It’d be fair to say that I approached Until Dawn with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, I am the man who struggled to review Alien Isolation because it turned me into a panicky, quivering mess, somewhat infamously leading me to hiding under a table (in game, just to clarify) for a solid 30 minutes, unable to move for fear of a xenomorph sticking it’s tongue/mouth hybrid straight through my forehead. Basically, me and horror don’t mix.
There’s also the small matter of it being stuck in what looked like development hell for quite some time. Originally announced in 2012 and intended as a first person game for the PS3 and the PS Move motion accessory, the original 2013 release date came and went, leading to speculation that it’d been cancelled. It was a bit of a surprise then when Until Dawn reappeared in 2014, retooled for the PS4 and moved to a third person perspective. I was still a little dubious about Until Dawn though, since Sony had seemingly sent it out to die with minimal fanfare or promotion. All signs pointed towards the game being a horrorshow, and not in a good way.
It goes without saying that, what this being an interactive story and all, I don’t want to ruin the plot. As a general overview though, a group of all-American teens go to a snow lodge due to a previous tragedy however, while up there, they’re soon hunted by a mysterious antagonist.
Until Dawn plays much like a Heavy Rain-esque interactive story, with the gameplay primarily taking the form of QTE sequences and discussion moments which cause the game to branch in different directions. Whilst QTEs are often bemoaned, I feel like they fit well with this style of game, and they never feel forced. When implemented it’s generally in a sequence that’d involve some type of action and coordination on the characters part, such as climbing a wall.
Much more interesting though are the branching moments. The effects of your decisions is a mechanic sometimes implemented, however, unlike most, it’s very well handled in Until Dawn. Using the concept of the butterfly effect, the game regularly throws decisions at you, and each one will give a very different effect on the rest of the game. It could be something seemingly small, such as a character making a remark about something you’ve previously done. Alternatively, there are moments where your decision will directly lead to whether a character, be it the one you’re controlling or someone else, lives or dies. It’s extremely well implemented and it leads the player to question every decision; what could be the consequences of my actions? There’s also a handy sub-menu to give you a general overview of what decisions you’ve made.
An added bonus to the butterfly effect system is how it adds a huge amount of replayability to the title. There’s been decisions that I’ve instantly regretted and others where I’ve later realised the long term impact. Going back, replaying those sections and altering my decisions has led to vastly differing outcomes. Until Dawn certainly isn’t the type of game you play once and tuck it away or trade in, it’s got enough there to pull you in for extra playthroughs.
Presentation in Until Dawn is generally excellent, although with some caveats. Character models are superb throughout, as are movement animations. Faces are incredible, for example Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare (who, I should add, is absolutely incredible) being instantly recognisable, although the mouths do have that thing where they seem slightly over-animated, with Josh’s in particular moving like there’s several invisible strings attached to his lips and getting pulled in various directions. Similarly, eyes are a bit hit and miss at times, occasionally falling into that trap of looking somewhat ‘dead’, for want of a better word. Voice acting is on a par with the script, each voice being a perfect fit for the character they portray, and the score is suitably tense and riddled with dread, laden with ominous strings. One drawback is a framerate that seems all over the place at times, and with no apparent good reason. Still, it’s not enough to detract from the rest.
Is Until Dawn scary? That’s a tough one to answer. Primarily the game relies on jump scares and tension. Whether these will affect you will be on a purely individual basis, although I can assure you that I jumped out of my seat on more than one occasion and the tense, claustrophobic and foreboding atmosphere weighed heavily upon me throughout. It also throws pretty much every horror cliche at you as well; doors that seemingly opened on their own, noises off screen, a split second glimpse of someone in the background. On a related note, there’s a nice touch where, if the player has the Playstation 4 camera accessory, it automatically records your reaction to the jump scare moments, allowing you to play them back at a later date.
A game like Until Dawn lives or dies by the script and I’m pleased to say it’s superb, although I do need to quantify that statement. Until Dawn is fundamentally a teen slasher flick which you control, and the script is perfectly suited to that kind of experience. The characters talk like teenagers do in those films and fit within the stereotypes you’d expect to see; the cocky jock, the flirtatious blonde cheerleader, the wisecracker. Despite the perfect fit, it will fail to land with some. It’s cliched, it’s cheesy, and occasionally the characters drop lines that made me cringe so hard I almost imploded. In my opinion though, that’s exactly how this game should be, it’s the right style for this genre of source material.
What we’re left with is a game that entirely confounded my expectations, with every aspect being a perfect fit for the interactive slasher flick it so desperately aspires to be. This leaves me with one question though; why have Sony seemingly sent it out to die with such minimal marketing? A very strange decision considering how superb it is.
An absolutely essential PS4 pick up.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 9/10 Format: PlayStation 4 Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Until Dawn by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of ten days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.