Full Disclosure: Though I’m an avid Horror Movie fan, love all things that go bump in the night, and love the Halloween season, it’s far from the only time I consume horror media. Its my favorite form of escape from the day to day grind. Good, bad or funny, I just love all things scary…that is, except, for horror games. I never got far in Resident Evil, own an unopened copy of The Last of Us and feel like I would have an anxiety attack if I ever booted up Alien: Isolation. Shoot, I was even nervous the first few times I played Friday the 13th The Game (though dying in brutal and often hilarious ways a couple dozen times has blunted that edge considerably). As such, though I was in love with the very concept of Until Dawn when it came out in 2015, it wasn’t until last week that I gathered the balls to download the damn thing from the Playstation Store. Eight chapters (and one accidental deletion) in, and I can easily say that I’ve never had a game that I am both terrified and excited to play quite like this.
For those who missed the boat on Supermassive Games’ stellar entry in the world of horror gaming, Until Dawn is a choice-based action game that sees a group of 8 sexy teens head to a remote cabin in the Canadian Wilderness in order to help a friend deal with the disappearance of his twin sisters from the same area the year before. Of course, there’s a dark secret that ties these teens to the disappearance, and an even darker truth about the mountain itself. It may sound a touch cliche’, but it’s that familiarity that helps players immerse themselves in the world of Until Dawn. From the score, to the graphics, to the level design, there’s a ton of loving attention payed to the atmosphere and characters of the game, which helps elevate the title from what is essentially a point-and-click adventure into a one-of-a-kind gaming experience.
So to get this out of the way, yes this is a game built almost entirely around quick time events (QTEs). There is no platforming, little in the way of combat, and though one could say that there are puzzles to solve throughout the game, fans of mind-bending mysteries like Ico or Portal may be a touch disappointed. While pure adrenaline junkies who can’t get into a game if if there isn’t a Horde mode may be left wanting, there’s enough intrigue and atmosphere to keep most players in the game – especially in the earlier chapters. All of that world building creates a tension in players so palpable that when it does come time to hit a series of buttons, it’s not uncommon for a sense of panic to creep in and mess with your concentration – as at least one of my dead teenagers unfortunately confirms. Yes, the real beauty of this game is that every action, every decision, every button push can and will decide the fate of our cast, meaning any wrong step could spell disaster for your favorite teenager – and though it is possible to finish the game with all 8 of your characters still alive and (mostly) intact, all it takes is one misstep to lose each and every one of them.
Let’s talk about those characters for a moment, because while they do fall into the well-trod archetypes commonly found in similarly scary settings (i.e. the jock, the nerd, etc.) there is some depth and value to each…well except maybe Emily. She sucks. As such, you care about these characters and their struggles, which makes it all the more nerve wracking when you (as the omniscient player, but not your digital avatar) see something move in the background, or hear the swelling danger music but still press into that dark corridor. In short, you don’t want them to die, even if they are obnoxious and don’t see that Matt is a real catch, EMILY! It has to be said that this is a surprisingly strong cast, from the bigger named stars like Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere (Sam) and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek (Josh), to the relative newcomers like Galadriel Stineman (Ashley) and Jordan Fisher (Good guy Matt). The motion capture and voice acting performed by these actors is exceptional, and really should serve as the benchmark for performances in gaming moving forward. The real treat is the purposefully over-the-top scenery chewing from famed character actor Peter Stormare, whose chapter bookending segments may seem low-stakes, but are among the more nerve-wracking parts in the game. The graphics brilliantly recreate the actors’ performance for the most part, though there are some moments where some of the characters do (unfortunately) fall into the uncanny valley.
Though I enjoyed the story (and will definitely be doing more playthroughs of this game over the rest of…my time owning a PS4), it has to be said that things are pretty rushed toward the tail end of the game. Throughout your playthrough, your characters will collect clues and little details that will help unwrap the three central mysteries of the game. Yet more than half of the resolution to one of them (the “Mystery Man”) seems to come along entirely in chapter 7, and the following chapter introduces a new wrinkle that is almost immediately rendered moot by other actions. The first several chapters do an excellent job of establishing the setting and creating a terrifying world of consequences that also slowly unravels the relationships and personal proclivities of our characters, unfortunately, around chapter 8, things start happening so fast that players don’t get a lot of chance to absorb the information in front of them. Much like the Arkham games, there is a feature on the pause menu that allows you to re-examine the clues you’ve found without any in-game time elapsing, and you’ll be spending not a lot of time in it if you want to better understand the less-verbal mysteries around Blackwood Mountain (especially the “1952”). Admittedly a late in the game swerve sort of necessitates an accelerated pace, but it feels like some of the events could have been more evenly dispersed across the game’s 10 chapters for a more engrossing experience.
That all aside, I don’t have a ton of criticisms to levy at Until Dawn. I mean, that Michael travels the mountain in a tank top for a good portion of the game, no one is wearing gloves and Emily doesn’t seem to see what she’s got with sweet, precious Matt is lightning in a bottle are all quibbles, but the gaming experience is so engrossing you won’t really care about them. Furthermore, based on the number of characters and the various precarious settings that could lead to their death throughout the game, there are more than 4000 possible playthrough variations to be had, even if the actual endings may fall into a few specific tracks. Still, this is a game that will make you wince and scream in delight, make you second guess every decision and action, and keep you glued to your seat from start to finish. With around 8 hours of playtime, this is also a good one to bust out with friends as part of an all day horror binge – though realistically, the game works best when played alone at night, all the curtains drawn and no one around to hear you screech and squeal…at Emily complaining about her damn suitcase and top. You know there’s all kinds of danger abound, Em! Give Matt a break!