NOTE: This review is free of spoilers.
I am not a fan of horror games. Like, at all. Really, I’m not a fan of anything horror related. I’ve just never seen the fun in being scared. Yet when I started to see coverage of PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, I became inexplicably intrigued. It looked less like something made to terrorise you constantly and more like something you’d have seen if the mechanics of a recent Quantic Dream game met a shlocky B-grade horror film. That’s pretty much what it is and I think that’s cool but to enjoy it, you’ll have to enjoy the mechanics of the former and either enjoy or at least tolerate the latter.
Until Dawn apparently started life as a first-person Move controller exclusive for the PS3 but eventually got reworked as a third-person PS4 game with more traditional controls. Developer Supermassive Games had also made nothing remotely like this before so it’s an ambitious effort. It has actual screenwriters involved, features a fully performance captured cast of several well known young actors and runs on the Killzone: Shadow Fall engine so it’s definitely a big AAA title.
The comparisons to something like Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls are very apt as there’s a lot of quick time events, tank controls the rest of the time and many choices that claim to have significant impact on how the story progresses. I like David Cage’s stuff but to say his games feel auteur-ish is being polite. Until Dawn has no such pretensions. It’s dumb horror and it knows and owns it.
The basics are that a bunch of teenagers–who vary wildly in personality to the point where I’m not sure why they’d be friends–go to a fancy chalet in the woods owned by one of their rich parents for a weekend of drinkin’ and bonin’, the kind of thing I never got invited to in high school. Not that I’m bitter or anything. A bad thing happened the first time they did this but they’re back again to try to rekindle their friendships and move on. A whole bunch of new bad stuff happens, you’re not really sure why and when you finally get an idea, a big twist happens in the middle that upends things before they go downright crazy in the second half. It’s not remotely realistic but these kind of horror stories never are. You’ll shift between all the different characters in the story through many different environments and have to accomplish different things, sometimes alone, sometimes with a computer controlled partner. It’s possible for every character to die and you’re supposed to try to save as many as possible. I managed to save half of them and while it’s possible to save everyone, it’s apparently very hard to do.
The story is pretty good if you’re into this kind of thing. If you aren’t, you’ll probably hate it. The characters constantly make the worst decisions possible, the early game especially is full of teenage drama that makes you want to smack them, some of them are frankly assholes and even though straight-A students are among the group, they all act like total idiots a lot of the time. Again, this is normal for this kind of horror but it’s not for everyone. If you like movies such as Cabin In the Woods, you’ll probably dig this. That said, while movies like that are called horror, I don’t really think they are. There’s plenty of strong language, gore and tension but I never found it particularly scary. Jump scares abound but they remind me of Dead Space in that they’re very telegraphed and you’ll know when many will occur before they do. This fits well with my taste in horror but if you’re into real terror, you probably won’t get it in Until Dawn.
Unfortunately, there are also more than a few plot holes that feel like the result of content that had to be cut. There are two sub plots involving reindeer and a wolf that get built up and then just trail off. There’s a helpful character you meet in the second half and while he knows a bunch of plot related history, you’re never told why he’s actually there. In the first half, there are interludes involving a therapist that are some of the most unnerving in the game but again, they just stop at one point without explanation. It’s very odd that so much effort was clearly put into these elements just to have them end so abruptly.
The game play is another aspect you’re either going to enjoy or despise, just like David Cage games. Some people call these types of titles modern adventure games but I think modern interactive movies is more fitting. When you have full control of your character, you walk around with tank controls, examining your environment to find where you need to go and searching for various collectibles along the way, all of which can provide clues that nicely fill out the pretty messed up back story. There are trophies attached to the collectibles but it’s nice that they gave them all a purpose besides padding. I got most of them on my first run and if you’re thorough, most aren’t hard to find. The majority of the action sequences are various forms of quick time events and when a cut scene is running, you have to keep your hands at the ready as a prompt could appear at any moment. You don’t have to hit them all but miss too many and it could be the end of your character or even another one you aren’t controlling. You’ll also have the option of choosing between different dialogue options and attitudes during conversations. Each character has a large set of stats and relationships with other characters that will fluctuate depending on your choices. Some of the things your characters can do at key moments will be determined by these and if they’re extreme enough, you may not even get a choice.
It’s clear that Until Dawn was designed to be played through multiple times to see all the different permutations but just like Heavy Rain, the identity of the main villain is always the same. It would have been awesome to see this change depending on how you played, essentially allowing you to create your own story. It doesn’t and at least for me, playing a story driven game again when I know how it’s ultimately going to end anyway just isn’t that interesting. I’d rather just look up the other endings on YouTube. I also discovered that while many of the choices do have noticeable impact later on, Until Dawn has the same problem Telltale games do where some choices that seem to be important actually have no impact on the outcome, they just make you think they do. Not every choice has to be massive but it always feels a bit deceptive to me to make the player think they’re doing something important when really, it doesn’t matter at all.
Technically speaking, Until Dawn is mixed. The environments are gorgeous and most of the characters and animations are incredible to the point of uncanniness, though some animations were clearly rigged manually. The score is fittingly tense and the overall sound design is top notch. It also uses the DualShock 4’s speaker in some interesting ways. Load times are virtually non-existent but it’s not at all well optimised. The frame rate is locked at 30 and during some sequences, it can dip into single digits. I know it started development on another console but for a PS4 exclusive, it should really run better than this. There’s no online play whatsoever, though you can enable an option that will compare your in-game choices against a global database, like many Telltale games do. It’s off by default and I left it off but if I do another run, I’ll definitely use it.
Until Dawn is a game where you’ve got to be into both its subject matter and the way it plays. If you aren’t into one or both, you won’t enjoy it. It’s very much about the characters, story and atmosphere but still has more game play and meaningful choices than games like Gone Home or the recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. A AAA title that is aimed at specific audiences this way is very rare these days and I really appreciate that some developers like Supermassive and Quantic Dream are still trying to make them. It’s got some flaws but it’s a solid effort from a team that’s never done anything like it before. I enjoyed my 10 or so hours with it and if you’re into what it offers, I think you will too. I hope Supermassive gets another chance to make something like this from scratch as they’re clearly onto something. They just need to work on the polish and making sure all the loose ends are tied up. Good effort guys, keep trying. If you’re not sure this is the kind of experience you want though, you may not be into this for full price.