I think the main reason for my surprise is that games that are coined “interactive movies” are always a little short on the gameplay side, and the element of choice that you are presented is nothing more than an illusion. You may be able to change some things in the middle, but there’s very little that impacts the final act. And David Cage’s last attempt (Beyond: Two Souls) may have solidified people’s opinions that the realm of movies and games should never cross paths.
Until Dawn is different. Coined the “Butterfly Effect system”, every choice, no matter how small can have disastrous consequences for your group of teens. After a tragedy a year earlier, the same group of friends return to a secluded cabin high in the snowy mountains where, as you’d expect, things go a little wrong. And how wrong things go depends on your actions.
Will you run or hide? Go left or right? Take the shortcut or the safer route? And when you come to that age old horror cliché of choosing to examine the noise you just heard or forget about it, you’ll hate yourself for doing the exact same, dumb thing all horror characters do.
All of this wouldn’t work if the game wasn’t scary, but it is, very much so. While it does rely on the jump scares a little too much rather than the slow building of tension, it does those jump scares very well. Many times I found myself swearing at the TV as characters jump out of the shadows. It also has its fair share of gore and bone crunching brutality, but it never lingers on it in a torture porn sort of way.
The performances of all the lead actors also help in building this terrifying world. Headlined by Hayden Panettiere, each character feels like your traditional horror cliché, but they have enough depth to make them believable. For instance, Matt (played hilariously by the un-teen looking Brett Dalton from Agents of SHIELD) is initially portrayed as your standard jock archetype, only (thanks in part to your conversation decisions) he’s not just the jokey idiot you initially think he is. Though maybe he is if you choose to play him as such!
Although you are presented with choices, the standard walk around the environment sections are fairly linear. There are small areas you can explore to find clues, but you’re largely ferried from one scene to the next with the obvious deviations being on what choices you make.
In that sense, if you aren’t sold on these types of interactive movie like video games then there’s very little here that would change your mind. Gameplay is limited, and action scenes are perpetuated with QTE sections that, to be honest, are actually some of the best. Mainly because they’re quite easy to fail. Appearing on screen for only a limited amount of time they feel harder than the likes you would see in, say, a David Cage game.
In fact, everything here is better than you’d find in a David Cage game, those games being Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls if you’re unaware. Acting feels more natural, there’s no shower scene that feels out of place and unnecessary (just a bath section that doesn’t feel like it lingers in any dodgy way) and most of all the story makes sense. The Heavy Rain twist completely broke the game if you thought about it and the Beyond: Two Souls plotline was incredibly disjointed and completely lost its way when you reached the mid-point. I’m not saying Until Dawn doesn’t have its weird moments, but everything at least feels connected and belongs in the same story.
Until Dawn can also be a really good looking game in places, especially seeing as it began life as a PS3 title. The environments are all suitably atmospheric with some wonderful lighting and audio that adds to the fear. There are a few downsides though with the framerate at times suffering a little. Characters facial expressions also go from amazing to downright creepy, and not in the way the game intended.
Coming in at the 6-7 hour mark, it’s not a long game for those who want a lengthy experience. That said, this is the perfect length for a game of this type. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, and with a number of trophies dedicated to specific choices you will probably want to replay the game a second time. I certainly will. Once I’ve recovered from certain character deaths that is.
When we come to the end of the year and everyone is thinking of what the biggest surprise was, Until Dawn may very well be at the top of my list. I was already intrigued by it, but I couldn’t imagine enjoying it as much as I have done. A few slight issues here and there don’t dampen what is one of the better, more original horror titles out there. If horror is your thing then you have no excuse not to buy it.