– Tom Heath
The adjective “cinematic” has become a dirty word when it comes to describing a video game. After all, games aren’t movies so why should a game be trying to be like a movie? Well, regardless of your personal feelings of the phrase, I am going to use it anyway because Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn is very much trying to be like a movie; a teen/slasher horror movie to be precise. It retains all the aspects of the genre: its ups and its downs, the camera angles, the lot. And despite a worryingly B-grade first act, an odd tonal shift in the final third and not quite hitting the mark as a horror game, it was a fun ride.
I’ll call Until Dawn cinematic because it is trying to be “like-cinema”. It is horror cinema you can control, manipulate and dictate like you desperately wish you could when you’re screaming “DON’T GO IN THERE, HE’S STANDING BEHIND THE DOOR!” at the theatre.
The premise: eight early-20s friends return to the ski lodge a year after their two friends went missing following a cruel prank the group perpetrated on them. A lot has changed in the year, couples have broken up and found new partners, the missing girls’ brother has become a recluse and tensions are running high.
If the social drama wasn’t bad enough, a masked maniac is on the loose and the group find themselves trapped on the mountain with little chance of rescue unless they can survive the 10 hours -here it comes- until dawn…
Right from the get-go, Until Dawn is paying homage to the slasher horror genre. The opening chapters hits all the same notes every Evil Dead clone has been playing for the past few decades, including the flimsy set up before the terror begins.
I mean, the idea of returning to the lodge for a fun/sexy getaway as a tribute to the missing friends, especially given how recently it happened and that the group is responsible for the girls running out into the storm that fateful night, is pretty silly. Couple this with most of the main cast being introduced as arrogant, self involved, spoiled brats which I felt I wouldn’t lose any sleep over should any of them meet an untimely end, and you have a worrisome opening act.
But once the maniac rears their clown-masked head, the trauma suffered by the characters makes them pull their heads out and become more likeable heroes to root for and the mystery becomes the driving force of the plot; exactly like in the movies. Until Dawn‘s early narrative failings are very quickly made up for by its adrenaline pumping life-or-death scenarios.
The gameplay truly sells this aspect, being very reminiscent of 2010’s Heavy Rain or many of Telltale’s games. Decision making is at the forefront of every scene, from choosing what to say in conversations, which paths to follow, to run or to hide, all of which will have some kind of affect on the rest of the narrative. The differences range from small, simply changing how a character behaves in a scene, to huge, where people live or die.
From my experience, these “Butterfly Effect” decisions had mostly subtle effects on the overall story. Despite making alternate choices, I arrived at the same main plot points, but I acknowledge it was impossible for me to see every possible option in the time I had to play the game. That alone is a testament to how many different combinations of choices there are in Until Dawn.
A cool twist on the mechanics established before it, Until Dawn features a sneaky premonition aspect. Littered around the game are these little totems left over from the Native American tribe who lived on the mountain, and when they are found they offer a several second glimpse at a possible future. These clips have no context, but have enough clues in them to maybe save you later if you see the signs coming. They certainly don’t make keeping everyone alive easy, as often you won’t know your close to fulfilling a totem until it is too late!
Aside from selecting dialogue options, slowly exploring the mountain’s many crevices and totems, Until Dawn is very reliant on a gameplay mechanic that divides the gaming community: quick-time events. After choosing something like the quick path over the safe one, you need to back yourself by pressing the right buttons when prompted, else you may stumble on the way and risk death for yourself or another (depending on the situation at hand).
I am personally not one to hate on QTEs, especially where they can’t be failed, requiring a frustrating amount of retries, but instead just influence the future. Until Dawn’s QTEs are just as their name implies: quick and brutal, meaning concentration is paramount when a character is attempting some huge feat. I found them to be an effective way to maintain the tension during the game’s many chase sequences, but those who detest the old QTE will not change their minds here.
The one piece of advice I would give in regards to playing the game is not to use the motion controls. While a novelty once you get your head around them, when under pressure the sensitivity of the movements becomes cruelly unfair and in quieter exploratory moments the sensor occasionally got turned around and would really ruin the mood.
Visually, Until Dawn is stunning. The graphical detail Supermassive has put into this game is incredible, especially in the character models. While there were a few instances where I was stuck in the uncanny valley, these are some of the most realistic human characters I have seen realised in a game. The performances from the principle cast were very believable and genuine, corny introductory dialogue aside. A particular highlight is a psychiatrist character who bookends each chapter, giving eerily cryptic advice and was full of subtle ticks.
Until Dawn is a thrilling ride, but despite its spooky atmosphere, many startling moments and constant threat of danger, I wouldn’t say I was ever truly terrified while playing it. It got my blood pumping when it put me under pressure, but I was never afraid to open a door, to wander off the path, to move away from safety as I have been when playing modern horror games like Alien Isolation or Outlast. Perhaps this is another way it is reminiscent of the slasher film genre, startling and exciting yet not a great example of genuine terror.
But it makes for great time testing yourself against what is often regarded as “dumb horror movie character logic”. What would you do in those kinds of situations? How long would hide in the cupboard, testing the patience of your pursuer? As an interactive narrative, Until Dawn isn’t perfect, but you won’t have played anything like it in recent memory and is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre of both game and film.
Tom shares all his fear stories on Twitter, @tomdheath, so better head over there if you want to get in on that. Enjoy our Until Dawn review? Follow LoadScreen on Twitter, @load_screen, and Facebook for more gaming reviews and news.