Until Dawn has been on my watch list for awhile, so I was really excited when it was released last week. Now keep in mind that since I don’t possess a PS4, I had a very passive experience with it as I watched voiceless playthroughs to get my fill of the delectable horror game. Despite this, I have a pretty solid idea of how the gameplay went without a physical controller in my hands. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk terror!
Part of me wonders if the creators of the game logged onto TV Tropes and tried to shove as many horror movie cliches as possible into the game. That isn’t a bad thing, though, and it’s definitely what the designers were going for.
Here’s the lowdown: Thanks to a pretty horrible (yet believable) prank between “friends”, two sisters ran out into a snowstorm and tragically died. Since their bodies were never recovered, however, they’ve just been marked as ‘missing’ and left it at that. One year later, their brother invites all the friends back to the secluded mountain manor to party once again in their honor. What starts as an awkward hormone-fueled reunion ends up a nightmare as the kids are stalked and assaulted by a psychopath and various supernatural beings. The player’s choices affect the story line determine who lives to see the light of dawn and who dies a horrible, graphic death.
All in all, the plot is nothing to really write home about. Although my friend and I had already determined the true identity of the psychopath within the first hour, we didn’t mind seeing as how it was an intentionally stereotypical (yet not quite realistic) B horror movie situation. It’s pretty impossible to go the traditional route without being simultaneously predictable, after all!
One thing I do want to note, however, is that although most of the writing flowed particularly well no matter what choice you made, there were a couple of awkward dialogue bits that didn’t seem to fit.
For example, two characters Jess and Emily have an argument over a boy, Mike. Things get pretty heated regardless of what you choose, and eventually Mike and Jess head elsewhere. Along the way, Mike and Jess begin flirting and laughing and it seems to be pretty chill again. Then, almost like a switch had been flipped, Jess starts a rant about Emily again that ends in wishing she’d get eaten by a bear.
Then things go back to being okay after that set of short dialogue. It was really jarring and seemed to come out of nowhere!
In another example, although this is the only one I knew of, there’s the achievement called “Fatal Grudge.” For sake of spoilers, I’ll be vague.
Characters X and Y are tied up. Character X has a gun at their disposal. The psycho says “shoot yourself or shoot Character Y, and the other will be free to live.” While the player is faced with a tough decision, Character Y is freaking out — but says that Character X should shoot them instead. If you choose to shoot them, the achievement Fatal Grudge is unlocked. The situation unfolds and both characters are saved, but later on Character X is running from a monster. Character Y is in the safe house and has the ability to unlock the door and save them.
Despite the fact that Character Y said it was okay to shoot them, they will purposely allow Character X to die if they actually decided to go through with it.
Yes, there is a mental aspect to it that all of these characters are under a lot of stress and Character Y has most likely snapped under the circumstances, but that’s a piece of game logic that I’ve seen people complaining about, so I wanted to bring it up.
People have described Until Dawn as very much like the 2010 PS3 game Heavy Rain, which shared its elements of drama, cinematic fixed camera angles, and quick time events. Since none of those aspects are really ‘inventing the wheel’ levels of innovation, I won’t go into too much detail. The basic gist of my opinion is that those sort of elements really work with a specific type of experience, and in the case of Until Dawn, it meshed very well with their style of storytelling.
The other elements of Until Dawn are a series of collectibles: Clues, which give more insight into the untold events leading up the game’splot, and Totems, which give players glimpses into the possible future.
Clue collecting is extensive and expands three major aspects: information about the twin sisters who perished, the mystery man who lives on the mountain, and the events of 1952, which tie into the supernatural enemies on the mountain.
That being said, you don’t really need to collect all of the items to get the full picture. The walkthrough I watched only picked up the ones they stumbled upon, and it was easy to figure out the events from the few glimpses of what we saw.
The same goes for the Totems. There are four types that you can find lying around: death, danger, sorrow, guidance, and hope. Totems of death show you a possible way someone can die, danger ones show potential dangers, sorrow shows you how someone else dies, guidance shows a future choice you can make, and hope shows you a positive outcome. Basically, they’re hints on what to keep an eye out for — and although they do help, they’re not essential to the gameplay experience.
However, that does remind me of a small complaint I had regarding the game: reactions.
When you pick up a Totem, you receive a vision of any of the above situations. But it seems as though while the player is shown these events, the actual character is not. It really highlights that disconnect and knock you out of an otherwise engaging story where the game occasionally seems to break the fourth wall(especially when the players are speaking with the Analyst, Dr. Hill).
More than anything, however, is the lack of physical reactions during dangerous events. Say for example your character is walking through the creepy woodland, and burst of flame pops out of nowhere. The voice actor will give a convincing scream, but their body language doesn’t change at all. There are some occasions where the character will physically freak out, but only in a pre-rendered cut scene, and again, that really ruined the immersion for me throughout the game.
Before I forget, I do want to give a shout-out to the game’s atmosphere and overall look. Graphically, the game is amazing, even though their uber realistic character models still have that uncomfortable uncanny valley thing going on, and the world you explore is rendered beautifully on the PS4. The facial animations of the characters are particularly spot on, especially when speaking and especially on the aforementioned Dr. Hill, who spends a lot of time on face-to-face interactions with the player in first person view.
My friend did bring up some concerns about the clothing choices for some of the girls in the game (like the towel that couldn’t realistically stay on while running for one’s life), but I just chalk it up to that whole B-movie horror stereotype and let it slide.
Overall, Until Dawn is an enjoyable experience, but isn’t revolutionary — and that’s perfectly OK. If you enjoy horror stories and are curious as to how you can save (or kill off) eight teenagers from a really bad day, you should definitely check out Until Dawn. The “good” ending leaves the possibility for a sequel or at least some DLC (what else is new nowadays, am I right?) and sometimes it’s a lot of fun to challenge your personal morals in dire situations. At the very least, it’s way safer than figuring out which friend you’d choose to kill off in real life. And more legal, too!