Until Dawn Review: A Fright to Remember
Ben Sheene / Oct 2nd, 2015 No Comments
Horror is not an easy genre to approach in any medium. Novelists, filmmakers and game developers must bottle up the essence of fear and direct it in appropriate doses to their audience. Splattering the screen with gore or nightmarish faces can fuel the box office with cheap fodder and quick thrills. But it’s the true auteur that plays with audiences’ expectations and gives them something to make their heart race, to be terrified, to truly be scared. Horror fans, you can let out a tense gasp of relief because Until Dawn is one of those rare pieces of entertainment that manages to take hold with purpose and never let you out of its clutches.
Melting Pot of Terror
Players have come to expect a lot out of their horror games. Just as it does for horror movie buffs, each sub-genre of game provides its own unique chill. Slashers, psychological thrillers, and monster movies can be delivered in two-hour long bursts capable of scaring in different ways. But players need a lot more meat on the bone. Tension must be effortlessly paired with gameplay and story. Series like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Dead Space have inflicted the terror of a zombie apocalypse or the isolation of a possessed space station. While Until Dawn may toe the line in terms of being a traditional game, it pulls no punches, much like past horror greats.
Supermassive Games doesn’t take us for fools. The developer knows that players have watched their fair share of of horror films. It knows what kind of tricks directors and screenwriters have been pumping into cinemas for decades. With this knowledge, Supermassive set out to craft a roller coaster ride of horror tropes, plot twists, intrigue, and pure fun. Because let’s face it, being scared can be a blast.
Until Dawn kicks off with a dark, absurd premise. During their annual winter trip to the Blackwood Pines lodge, a group of ten teens are enjoying a night of drinking and fun. That is until some of them play a mean prank on Hannah, twin sister of Beth. Humiliated, Hannah runs off into the snowy woods while Beth, furious at her friends and worried about her sister, chases after her. Amidst a mysterious fire breathing entity, strange noises, and something with red vision chasing them, the player takes the reigns as Beth to witness the twins’ last living moments. Or so we are led to believe.
A year has passed since the events at Blackwood Pines. Hannah and Beth were never found, alive or dead. The gut-check opening clues the player into the twins’ potential fate but in the game they are still officially missing. Josh, Hannah and Beth’s brother, has decided to celebrate the anniversary of his sisters’ disappearance by getting the gang back together for a fun trip of remembrance. Hopes of rekindling friendships and celebrating the life of the two girls seems like a pretty grim and flimsy excuse, right?
Twists and Turns
Time and time again this kind of logic has led to groups of camp counselors, sex-crazed teens, and long-time friends to be systematically picked off by a psycho killer. In the real world, people (hopefully) don’t make these decisions but in movies it’s the kind of fodder we use for shouting “what are you doing!” as someone waits and dies. Until Dawn is no different, except that you get to play it. Writers Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden have experience with multiple horror films and their contribution to the game’s story and pacing shows.
Throughout Sony’s reveals and promotion for Until Dawn, players have known that some clown-faced psycho is stalking the cabin’s grounds trying to gut his young prey. About thirty minutes into the game you have a good sense of where the game plans on taking you. Just a nice, deadly stroll up a snowy mountain for some chilly murder. Except you see a torn wanted poster near the cable cars leading up to the cabin. Then a reference to a sanatorium nearby. And strange Native American totems and symbols are discovered. What about that abandoned mine? Or some bad blood with the locals and Josh’s wealthy horror movie director dad?
About two chapters into Until Dawn’s story and the player is nearly drowning in narrative threads. Yet it’s never an overwhelming slog of “whodunnit?” Instead, trying to parse through the details of what might be a red herring and what is actually the truth becomes one of the biggest draws of the game. Is someone seeking revenge for Hannah and Beth? Will we ever find out their fates? Is there a Native American curse plaguing the group? Even as a person who has seen countless horror films, I was left in awe at Until Dawn’s ability to dodge nearly all my expectations. Very few parts of the story feel predictable, creating an experience that begs your attention.
Different players will get different results out of their time with Until Dawn, especially when the game switches gears halfway through. Without spoiling anything, the story does shy away from the psycho trying to kill everyone in place of a plot device a little out of left field. Those who aren’t entirely receptive to the constant twists in previous chapters might have their immersion broken or have a shift in enjoyment.
Choose Your Own Nightmare
Until Dawn’s story may morph over time to varying degrees of scares but it’s how the player interacts with the narrative that truly solidifies how great it is. Fans of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain or the divisive Beyond: Two Souls should be familiar with Until Dawn’s major gaming conceits. This is not a walking simulator, nor is it an interactive movie. There are quick time events that only require one or two precise taps of the button or quick reflexes. Players don’t have to worry about furiously tapping X to run or hold down square while rotating both thumbsticks.
Stripping these hindrances allows the player to focus on Supermassive’s emphasis on player choice and the butterfly effect mechanic. Over the course of the game player’s will be able to make decisions both big and small that ripple through the story. In one of the game’s first chapters, players take on the role of Matt and must side with his girlfriend Emily (who was previously seen hugging her ex, Michael) or Jessica (Michael’s current girlfriend) in an argument. It seems relatively silly and unimportant but that single decision is reflected later in the game when Matt and Emily are alone, fighting for their lives. When a butterfly effect decision is made, it’s updated in the game’s menu. Even deep into the game there are some decisions that players wont see the ultimate result of until the very end.
Hidden totem pieces are scattered throughout the game and having a character pick them up provides a brief glimpse into the future. It may be a character’s death or it may be a friendly piece of advice, showing what could happen based on the players’ previous choices. This is just another element that provides a layer of intrigue to the events of the game as you hope to save as many people as possible. Clues can be collected to expand on multiple parts of the game’s backstory but are also brought up by the characters, informing them of the mysteries surrounding the lodge and bringing it up in conversation.
Added together, all these parts make Until Dawn a cohesive, fun experience. The player isn’t a passive observer picking dialogue choices that are morally good or bad. Sneaking a look at a friend’s phone might not ultimately hold as much weight as hiding or running from a murderous psycho, but the game emphasizes these choices in the interaction between characters. Players are definitely going to have favorites and might want to kill off certain members of the group purely because they have bad personalities. It speaks volumes to Supermassive’s ability to make these characters feel real, come off as horror movie tropes, and be worthy enough to possibly flip the switch on their death.
Uncanny Valley Lodge
Of course, much of this characterization and entertainment would have fallen flat without some excellent acting. Supermassive went through great lengths to fully capture realistic facial movements and acting with the group. Again, there will be favorites based on personality but every actor nails it. Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek, and Brett Dalton stand out in part because they currently star in popular TV shows. One of my personal favorites was Nichole Bloom as Emily, who expertly captured the mean girl attitude who gets really whiney when the blood hits the fan. When I first played Until Dawn I was pleased by the game’s campy approach to some of its elements. The full game retains some of this intentional B-movie acting but uses it as a breather for the intense horror. If it wasn’t for the skill of these actors, the pacing and story may have been too intense and exhausting.
Peter Stormare steals the show as Dr. Hill. Interspersed between the game’s chapters are moments where a gloved character is being interviewed by Hill. Though we aren’t given the identity of this person at first, the questions are directed at the player. Not only do these sections of the game break the fourth wall and create a meta-narrative of what scares us, they are insanely creepy and shape some parts of the upcoming story. Stormare’s sinister and sympathetic deliver is captivating because the subtle details of his acting are visible, right there on the Dr. Hill avatar.
Supermassive’s success at capturing an actor’s realistic behavior does come at a slight cost. There are some moments where the realism crosses into the uncanny valley. Teeth can often be too perfect and white, looking a bit off during toothy grins or lengthy conversations. There’s the occasional dead-eye look when the character’s eyes don’t always sync up with the action and dialogue. Still, your mileage may vary in these cases and it never truly uproots the player from the terror.
Visuals are definitely a strong suit for Until Dawn. Even though most of the action takes place in snowy woods or a dimly lit cavern, it’s framed in such a beautifully dreary way. Remember how Resident Evil used fixed camera angles to capture a specific moment? Until Dawn uses the same tools to expand on a breathtaking view from a cliff, the isolation of being trapped in a small space, or to show the psycho briefly appearing in view right behind Hayden Panettiere. Several times I had a jump scare or felt a chill run down my back just because of a clever camera angle or eerie lack of lighting.
In for a Scare
During my time playing Until Dawn, I commented to a few friends that it felt nearly as immersive as The Witcher 3. CD Projekt Red’s open world masterpiece was packed with lore, adventure, and hundreds of hours of content, making you feel like an active participant in its world. Supermassive Games made a completely different game but one that gets its hooks in you all the same.
From beginning to end I was transfixed. Watching eight characters evolve based on my choices and watching a story constantly evolve into something engaging and terrifying. I loved how there were jump scares intentionally thrown into the game meant for the sole purpose of getting you (and that the PlayStation camera records these moments almost to laugh at you). A second playthrough felt as fresh, allowing for further experimentation. It may not be a big blockbuster exclusive like Uncharted or Halo or Tomb Raider but Until Dawn is just as fun. Play with friends and decide some fates together, or just try and watch all the ways everyone can die. It’s a formula that has a lot of legs and one Supermassive and Sony should continue to explore in future installments.
Until Dawn was reviewed on PS4 using a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
tags: ps4 , PS4 Game Review , sony , Supermassive Games , until dawn , Until Dawn review