Your girlfriend has been torn through a window of the cabin right in front of your eyes. With no time to waste, you grab hold of a rifle and wearing nothing but your underwear, you burst out into the icy cold woods in desperate pursuit. You must navigate the rough terrain and make quick decisions which have unknown impacts. Will you try to take the shortcut and slide down the embankment? Or find a safer way around? Choosing to slide and save time requires some quick time event button presses … missing a single one could waste precious time. You press circle instead of square and your character slips on a rock and falls into a small stream, wasting precious seconds. You breathe a sigh of relief you weren’t injured. Eventually your pursuit leads you to the entrance of a mineshaft. From above you see the body of your girlfriend falling until it hits the ground next to you. She’s dead and you’re shown a replay of you slipping on the rock. It’s at that moment you realise the tiniest mistake cost your girlfriend her life and one of your eight playable characters is gone.
It’s these incredibly subtle butterfly-effect moments that make Until Dawn a truly original entry in the survival-horror genre. The game throws hundreds of choices at you throughout its nine-hour playtime and what you choose results in characters surviving the terror or dying.
Have you ever watched a clichéd horror movie before and hated one or more of the characters? This is the same emotion Until Dawn gives during its first half, introducing you to each of the characters one by one. Giving you a base template of personality traits for each, how you choose to play each of their interactions influences these traits and alters their individual destinies. It’s very easy to feel a certain way about each of them right from the get go – every typical horror character is here and accounted for; we have the football jock, the jokester, the dumb blonde and the nerdy guy who lusts after one of the beauties.
The story is broken into ten chapters, each counting down the next hour until dawn. At the beginning of each new chapter you’re given a quick recap cut scene of the decisions made previously. It’s a clever inclusion, as players can choose to replay specific chapters, making different decisions. Scattered throughout the game are small, missable collectables called ‘totems’, which provide a glimpse of things to come. Whether it is a vision of a character dying, guidance for a future choice, the potential loss of a friend, the threat of future danger or a prophecy of good fortune, these totems are worth searching for -especially if you’re trying to keep everyone alive. In addition to ‘totems’ there are also clues scattered throughout the game. These come in all shapes and sizes and help unravel the mystery of the remote mountain retreat they find themselves trapped in.
For me Until Dawn felt like two very distinct horror games thrown together, the join happening roughly two-thirds in. Not wanting to spoil the story, I will simply say that what starts as a straightforward deadly game of cat and mouse quickly escalates into a more complicated supernatural story.
Supermassive Games has crafted a visually beautiful game, which cleverly uses alternating camera angles; focusing the players view on unseen corners of the room or by making a hallway look as narrow as possible. Some of the creepiest moments in the game are where you ask yourself, “did I just see that?” when a shadow in a corner moves or the silhouette of something passes by the open doorway behind your character’s shoulder. This movie-like camera view adds atmosphere, however it does take a while to get used to. The characters walk very softly and their movements are slow, this coupled with an ever-changing view makes the characters move unnaturally and does detract from the visual benefit of having the camera where it is in each room. Until Dawn showcases motion capture at its finest with its impeccable re-creation of each of the cast members.
At it’s best Until Dawn is a thought provoking, emotional rollercoaster ride of a game, but at it’s worst it is a busy plot, packed into a short runtime. Making some of the behaviours of central characters unrealistic and accelerated to achieve the primary objective of moving the story forward. Giving players the ability to tailor the experience based on their own personal fears is cleverly integrated through interviews with Dr Hill, played perfectly by Peter Stormare, who asks you questions and requests you select what terrifies you the most from a preset selection of options.
I had the pleasure of watching on as a close friend and Twitch streamer took control of eight characters’ destinies. In his hands I watched on while Jess plummeted to her death at the feet of her lover Mike; her lower jaw torn from her face. Josh was attacked while wading through waist-deep water; his head popping like a ripe grape. Mike, Ashley and Emily all met a sudden death in a huge explosion. Our first play-through was focused on keeping everyone alive, and, despite this influencing decisions throughout the game, five of the eight characters still met with the reaper.
Ultimately it’s the characters and the ability to make both critical and subtle decisions which result in them living or dying that make this game something special. Few games can end where the player wants to immediately restart it and play again, Until Dawn does just that by forcing the player to ponder one very important question, “what if I did this instead?”
Big shout out to Chris “Lostsoldier23” for broadcasting the entire play through on his Twitch stream. Be sure to check out a true gaming master in his natural habitat –http://www.twitch.tv/lostsoldier23/profile
Review by David Chattaway