Will They Survive the Night?: Until Dawn (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Games continue to evolve, and while some of the more standard genres like RPGs, FPSs, RTSs continue to excite gamers with new releases, some new ways to play a story experiment with the notion of what a game is and run with it to either innovate gaming as a whole… or largely sit forgotten as a “nice-try-brah” sort of entry.
Going all in as a more story-driven sort of game, Until Dawn takes the point and click/choose your own adventure gameplay of popular entries like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain and puts the player into a good-ol-fashioned teen horror flick. Featuring some impressive names from young Hollywood’s list of rising stars like Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum), Hayden Panattiere (Heroes, Nashville), and Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Killing Lincoln); Until Dawn is full of all the panache you’d expect from a teen horror flick with a surprisingly high attention to detail. The difference maker here; instead of just sitting down and watching a 90-120 minute romp in a dark theater, you instead are forced to play through every terrifying minute of it… making choices that can ultimately affect the fate of all the characters.
The story was the main draw for me, I’m a huge fan of horror flicks and regardless of how formulaic teen horror movies are… I do love me a good Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. The story of Until Dawn follows eight friends coping with a tragedy. A year before the main game’s narrative, Josh (Rami Malek) loses both of his sisters, Hannah and Beth, when the two go missing during a trip with their friends. Hoping to cope with the loss, Josh invites his friends back up to his family’s cabin in the mountains for a fun-filled night of boozing and pre-marital sex… ya know, the typical stuff kids go to a scary ass cabin in the mountains to do. Joining Josh are all the friends who were present the previous year when his sisters went missing; Sam (Hayden Panattiere), Mike (Brett Dalton), Jessica (Meaghan Martin), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman), Emily (Nichole Bloom), Chris (Noah Fleiss), and Matt (Jordan Fisher).
Eventually, the group realizes they aren’t alone in the mountains when a crazed killer begins what eventually becomes the longest night of their lives. Though, first impressions aren’t everything in Until Dawn. What starts as a formulaic teen-horror story, spins out into something much bigger and far more sinister than what you’d expect. No spoilers on my end, but the big reveal moment left me both scratching my head and excited for what comes next.
Some may argue that the story felt disjointed, starting as one thing and evolving into something else. But for me, that felt like one of its strongest traits. If it was JUST the simple formula of a psycho killer terrorizing good looking coeds in a cabin in the mountains, I would have been bored. The way the game’s narrative evolved was surprising and a blast to play through. This isn’t without its criticisms, mind you. Some characters received considerably more screen time than others, while some who I wished they fleshed out more (like Josh and Jessica) are given brief moments of gameplay while acting as supporting cast members in other stories.
One of the best performances came not from the core cast but from Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) as Dr. Alan Hill. In between episodes, you interact with a therapy session scene with the good doctor. Dissecting your choices and at times criticizing you, it begins to feel less like you are a character and more like he’s criticizing you as the player; going so far to call out this “cruel game you’re playing.”
Until Dawn is better compared to a TV-show than a movie. At the start of each episode, you’re treated to a “Last Time on Until Dawn” segment. Catching the player up with the events from the previous chapter while giving the game a distinct flavor. While this was fun the first time, it does get old fast… and the whole “Last Time on [insert title here]” isn’t exactly a unique gaming trope.
Controls are actually pretty intuitive for this genre of game, while picking choices between say “go left” or “go right,” you also interact with your environment through quicktime events. If you’ve played ANY game in the last decade, this will feel right at home for you. At the game’s open, you have the choice to pick whether you want to control your choices by tilting an analog stick in that direction, or using the PS4’s motion control to select choices. Speaking of the motion control, some of the most intense moments involved forcing you to stay absolutely still. A visual prompt warning not to move pops up with serious repercussions if your hands are less than steady.
If you’ve ever played Heavy Rain or Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the game’s controls will feel right at home. My biggest complaint was how the forced camera angles made traversing each locale a bit difficult. I found myself backtracking through several rooms before realizing I should just be following a linear path. The inability to run or even walk at a brisk pace baffles me. You can either walk slowly or walk slow but not quite as slowly but still slow. It made me feel that these kids had zero sense of urgency, crazed killer on the loose… but heaven forbid if I pull a hammy.
Visually, the game looks beautiful! Each character is brought to life in stunning fashion, featuring digital versions of the live actors. Each of the main cast was surprisingly unique with their own sense of style and even color palette, making each one instantly recognizable even during the darkest of scenes.
The atmospheric chill I’d feel traversing much of the games locales are just as much a character as the walking-talking meat bags. From the emptiness of Josh’s family cabin, to the moonlit woods, to a chilling abandoned sanatorium; every dark hallway and unknown path left me teetering back and forth between covering my eyes or reveling in the delicious terror. Personally, I’m not one to get this into a game with such limited gameplay mechanics, but Until Dawn hooked me from the very first beat. The game’s musical score played up the terror of some of the scarier scenes, and also built up the tension for quieter scenes… always making the player feel a little uneasy about what’s around the next corner.
While this genre isn’t for everyone, the well fleshed out story and wonderful cast of characters made this an experience to remember. While I doubt I’ll be playing through it again, I highly suggest giving it the good ol college-try. Until Dawn does just enough to make an otherwise limiting gameplay style feel fresh. Though traversing was a pain, the atmospheric nature of every locale made even backtracking somewhat worth it. While not perfect… at least it wasn’t as convoluted as Beyond Two Souls and you never had to “Press X to Jason.”
+ Surprising story
+ Fantastic musicals score
+ Terrifying and tense set pieces
+ No "X to Jason"
- No run
- Uneven character development
Story 4/5: While starting off more formulaic, it picks up the pace by the game’s climactic reveal… first impressions can be deceiving…
Graphics 5/5: Everything is beautiful in the most terrifying sort of way!
Audio 5/5: Intense highs… bone chilling lows… plus all the tension build up you could ask for.
Level design 2/5: The weakest part of the package… while beautiful… traversal was a pain in my ass.
Polish 4.5/5: Highly polished with only slight graphical hitches, damn near perfect in an aesthetic sense.
Controls 4/5: Does a good job with the genre and limited controls.
Gameplay 3/5: While fun to play… it was a pain to explore… plus no run in these sort of games always bug the shit out of me.
Extras 5/5: There are tons of reasons to keep coming back; from exploring choices you didn’t make to seeing how everyone can die… plus the game features some impressive featurettes and making-ofs you’d generally expect on a home video release.