Until Dawn Review

Until Dawn released several days ago. At this point, you’ve heard the hubbub. People either are gushing out loud about it, or are loudly putting it down. I think I know why.

The game is designed to be played multiple times. It’s not necessarily a long game. For some, it may take approximately ten hours, like it did for me, and others only five. Either way you slice it, you’re going to want to pull the trigger more than once.

There’s no getting past it. This is one of the most cinematic games to lend itself to Sony’s PlayStation 4. The talent in the game is amongst Hollywood’s freshest. If names like Hayden Panettiere and Brett Dalton aren’t raising any ears, then it’s apparent you’re not much of a film buff, and that being said, this game won’t sell you on celebrity alone.

Dalton's character introduction in Until Dawn.
Brett Dalton’s character introduction as Mike in Until Dawn. Doesn’t he look like Ash from Evil Dead?

What it might sell you on, are its mostly impressive visuals. The game is built to take full advantage of the platform – maybe too well. All too often were jump scares foiled by awful frame drops, scary screen tearing, and horrific stuttering. The glaring over-confidence in hardware begets glaring issues. Funnily enough, it was during these glitches the game looked like an actual silver screen horror flick. I’ll chalk it up to the 23.976 dips.

Sarcasm taking a rest, gameplay itself is tight. When you first take control, you’ll feel the character is weighty and balanced, adding a thin layer of realism. Controlled characters are slow moving. There is an option to move quicker by holding R1 on the controller, but it won’t prove helpful in every situation. Holding R1 becomes addicting nonetheless. The newfound addiction might help you shave off several seconds, if not minutes from total play time. No guarantees.

Need to turn back for a clue? You probably can’t. Decisions on which corridor to go down, which path to take, and whether or not it’s a good idea to lock a door are on-the-fly choices that don’t require button prompts in the form of a quick time event. Not being able to go back gave me, the player, an incredible sense of irreversible decision making.

If you’re not a fan of QTEs, then give Until Dawn a spin. It’s a new take on an old idea. As long as you aren’t using traditional controls, which can be toggled on or off in the menu, UD will instill such fear into your bones, that the slightest palm jitter may be the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone you care for – or best thing to someone you could care less about. It’s all up to you.

Moving forward as Mike, played by Brett Dalton.
Moving forward as Mike.

You’re sort of the writer. No, that’s not a story spoiler whatsoever. I mean, by carefully deciding who lives or who dies by your instant reactions, you’re constructing the narrative. My first play through was a mostly successful attempt at getting the entire team to survive, until dawn. It was the fault of the controller and I will not concede.

Seriously though, the entire time spent in this wacked out horror frenzy of an interactive brain teaser, I managed to never screw up any motion controls. It wasn’t until some of the most heart smashing moments revealed themselves that the Dualshock 4 claimed I moved. Stay still my beating heart – and hands! Just thinking about it makes me sweat all over again.

The motion controls aren’t like motion controls found in other games on other hardware. A little bit of practice and control, and I barely even needed the bottom portion of the screen to tell me which direction to move the controller in next. If you need to bolt lock a door, and the bolt is to the right, logic informs you to thrust your controller to the right. In real life you wouldn’t need someone to tell you to lift something upward that needed to be lifted, so don’t let the game do that! The little things speed up story completion.

Until Dawn™_20150826005034
Ashley and Chris, two of the games playable characters, having a creepy conversation!

The plot makes sense, with some typical B-Horror movie holes thrown in for good measure.

Ten friends get together for a party at an opulent resort-like cabin on top of a mountain. An embarrassing prank is played on one of the character’s sisters, setting the tone for the rest of the game. Here’s the funny thing. The introduction to the game, which the rest of the game is completely surrounded by, is downloadable content. Without the Prologue, the game wouldn’t make much sense. It would otherwise be through exposition that you knew who some of these characters were. Luckily, each new copy of the game is equipped with a download token for the introduction.

When playing through the first time, memories of horror films like Scream came to mind. “Hitchcockian” methods of fear are used to frighten the player, like showing the audience something a character can’t see. Psycho comes to mind at one point. The satirical nature of Cabin in the Woods, the quick witted humor from Evil Dead, and the stomach wrenching feeling of isolation from The Shining are welcome influences that stuck out from time-to-time.

Another normal night with the teens of Until Dawn.
Another normal night with the teens of Until Dawn.

The game has unlockable content for those who complete it fully. This bonus content feels like traditional content unlocks we used to enjoy in classic games. They’re not specifically going to add anything to the game, gameplay wise, but do offer behind the scenes video footage in documentary format that explore how the game became fully realized, from score to motion capture.

Lastly, the Butterfly Effect is a tool used to tie-in gameplay and replay. Depending on how you write your story, people will stay alive, or perish to the hands of – well you’ll see. It’s not until you finish the story that you’re able to go back to certain chapters to save lives, modifying the butterfly effect. Be careful though, not going back far enough could mean another replay is necessary. For some, opting for “New Game” will be the only answer.

Hayden Panettiere, as Sam, always learning.
Hayden Panettiere, as Sam, always learning.

WRAP UP

Until Dawn is a fun take on interactive cinematic experiences. It’s by definition, a video game, yet undoubtedly influenced by old-school horror films like Scream and Evil Dead. Controlling characters is never dull, but micro-stuttering makes for an unpleasant play through, even more noticeable in marathon. The game is sculpted by your knee-jerk reactions, resulting in possible high replay value, especially if “Butterfly Effect” is used correctly – or isn’t!

8/10

Daniel Mihailescu
danjamllc@gmail.com