What do you get when you take a bunch of late teens and send them to a deserted cabin in the woods in the middle of a snowy night? Until Dawn is a pile of horror tropes as you watch a cast of apparently intelligent characters make a series of really dumb decisions. But I guess that’s what we love about horror. Common sense never prevails. If there’s something nasty in the woods then the obvious thing is to go deeper into the woods. As the audience or the player we get to sit on the edge of our seats, screaming at the naivety and foolishness of the characters. Don’t do it we say! But yet they persist and we wonder in amazement how intelligent individuals lose their shit and make decisions that lead to their ultimate gruesome demise.
Until Dawn follows a well done horror formula. It sends out and splits up a group of teens in the middle of the night in really spooky settings with things that go bump in the night and other weird creepy background noises. Inevitably we watch the characters get bumped off one by one. I know it sounds like I’m having a gripe about formulaic horror but don’t get me wrong, Until Dawn is still a pretty good game to play. For its visuals it sits at the top of the list for character animation, it creates a credible atmosphere and its fun for its jump scares, shits and giggles.
The primary cast of characters of Until Dawn is a group of eight good-looking teenagers all stereotypical horror movie cliches and you guessed it, if they are to survive they have to last until dawn. You’ll start guessing who dies first or who you wish would die first as some of the characters can come across as pretty obnoxious. The frat house humor throughout Until Dawn doesn’t do much for me however as the game progresses and each character unravels with stress, their superficiality slips away. You’ll start seeing their humanity and you’ll start rooting for their survival more than their demise despite their various foibles and egocentricity’s.
Until Dawn is more story then game much like Telltale’s Walking Dead series. The story is driven by character choices where a decision effects an outcome, a mechanic that they’ve referred to as the butterfly effect. Its not new of course but its a truly engaging game tool when done well. You can’t undo the choices. The only way to change the outcome is to start the game all over again so it pays to choose wisely as some choices are a matter of life and death. Most choices also have a time limit of a few seconds creating effective tension in the game as you have to make a difficult choice on the spot.
There’s no inventory management or crafting systems as its purely an exploration game. The game has a straight forward walk-though. There’s no real puzzles to solve and the intended pathway is well laid out for you. You wont really spend any time working out puzzles, what you need to do next or which way to turn.
The quick time events require some rapid button hits and the outcomes aren’t great for your characters if you happen to miss. There is generally no way to take back actions, although some you can repeat, and some of the consequences of your choices are very high. Each of the game characters may live or die based on your decisions and reactions.
Objects that you find in the game include totems that offer glimpses into the future and outcomes for your characters. Death totems foretell a character’s demise or Fortune totems foresee a favorable future. Precision aiming is another quick time mechanic that adds real tension to the game. You don’t shoot a lot but when you do it requires a quick aim and trigger pull otherwise you might lose one of your crew.
One criticism of the game is the fixed camera angles as you direct the characters movement ( it’s like the first resident evil games). The developers have possibly chosen this to add tension to the game as it limits a characters viewpoint and you can’t see into all the dark creepy corners however it does feel a little dated and stifling. It took some getting use to and I would probably prefer being able to wander freely through a space and to look around the environment 360 degrees.
There’s not much in the way of new here but its plot is not quite as predictable as it would first seem. The game continues to throw in new welcome twists. Just when I thought I’d worked it out and things were coming to an end, a new plot twist moves things along again in a new direction. The game is divided into separate episodes. There’s a recap of the previous episode with the start of each new one which is actually kind of unnecessary because the episodes are quite short anyway, I don’t really need to be reminded of what I did 15 minutes ago. There are quite a lot of jump scares but I found them more funny then all that frightening. If there’s any moral to this tale its along the lines that teen pranks can have some nasty consequences.
Here’s where we get to the really good part of this game. The graphics in Until Dawn are phenomenal with probably some of the best character animation I’ve seen. The motion caption acting is second to none with realistic emotions and expressions from the characters which make the game worth playing for the graphics alone. The environments are simultaneously beautiful for their detail as well as creating a genuinely spooky atmosphere. The particle effects for the snow made me shiver while playing and I actually felt cold for the at times under clad characters.
If you’re a fan of teen slashers and horror chances are you’ll really love this game. I am actually not a fan of either but I still found Until Dawn engaging and it provided about 8 hours of entertaining gaming – so yes, its definitely worth playing.
I’m giving it 4/5 stars.
Until Dawn is available on PS4. For the month of July 2017 it is available for free download for PlayStation Plus members.