In my first impressions on this game, I pointed out how I got major “The Cabin in the Woods” vibes. Sadly, I can’t say one way or another if this vibe was accurate. If you know what goes on in the movie, it would spoil the game; if you know what goes on the game, it would spoil the movie. And “The Cabin in the Woods” & Until Dawn‘s stories are good enough that they need to be experienced without any spoilers.
In Until Dawn, you play as a group of potential murder victims who return to a lodge located in the isolated mountains of Alberta, Canada. One year prior to their outing, in the game’s prologue, two of their friends disappeared after a prank gone wrong, & were never found despite police investigation. On the anniversary of their suspected deaths, the sisters’ brother invites everyone back out to the family’s lodge both in memory of the date & to help everyone heal from the tragedy. Things quickly begin to go awry as the group of teens find themselves pursued by mysterious stalkers whose goal seems to be killing them off… but not before having a little fun with them.
A mishmash of various gaming genres, Until Dawn is probably best described as an interactive drama with heavy adventure game influences. Aside from wandering around the environments finding clues about the twins’ death & your stalker, the main mechanics of the game revolve around choosing your controllable character’s reactions or decisions & quick-time events during the action-oriented scenes. A major component to Until Dawn, so much so that it’s actually what the opening cutscene begins on, is the “Butterfly Effect.” The idea that even the smallest choice can alter the course of history. From a gameplay perspective, this means that every choice, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, can affect your survival later on.
Narrative: I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed Until Dawn’s story. Usually most of the enjoyment derived from slasher flicks is in the catharsis of watching annoying characters die; typically the plot itself is pretty flimsy. But while you can certainly play Until Dawn in this manner, making the characters as unlikable as possible to enjoy killing them later, the plot is actually fairly solid. I can appreciate how much effort the developers put in to making this game feel like a quality slasher flick. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a “smart” game, but it’s clear that the developers understood the medium, including the clichés, tropes & player expectations, while trying to add their own twist on it. To me, that’s the difference between a trope & a cliché. A trope is an archetype, or creative shortcut, like the brooding anti-hero or knight. It’s only when this archetype is poorly implemented that it becomes a negative cliche. For example, the… blonde of questionable life choices is the first to go, & the black kid got shafted in both of my playthroughs despite my best efforts. Very classically tropes from horror movies, yet it’s entirely up to the player what ultimately happens to everyone.
That’s another aspect I enjoy, that you can control how deserving the characters’ potential deaths are. You can make them as insufferable as you want, but the game also presents the teenagers as reasonably well-rounded individuals, so there’s also potential to like them. Jessica may be one of those boy-crazy girls I’ve always avoided like the plague in real life, but she shows she has a mind of her own & isn’t a total pushover when she’s with Mike in the cabin. Emily’s catty, backstabbing & bossy (among other less polite adjectives), but is far more tolerable when she’s by herself finding a way out of the mines. Mike’s a typical playboy, but at least he tries to help people even if it ends up hurting him. Maybe this is more due to them not acting like stereotypical teens when actual things of importance come up (like not dying), or feeling they repented for their sins by getting the crap beat out of them? I started liking characters after they’d been terrorized for a bit. Like, “Okay, now that you’ve been beaten to Hell & back I guess I’ll save you.”
I also really enjoyed the pacing, & how all the seemingly unrelated clues you come across actually piece together to make a single, coherent story. It’s fun trying to figure out who the killer is, then after the killer’s revealed, questioning all the incidents that don’t mesh with that. There’s always a new question to answer, & everything comes together very nicely in the end. Another small but important detail is that the characters’ understanding of what’s going on is based on the clues you find while exploring. I liked that they have different conversations based on what you’ve found. It’s a nice little touch.
If I have complaints about the story, they involve the totems & Matt & Emily. My problem with the totems from a story perspective is that they’re the only things the characters can find that they have no reaction to. It was the only feature that really only seemed to exist for the benefit of the player. I would’ve liked to have seen them show some reaction to the visions. And my problem with Matt & Emily is that in the base game there’s a huge chunk where they’re just gone, & we never know what they’re doing. Part of me wants to believe it’s because the developers want you to think they’re in on what’s going on, because their reactions to the news is pretty blasé. But I saw that there’s an added scene only available in pre-order editions that fills in that gap, making me think it was more bad writing.
Overall, Until Dawn has an intriguing & well-paced thriller/mystery that will keep you guessing.
Mechanics: Given that the big selling point of Until Dawn is that your choices matter, naturally the most important mechanic to pin down is making choices. These can range from seemingly minor, such as choosing whether or not to shoot a squirrel, to make-the-wrong-choice-&-die-instantly. I’d say overall it’s a mechanic that works well because you never really know if the next choice is a biggie or not. I also liked that some of the choices are times, including an anxiety-inducing ticking sound as your time counts down. Although you can always pause the game to think longer, it really helps you feel the pressure the character is under. I also appreciated that there weren’t too many instant death choices.
Quick-time events are also a big component of the gameplay. And while QTEs are typically the bane of gamers’ existence, this is probably the best they’ve been implemented. Basically they are the only control you have during the more action-heavy segments, meaning you don’t have to multitask. You can just focus on being prepared for the next QTE. It helps add a sense of drama. Now, I have to admit I had some trouble with them, simply because I haven’t fully internalized where all the buttons are on the PS4 controller. Every time an action scene started, I would mentally chant, “Square, Triangle, Circle,” to remind myself of their location. But there is a pattern to most of the events that help you predict what’s coming next. For example, any jump required the Triangle, & you never have two of the same commands in a row. It’s also the same QTEs for an event, so you can learn them. I also appreciated that you get a second chance if you mess up a QTE, again making instant deaths rare. There was also a function where at times you’ll have to hold the controller completely still, ensuring that the glowing portion remained within the bounds, adding some nice tension to hiding scenes. One QTE I didn’t appreciate, however, was the aiming sections. My first playthrough I had to keep reloading in one part because I kept getting Chris killed. This problem was mitigated by the update that added the option to invert controls, but I was still annoyed that wasn’t a default option.
That’s not to say the controls are perfect, however. The fixed camera angles are nice for atmosphere, but suck for helping you navigate, as this caused me to have to pause a second between angles to readjust my direction. It’s not required, as you can continue in the same direction you were already going in, but my brain doesn’t function that way. Movement feels clunky in general, especially with the amount of times you get stuck on the scenery or a companion as you walk around. And walking is all you can do. You can walk or walk faster. No running. I also found it strange that nothing was mapped to the left trigger. I think this should’ve been the button to grab items, because holding down right trigger to grab then using the right stick to rotate causes cramps if the game’s played for long periods.
There were also some features that I didn’t get, or felt weren’t properly utilized. Why do the characters have personality stats if I tell them what to do? They don’t act differently based on these stats. Choices also had a weird way of changing these stats. For instance, expressing remorse would sometimes cause a character’s honesty to go down. Is it implying this person is lying by saying they feel sorry for their past actions? I also found the relationship stats a bit odd, but more understandable. There are a few moments when interactions change based on how much a person likes your current character, & I suppose they couldn’t only show the stats for the one person whose opinion mattered. The psychiatrist segments as well, while interesting in how they relate to the overarching story, seemed pointless in that your choices didn’t affect anything significant.
Overall, Until Dawn has some solid gameplay that manages to make QTEs work properly, but a few minor yet continuous annoyances drag it down.
Aesthetics: Until Dawn’s presentation is fairly impressive. The developers clearly took painstaking care to render the actors properly, to the game’s benefit. The facial animations & textures are quite remarkable to look at (& the game knows this, as standing still will bring a close-up of the character’s face as they twitch anxiously). And unlike some previous games, just as much attention has been given to the character models, for the most part allowing the game to avoid the Uncanny Valley. However, characters do tend to emote a little too much at times, particularly when they’re yelling. Their mouths at time seem too big, & I think a big part of that is their teeth. They’re just too big & white, & when characters smile they show too much gums. Other than that, the scenery is beautiful in a bleak, atmospheric kind of way, making excellent use of lighting. I also mentioned this before, but the camera angles make me feel like I’m the stalker, really adding to these sense of paranoia.
Acoustically, I can say that the voice acting is really good, always matching the tone of the situation. The game has some great sound design, with appropriate creaks, groans & howls. I also have to say Until Dawn has some of the best snow crunching sounds I’ve ever heard in a game. Yeah, it’s a little thing, but small details like that help add to the immersion. The music was okay. Honestly, there are only a few moments I can distinctly remember the music. And while that might not bode well for the soundtrack, at least I can say nothing detracted from the experience.
Overall, solid presentation with some top-notch motion-capture & sound design, but perhaps a little too hammy.
Replay Value: High. This sort of game is made to be played multiple times to experience all the possible outcomes. And the outcomes are quite varied, warranting the time it takes to play through again. Everyone can survive, or die, or any combination in between.
Final Score: 4
Final Word: I started this review talking about The Cabin in the Woods, & I’ll bring it back. Like that movie, Until Dawn is a love-letter to horror movies. You can see all the influences on it, & get a sense of love for the genre. Whether you play it serious or just want to laugh at the clichés, Until Dawn is a fun experience that I recommend everyone at least check out.
Title: Until Dawn
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Release Date: August 25, 2015