When Supermassive Games’ horror game Until Dawn hit my doorstep, I shuddered a bit. I love Lovecraft-inspired games like Bloodborne, Silent Hill and Dead Space but I’ve always had a real tough time with slasher films, and Until Dawn looked from all the trailers to be exactly that. Yes, I’m a huge baby. I get freaked out by trailers for horror movies.
Despite all this, I buckled down and put the game into my PlayStation 4, ready to jump and scream.
Until Dawn introduces us to a group of eight friends partying at a cabin in the mountains being generally drunk and horny, as slasher flick characters tend to be. A prank gone wrong results in a horrible tragedy. Flash forward to a year later and the friends have gathered at the same cabin, intending to reflect on what happened a year previous. Something, unfortunately, has other plans for them.
If we were to take Until Dawn at face value, most of the game pretty closely resembles a standard slasher flick. Jump scares, monster closets, claustrophobic chases, and tons of interpersonal drama to boot. The core idea of Until Dawn is that, as you control the eight characters, your choices matter. How you respond to social interactions might affect how characters later react to each other for better or much worse.
I wanna play a game
Everything about a horror story, whether it’s a movie, game, or even book, is a careful tightrope walk. It’s a balancing act of tension and fear, a careful rhythm of increasing and venting pressure, and one piece not fitting can send the others tumbling.
Amazingly, the pieces pretty much all work.
A single playthrough of the game – of which I’d recommend more than one – takes about 8 or 10 hours. Many times longer than your average horror film, in other words. Unless you count the Lord of the Rings trilogy as horror, I guess. As a result, the characters get a lot more time to develop, and your choices have a direct impact on how they do that. If Ashley lets Matt see Mike and Emily hugging, and Matt chooses to confront Emily about it, that can end up having an impact on all of them in different ways in the later hours of the game – and that happens in the first few minutes.
Other actions affect the path of the story, as well, opening up paths and outcomes that might not even be visible otherwise. Even the amount of investigation you do – digging into drawers and looking at documents and objects – will end up affecting the story in some pretty important ways.
While many games try to mask this stuff, Until Dawn wears it proudly. At any time, you can check the Butterfly Effect screen to see what decisions caused what outcomes. You can’t see into the future with this, but this is a great way to encourage multiple playthroughs. Knowing how different decisions ripple out makes going back to try other ones that much more appealing.
The production values for Until Dawn are top notch for the most part, as well. From the sparse advertising this game received, I’d imagined it being a budget title, but after playing it, it feels more like something Sony didn’t have enough confidence in or know how to advertise. I saw it pop up here and there, but it mostly flew under my radar – and not just because I’m a huge baby who is afraid of scary video games.
The cast is made up of real, experienced actors. Hayden Panettiere of Heroes and Nashville is cast as Sam, the “survivor girl” archetype, while Peter Stormare of Fargo and The Big Lebowski is a psychiatrist that pops in between chapters to interview an unknown character. Stormare’s work is a bit hammy, but the more you learn about the character he’s interviewing, the more it makes sense and the better it fits. The rest of the cast plays their parts well, filling stereotypes like the mean girl, the meat head jock, the princess, the popular guy.
Like Stormare’s acting, the writing is a bit goofy at times, but it feels exactly how you’d expect a slasher movie to feel. They nailed the tone perfectly, thanks to having two experienced horror writers working on the game that have decades of experience and multiple fan favorite films under their collective belt. The characters and many of the scares start out adhering very closely to standard slasher tropes, but the story makes good use of that and it doesn’t end up feeling as cheap as I thought it would. Also, I screamed at virtually every one of them.
One of my favorite parts, though, is the soundtrack. Jason Graves, perhaps best known for his work on Dead Space, creates an awesomely disturbing soundscape that helps make virtually every scene uncomfortable.
There are some cracks in the facade, though, that reminded me I was playing a game.
There are a few different mechanics. Walking around and exploring works, and so do the decision making moments that have you picking between paths, hiding and running, and other A-B choices.
Because this is a strongly cinematic game, though, it resorts to timed button presses. Climbing and chase sequences especially made use of this. For some reason, I’ve always been terrible at this. When it tells me to press triangle, I have this instinct to press every button but triangle. While these usually don’t result in outright death, they can build up and, for example, make you too late to save a character from death.
This simple, one button mechanic can make even experienced gamers, capable of complex button combinations and control schemes, feel helpless.
Another mechanic has you holding the controller still – an icon that looks like the DualShock 4’s lightbar appears on the screen, and you have to keep the icon within the lines by not moving the controller. This actually felt like it worked well for the most part, but toward the end it seemed like it became more sensitive because there were moments where I’m quite sure I had the controller still (it was sitting on a table) where it decided I’d moved something. Normally, I have no problem going with the decisions I make in a game like this – I lost a few characters in my playthrough, in fact – but in this case it felt like something went wrong, causing me to quickly reset the system before the game could save. Risky, I know.
When it does work, though, it ratchets up the tension, forcing you to hold your breath along with the character.
Speaking of tension, while the game starts out adhering to pretty standard slasher tropes, the stakes change partway through, and a lot of the tension evaporated. It actually let me focus and enjoy the game more, instead of anticipating cheap scares, but it was admittedly not nearly as frightening.
Even with that, though, I really enjoyed my time with Until Dawn, and I’m itching to replay it. In many ways, it reminds me of Quantic Dream games like Heavy Rain, except it works and works very well. It respects its characters and the player while offering those same kind of immersive cinematic experience those games went for. If you’re a horror fan, Until Dawn is a must-play. It’s a love letter and a fresh creation of its own and worth seeking out.
I wish it wasn’t $60, and I’d love to see it released as an episodic game, but Until Dawn is going to end up a cult hit among PlayStation fans and it deserves it.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Until Dawn for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher. We completed the story once and started over again before writing this review.