There’s also your stereotypical sound effects and high violin screeches for sudden scares. It’s great in the moment, I’ll say.

There is one minor complaint I want bring up involving an exclusive segment, included as a pre-order bonus but later added to the digital edition of the game. As someone who still owns an original disc copy post-launch, there is no option for me to download this as of writing this review & although it’s just a 10-minute segment, which can easily be found on YouTube, I personally found it helped build one of the characters I found to be lacking during my playthrough.

It made me question why it wasn’t included in the first place & now comes off as a weak attempt at the time to try & spur pre-orders. It doesn’t hurt the game on reflection & I’m sure a justice hashtag won’t do much 5 years after its launch, but it does break the experience when you need to load up a video on the Internet of this scene just for the added context.

It seems Supermassive have learnt their lesson with their next title, Man of Medan, by releasing their story-based pre-order bonus as a free download, 3 months after launch.

Final Verdict

Until Dawn may feel like another third-person, story-driven experience, but it’s ambitious implementation of non-linear events & its empowerment of player choice is unquie & very refreshing; where the fate of its characters ultimately rests in your hands despite its linear storyline. As mentioned, gameplay is very reminiscent of Quantic Dream’s titles, which unfortunately carries a similar lack of gameplay variety & an abundance of QTE moments, unfortunately coupled with its own framerate issues at various points. Despite these flaws, it still shines with a high level of presentation & from a story standpoint, it’s able to hold everything together with its multiple arching plots & gives a reasonable amount of time for each character which I appreciated. However, its use of cliché horror tropes may be a turn-off for some people.

Until Dawn is an experience akin to classic horror movies & if you’ve ever wanted to be the directive power behind a story of this nature, you’ll certainly find your wish granted here.

For those jumping to PS5 this winter, the Until Dawn Digital Edition will be available for free with an active PS Plus subscription, as part of the PS Plus Collection.

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