Developed by Supermassive Games. Published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Available on PlayStation 4 (Reviewed). Copy provided by publisher.
Failing is the game’s best aspect, in fact. It’s what gives Until Dawn its bloody, horrific flavor. Screwing up now and then gets the characters killed, and you’re stuck with your failures because the game doesn’t stop to force you to try again or let you flip back to an earlier save to cheat another try. That element takes Until Dawn from being what’s effectively a movie with quicktime events to a dynamic middle ground of storytelling: more than a horror movie you might catch on a Friday night, but still grounded in the tropes of that experience. When Until Dawn is hitting that stride, it’s at its most exciting.
It’s not a game without its idiosyncratic quirks, however, and not every aspect of its movie-with-game-elements premise is a winner. But taken together, it’s a fun choose-your-own-horrific-death kind of experience that usually executes a branching, choice-based narrative in a well-planned way.
Until Dawn is a slasher flick in which a group of eight teenagers meet to hang out at their rich friends’ cabin in the woods – which is actually more of a mammoth ski lodge. A year after two of their friends disappeared from the same cabin, they’re hoping to work through the loss, until a murderous psycho shows up.
The narrative builds from there, spending time establishing its characters in the early going before threatening their lives in earnest, and dishing out no shortage of cheap, red herring jump scares along the way. This is a game that understands the B-level horror movie vibe its going for, and much of the time, it achieves it extremely well, helped significantly by a script written by film screenwriters and a crop of strong performances by recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek.
The primary focus of Until Dawn is on the way the plot branches based on player choices – and possibly more importantly, player screw-ups. As you control each character, you’ll have moments to pick their responses in dialogue, or decide whether they do things like hide from danger or run from it, and so on. Choices with long-reaching implications get marked with a “Butterfly Effect” note, and are tracked on a special menu that notes what happened and what the eventual results of the choice.
The Butterfly Effect mechanic, which Until Dawn harps on pretty hard, is definitely its best element, although some design choices baked in weaken its effect. The game is good about planting choices in small moments that can bloom into big consequences, but it also calls out its branches pretty loudly, and that emphasis on choices has a tendency to lay bare those moments when you make a choice, only to realize it was not important or pivotal. Like most games of its ilk, Until Dawn has quite a few circumstances where no matter what you choose, events go down pretty much the same way.
Collectibles play heavily into how the choice system works out, in two different ways. First, there are “totems” that characters can find on the ground, which show really brief, hazy shots of particular upcoming scenes. The totems can show a character’s upcoming (potential) death, or warn you about dangers, or even give you a little guidance about a future choice, provided you interpret what you see correctly. They’re a weird addition, in fact – they give you a tiny bit of extra information about the blind corners that choices often are, which can help you make better ones during the game, but there are also a ton of totems and they aren’t really that useful, if you even find them at all. And they weaken somewhat the idea that there are no “right” answers in Until Dawn by often kind of hinting at one.
The game is also littered with files, pictures, cryptic notes and tidbits of seemingly useless information that slowly get pieced together to explain the game’s major mysteries. At times, picking up all that paperwork can be rewarding, as far as collectibles go, because they directly influence character dialogue and sometimes even events. When one character who has walked through a scary mine meets up with another who waited in the haunted lodge, your collectible hunting informs their exchange, with the characters sharing information and figuring things out based on what they’ve learned.
So fairly often, Until Dawn is an effective experiment in interactive storytelling, and when it leans on horror movie tropes and ideas, it usually succeeds. It’s often the game’s video-gamey aspects that hold it back.
Until Dawn struggles with pacing: The game wants you to be informed about and interested in its eight characters, but you’ll spend what feels like huge amounts of time with each one, to the point that you might lose track of others. Three or four whole chapters out of the game’s 10 go by before one couple from the beginning shows up again, which is jarring enough to make you wonder, “Wait, who’re they again, and where have they been this whole time?” This might be why the game insists on an annoying “Previously, on Until Dawn” recap about every 45 minutes – it knows it’s too long for the way it wants to tell the story, and it’s worried you’re forgetting what the hell is going on.
It’s also a generally clunky experience. Until Dawn started its life as a PlayStation Move game, and is full of strange-feeling motion control holdovers. Every time a character picks up an object, for example, you have to hold R2 to get them to actually grasp it, and then flip it over to learn anything about it. It’s a meaningless mechanic that you’ll do constantly the exact same way, and it does nothing but break the flow of any given scene or interaction.
Walking around is just as moderately irritating. Characters move slowly and are always getting hung up on stuff, especially because it’s not always clear how to navigate a space. You’ll spend most of the game slowly traveling down corridors and checking blind corners for collectibles. At least when two characters are together, they’ll spend the time conversing, but when you’re alone, these levels are just lengthy collect-a-thons. There’s tons of slow-paced walking, and again, it doesn’t add anything to experience; more like the developers thought that Until Dawn is a video game and requires video game-feeling things.
Luckily, though, the horror movie feel, the solid camera work and performances, and the (generally) intriguing script and characters make pushing past Until Dawn‘s issues feel worth it. Sure, the characters occasionally do something dumb, and you’ll wonder why no gun seems to need reloading and no one has inquired about why the lights don’t work in the lodge for the entirety of the game, but the scares and atmosphere come together nicely and you can get people killed fairly often and in gross ways. Trying to figure out exactly how you can keep characters alive only to screw up a reflex challenge builds a perfect kind of tension. If you can brave the portions where Until Dawn gets arbitrarily slow, the parts where it’s moving quickly can make sticking around worth it.
Bottom Line: Until Dawn struggles with clunky video game elements and rough pacing, but mitigates it with B-movie slasher mainstays and a willingness to embrace player failure.
Recommendation: Best for horror movie fans, Until Dawn struggles in places but still manages to bring a fun and spooky experience.[rating=3.0]