Until Dawn Review: A Love Letter to Horror Fans
I looked left, looked right. One path lead down a deep dark corridor, covered in spiderwebs and riddled with old pieces of wood; the other a surface elevator, sparking and dilapidated. As the timer ticked down, my palms began to sweat, unable to make a decision on which path to choose. I could hear the killer bearing down on me, getting closer with every step. Choose or die. Choose or die. I chose to keep running, why would you ever stop to hide from a killer? As I chose left and rounded the corner, the killer popped out from behind a stack of boxes, somehow circumnavigating my position. I struggled with him, but succumbed to the hypodermic needle he was brandishing, the screen fading to black.
If you've ever watched a horror movie and thought, "I can do this better" or "why the fuck would you investigate a scary noise", then Until Dawn is everything you could ever hope for. More an interactive movie in the vein of the Telltale Games, the game takes place over ten terrifying chapters that play into horror tropes ripped from the best horror films, along with giving the audience some remarkable character interactions and set pieces. If you go into Until Dawn expecting your traditional third-person survival horror game, you'll be greatly disappointed unfortunately.
Until Dawn tells the story of seven friends who return to a secluded mountain retreat one year after a prank caused the disappearance of their two friends. After they arrive at the retreat, strange things begin to occur, from shadows in the dark to a menacing killer who stalks the teens. Once the story gets going, it settles into some traditional slasher film beats, but halfway through it begins to subvert your preconceived notions about where the story is going. It's an interesting way of ramping up the stakes and taking some chances that pay off, others that don't.
Each of the friends is mo-capped and voiced by some of Hollywood's best up and coming talent, including Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek, and Brett Dalton. The three are the "main characters" of the game but the supporting characters are equally memorable. While they make up the typical horror stereotypes (the nerd, the jock, the bitch, the slut, the prude), they manage to be memorable due to the commitment of the actors. I was partial to nerd and the bitch as they have some of the most entertaining dialogue in the game.
Rounding out the cast is veteran character actor Peter Stormare who plays a stern therapist that tests the player between episodes. Stormare's character is the most impressive in its execution with his appearance treading dangerously close to "uncanny valley" territory. It works since Stormare is such a talented actor and that translates to his in-game performance. It's too bad that Stormare isn't featured in more of the game, being relegated to the chapter breaks, but it allows the other cast to shine in his absence.
The true selling point of the game however is the "butterfly effect" engine which allows for multiple branching outcomes and, in some cases, decides the fates of the seven friends. Some of the choices seem minuscule like dialogue choices or taking certain items, others involve physical choices like which path to choose or whether or not to save a character. Some of the outcomes are also achieved through the use of QTEs, some of which, if failed, kill the character in question. The only issue with the engine is that many of the events feel fabricated with their outcomes being obvious for fans of the horror genre. There aren't enough organic small choices that build to a larger outcome but the ones that do are really rewarding with the payoff.
There are few games out there that allow for the total demise or survival of the entire cast of characters, which is something that sets Until Dawn apart from its brethren. It gives the player the true feeling of the director, choosing to kill a character just because they don't like them or to see what the reaction would be from the others. In my play-through, I was able to save five of the seven friends, while in one of our staff writer's play-through, he only managed to save two. There are also multiple deaths for most of the characters, some more gruesome than the others, but all permanent, another great aspect of the game. Not being able to exit and try again gives weight to the decisions in a way that is refreshing for modern games.
The only true issue that I have with the game is that, while I enjoyed the two seemingly tonally disparate halves of the game, some gamers might find it out of left field. While not outright ruining the plot, the game becomes something very different after the first big reveal. It takes a more supernatural turn as opposed to a grounded slasher one, which might disappoint some who were expecting a more "realistic" experience. I personally enjoyed it, but I have always loved supernatural themes, especially if they are done right.
Until Dawn, at its most successful, is a contender for game of the year, while at its weakest, is still better than a large majority of the AAA titles being released yearly. It take chances with its story that most games don't and has a truly memorable set of actors who fully commit to their roles. The inclusion of the ability to determine every character's fate reinforces the horror movie feel, and allows the player to see if they can do it better than the big screen scream queens. While the latter half of the game might feel completely different from the first, if you're willing to suspend disbelief, you'll be greatly rewarding with a memorable, terrifying experience.
Final Say: Play It