If you know what you’re getting into, and like the sound of it, then Until Dawn is a fantastic time. Just make sure you do actually know. It’s horror, but not the debilitating type where you’re terrified to move, like inAmnesia: The Dark Descent or Outlast. It’s a matter of tone. It’s blood and gore. Ambient lighting with filmic cinematography. And all the cliches you’d expect from an homage of teen slashers. Dumb horny, young adults in a cabin all the way out in the middle of nowhere, being killed off one by one. It’s a classic, if cliched formula. But cliches are what Until Dawn is all about. It’s quite literally interactive teen horror, steadily imbued with tributes to movies such as The Descent, Saw, I Know What You Did Last Summer,Cabin in the Woods, and Friday the 13th.
Again I ask, does this sound appealing?
In the week since release I’ve seen a handful of folks criticizing the cliches and generally high levels of camp. I can understand if that’s not your flavor, but I’ll refer you back to the opening paragraph. With the level of player agency, your input shapes the each member of the group. At their cores, the jock is still a jock and the stuck up b*tch is still a b*tch. But through your actions they twist into something just a little different. For example, it’s entirely possible Mike, the pretty boy jock, can be a selfish ***. But for me he became a Nathan Drake of sorts, slinging witty lines around with reckless abandon and being the reluctant hero.
Rightfully so, the gameplay has garnered a ton of comparison to Quantic Dream’s usual style. You explore a controlled environment, cutscenes follow in which you perform QTE’s and make life or death choices. Much like its plot, the core gameplay loop isn’t groundbreaking. However, as is with many great games, Until Dawn takes a formula and makes it its own. Boasting eight playable characters who can all die, the plot permutations aren't smoke and mirrors. Your choices matter more than they ever have in any adventure game.
Meaningful decisions from the big “ you can only pick one” moments to the seemingly insignificant act of noticing the placement of a baseball bat several chapters earlier all factor in. The much mentioned butterfly effect is absolutely at the core. The amount of variables is so impressive that only a day after finishing my first playthrough I’m diving back in to see how different actions affect the lives of the friends. I’m the type of person who is constantly trying to keep up to date, so rarely do I replay games. But Until Dawn does such a terrific job of encouraging you to come back after the roughly ten hours it takes to finish are up.
Last-gen gave us Mass Effect and The Walking Dead, two works which play-up player agency, but this is a major step forward. To some degree those last-gen experience dion’t quite fully capture the multi-branching stories we desire. Either developer Supermassive has some secret, or it’s quite possible we are seeing the benefit of current-gen horsepower mixed with a AAA budget.
One thing's for sure though in regards to the technical prowess of the PS4. This is probably the best looking game on the console. Not just in terms of realism either. Don’t get me wrong, the character models and environments are damn pretty. What really sells it is the cinematography. Adventure games have the added benefit of a fixed camera. When the game wants you to see moonlight breaking through the gnarled forest, or fear the unknown of what lies at the end of a dark hallway, it does so splendidly.
The one graphical nitpick I have are the facial animations. Gorgeous as they are, it’s as if the muscles in everyone's faces are overacting to really sell the motion capture tech Supermassive probably sunk a fair bit of money into. Granted, who can really blame them when the cast puts in such wonderful performances. You might recognize Hayden Panettiere or Rami Malik from their on screen performances, and frankly the whole cast delivers the cheesy script with all the melodrama you desire. In particular though, Peter Stormare chews up every piece of scenery. His Dr. Hill is a downright lovely bit of psychological horror.
Recently two games have come out with terribly slow movement. Those being Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Beyond Eyes. It’s interesting to note the difference in design theory making Until Dawn, a game where you never directly control a running character, feel perfectly paced. Horror begets slow movement. In claustrophobic environments where the camera is consistently changing angles there isn’t a sense of “look at the cool thing in the distance that I’ll take forever to get to.” When the tension flares, there’s no need for having to fumble with clunky controls. The QTE’s are thematically appropriate, and further proves no idea, no matter how maligned, is wholly irredeemable.
The one considerable fault, and the biggest downfall of all, are the “don’t move” portions. At certain moments you must hold the controller perfectly still, otherwise you’ll be noticed by your pursuer. After much frustration, I realized while using standard controls rather than motion, there is potentially a bug which screws with the Six-axis detection. Even after turning rumble off and setting the controller down on my desk I still fail repeatedly. And when characters can die because of it, the only option is to immediately power down the system. I’ve no shame in not allowing broken controls to beat me. Upon switching to motion controls though, I’m having a much better time of it. If only I had know this beforehand, I would have saved myself a litany of foul words.
Calling Until Dawn a sleeper hit is kind of odd. My feelings, and the general buzz, seemed to recognize its potential. At the same time, my expectations have been greatly exceeded. I’m also incredibly pleased that Sony is willing to throw AAA money at genres not typically one to garner such interest from big companies. I really hope word of mouth gets around and proves these types of experiences are worth having. That it’s not just up to the indies, because as charming as they can be, there are some issues in game development only money can solve.
As current standings go, I’ve five games I feel are strong contenders for GOTY 2015. You can damn well bet Until Dawn is one of them.