Are you one of those people who regularly yells at the TV while watching horror movies, because the characters’ dumb decisions annoy you to no end? If so, your chance to prove how much smarter you are than the average slasher movie victim has arrived, in the form of Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn. Combining horror movies with narrative-focused gaming to create a scary attempt at survival, it’s an instant classic that brings immersion to a whole new level.
Set in what seems to be the remote wilderness of Western Canada, Until Dawn is more of an experience than your average video game. It begins with a bang, then fast forwards a year ahead, to a time where eight friends have decided to culminate for a weekend of wintry remembrance in honour of friends who previously perished. They all ascend a gigantic mountain with the promise of friendship, memories and good times, without knowing that potential death awaits them all.
Such is the crux of this game. Any character can die, and once they’re dead they’re gone for good. As such, you will kick yourself for making a bad decision, or perhaps even cheer if the character who died is one that you hated, but every occurrence will have you on your toes. You’ll also always be aware of the game’s butterfly effect, which is introduced from the start and foreshadows how every decision you make will influence what happens later on, allowing for every play through to be different.
This is also an easy storyline to spoil, and even saying a little bit about what goes on could be detrimental to those who’ve yet to play through it. As such, we’ll just stick to the basics, those being how eight friends become stranded on a dark and desolate mountain while an unknown entity stalks them from outside. It’s a premise that invokes curiosity, and one that is made memorable by fully believable characters and a plethora of twists and turns. That, in addition to technology that has advanced to the point where every member of the cast looks lifelike.
Granted, Until Dawn is a game that features recognizable real-life actors, including Nashville‘s Hayden Panettiere, Night at the Museum‘s Rami Malek, The Middle‘s Galadriel Stineman and Fargo‘s Peter Stormare. The latter — a middle-aged adult — isn’t part of the impressive main cast, but he does feature into the game as a psychologist who tests the player during breaks in the action. This mechanic is reminiscent of the great psychology segments from the underrated horror game we know as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
Although the characters invoke certain stereotypes from classic slasher movies, like the slut, the bitch, the cheerleader and the hunk, they’re all fleshed out and fully believable. Going further, impressive writing also allows these protagonists to feel better than most of their celluloid counterparts and comparisons. That doesn’t mean that this is a perfect romp, though, because it can be cliched and likes its jump scares a bit too much. Still, it’s better than a lot of the movies it was inspired by.
As far as its gameplay is concerned, Until Dawn is best described as a mixture between the survival horror genre and choice-based narratives like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. It’s a really interesting, unique and memorable combination, and one that oozes quality.
Things are separated into ten chapters, and control switches from one character to another throughout each one. Of course, which characters you’ll get to control will depend on your choices and actions, including some major life or death choices that pop up at different intervals.
To keep those who are living safe, you’ll need to use a mixture of traditional survival horror movement controls, timed button presses and either joystick inputs or motion-based mechanics. Always pay attention, too, because you won’t want to miss any quick-time events, which appear during times where characters are running and come across obstacles, or when they’re climbing something like a rock face.
Every time a choice appears, you’re given a certain amount of time to choose one of two options. Examples include picking between hiding or running away from danger, taking one path over another, or locking a door instead of immediately bolting from danger, but there are most definitely more complex choices to be made. There are also a lot of moral decisions that cannot be taken lightly, and the game will occasionally test you by throwing innocent animals into the mix. The first time this happens is during a shooting gallery, which introduces a reticule-based shooting mechanic that is used on occasion.
There are also moments where you’ll need to stay perfectly still and not move the controller whatsoever, which is something that creates a ton of tension. It’s at these times where you really feel like you’re in the shoes of the characters, and a part of the game. However, I had a couple of problems with this mechanic, especially during one occasion where I had to be still while holding a flashlight for someone. Thankfully, unlike its peers, this particular time didn’t result in me dying or being captured when I failed, but even though I was trying to stay perfectly still I kept getting the red failed message. The same problem appeared later on, and resulted in a character being caught, but I’m not sure if that was maybe supposed to happen. It led into a seemingly major story element, and given how much this game changes, I can’t say if it was a glitch or not.
Don’t expect to be limited to the Washington family’s spacious lodge, either. It may be the most prominent setting shown in trailers and screenshots, and the characters’ assumed home base of sorts, but a lot of your time playing Until Dawn will be spent exploring its mountainous range. There’s lots to find, too, because it’s an area that’s chock full of different outbuildings and other unexpected settings, all of which I wouldn’t dare spoil. And, if you take your time, you’ll come across a lot of different clues as to the area’s secrets, as well as what exactly happened to those who were lost a year prior.
Given the above, it’s to be expected that flashlights play a major role here, and the same is true of lanterns and torches. These tools can be manipulated using the right joystick, and moving the light around is the key to finding different artifacts. Doing so will also help you find secret totems, which invoke the Native American heritage of the lands on which this game takes place. Totems come in different varieties — such as fortune, death and loss — and rotating one will give you a glimpse of (potential) future outcomes. It’s a bit of a spoiler technique, and one that I’m not particularly fond of, because I feel as if the game would’ve been better without them.
A curveball is also thrown later on, and changes the direction of the story. I wasn’t too sure of what to think at first, but it eventually grew on me. Others may not appreciate it, though.
In the end, Until Dawn succeeds because it’s incredibly smart, well-made and believable horror fiction, despite some moments of absurdity. It’s not dumb, nor is it forgettable, and its top notch, incredibly lifelike presentation doesn’t hurt, either. Don’t skip on this one unless you absolutely cannot handle scary movies. This is a title that has easily catapulted itself into Game of the Year contention.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 exclusive, which we were provided with.
Until Dawn expertly combines choice-based gaming with horror movie mechanics, delivering a game that will be tough to forget. It's so good, in fact, that it will be hard to overlook when it comes time to name this year's best.