Until Dawn

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: Aug. 25, 2015 (US), Aug. 26, 2015 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Until Dawn'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 24, 2015 @ 8:00 a.m. PDT

When eight friends become trapped on a remote mountain getaway gone wrong, things quickly turn sinister and they start to suspect they aren't alone.

Horror movies thrive on foolishness. People open doors when they shouldn't, they split up when it's a foolish idea, and they don't realize the flaws in their logic until it's way too late. This foolishness makes horror difficult to adapt to video games. Give the player a chance, and they won't trust the spooky old man or take the cursed relic. Until Dawn is an attempt to find a happy medium between the two. It gives players control of a horror movie and makes survival or death entirely dependent on their actions — with mixed results.

A group of teenagers heads to an abandoned hotel in the mountains during the middle of a snowstorm. A cruel prank leads to the disappearance of two friends. A year later, they all return to the same hotel to try to mend fences and recover from the tragedy. Of course, after a few hours, things start to go south. A masked man threatens the teens, and something far worse is lurking in the woods. Can the eight of them survive the night?

The plot is sort of all over the place. The first half of the game is set up as a more traditional slasher film, and the second half more akin to "The Descent" or similar monster films. The game relies heavily on a major twist that I suspect will sour things for players since it drastically changes the context of the first half of the game. Neither of the stories is bad at telling a horror tale, but it's weird to jump from one to the other. It also leads to some questions about the plot that the game is hard-pressed to answer, though that is nothing new for horror films.

The characters are a mixed bag. By and large, they conform to standard horror movie stereotypes, which can work for and against them. It's interesting to see some stereotypes live well beyond their usual lifespan, but it's also clear why some don't last very long. Certain characters are absurdly abrasive, and it gets a tad silly when they berate characters who are trying to save a life. There are some likeable characters in the mix, but they're a standard selection of horror movie clichés: the jock, the nerd, the party girl, the prep  and the shy guy.

The entire game is pretty shameless about sticking to horror film stereotypes. You're rewarded for avoiding common stupid mistakes. Stick together, avoid needless lies, be upfront about information, and the characters do fairly well. On the other hand, if you live out the horror movie clichés, you can expect to see them get brutally decapitated. When a character literally goes to the porch to yell at the spooky woods that she is about to have sex, you can guess what happens. To the game's credit, the fact that every character can survive takes some of the edge off this. It's entirely possible to have a game where the obvious suspects die and the unusual characters survive. The gore factor is entirely up to the player. The deaths that await characters can be absurdly gross, but if you avoid them entirely, then there are only two segments of the game with significant violence.

Characters have to fill a lot more blank space than in a horror movie, and that leads to a lot of filler dialogue that can be groan-worthy. There is one scene involving two characters walking through the woods, and about half of their dialogue consists of sexual innuendo. It's cute for a little while but goes on way too long. The dialogue isn't out of place, but characters end up talking so much that it can deflate some of the tension from the game.

There are two types of gameplay in Until Dawn. The first is walking around and exploring; these segments don't lead to danger, though there are plenty of scares, and you'll be able to take in the environments and find clues that reveal some of the backstory. There are also totems, which give you a brief glimpse at the future to warn you of impending death, danger or positive effects. Most of these exploration sequences are very linear, so you'll just walk forward and occasionally check a sparkling object.

The second major type of gameplay is action sequences, which are effectively Quick Time Events that can be played using the controller or a PlayStation Move controller. Most of the QTEs involve pressing a button or making a motion at the correct time to avoid danger. You'll occasionally have to remain still or move crosshairs to a target within the time limit. While the majority of QTEs are simple pass/fail sequences, there are a few that are light puzzles. For example, sometimes the correct answer is to NOT press a button. Other times, you're given multiple choices and have to pick the correct one, with the plot varying slightly depending on what you press.

Both gameplay modes occasionally ask you to make choices that can vary between responding to a question to deciding which direction to run. These choices have some of the largest impact on how the game plays out. If you tick off someone by responding in the wrong way, it may have consequences later. Likewise, if you're not paying attention and try to hide in the wrong place or run the wrong way, you can pay for it later. Some chase sequences ask if you want to take a safe or a dangerous route, with the dangerous route requiring more QTEs to succeed. I felt that only one choice in the game led to an unfair result, and that's largely because one of the characters did something unexpected.

The actual choices lack bite. Some options can lead to an untimely death, but you'd avoid those selections unless you're intentionally trying to pick incorrectly. The game presents the concept of hard choices, but you are never rewarded for making them. By the end of the game, I'd avoided ever making a hard decision, and not only did that work out for me, but it seemed like the game rewarded it. If you can do the basic QTEs, choosing the dangerous route over the safe route during chase sequences always seems to be the best idea.

You actually can see the end result of your choices via the Butterfly Effect system. Every time you make a choice that has future consequences, the game records it here. Once you reach the aftereffect of that choice, it is also recorded, so it's extremely easy to tell exactly where you went wrong. It's nice to have a clear idea of what you did wrong and how you could fix it in a subsequent playthrough, but it also blatantly illustrates how fixed the game's choices are. It's a glimpse behind the curtain, and while it is user-friendly, it also feels like it provides too much information. Perhaps it would be better if it were locked until the game was finished, rather than blatantly telling you every time it occurs.

This brings us to Until Dawn's biggest flaw: It doesn't have much replay value. You can go through the game to see slight variations on character relationships or keep the entire cast alive, but that is about the extent of what it offers. I tried going through the game twice, and the difference between the two playthroughs was relatively minor. Scenes played out differently, but some parts, especially in the early game, are drained of tension once you know how things play out. It's also clear each character has a designated place to die, and if they survive, they quietly drop out of the plot for long periods of time. This is a common issue with the genre and present in games like The Walking Dead, but it's a bit harder to swallow in a $60 game that can be finished in around six hours. Once you've finished the game, you unlock the ability to replay each of the episodes to alter your choices, so fixing minor mistakes is relatively easy. You see some variety in character dialogue if you make wildly different choices, but it can't change too much. You get some neat thing in the ending based on how characters interacted.

Until Dawn is a nice-looking game. The environments are well modeled, and the characters are surprisingly well animated with a lot of nice little touches, such a wounds appearing and remaining based on failed QTEs. My only problem with the game is that some of the character models get pretty uncanny. In particular, the teeth on the character models are very distracting and somewhat unnatural, especially when they're grinning widely. Some voice actors do a great job while others sound hollow or forced. One of the oddest characters in the game is a psychiatrist who appears to quiz the player on certain choices, and his voice acting is absurdly manic and strange. It fits the character but is extremely jarring the first time he shows up. The voice acting does what it needs to do, but like the rest of the game, it feels distinctly like a mid-tier horror film.

Until Dawn does what it is aiming to do well. It's a near-perfect adaptation of an average slasher/monster film. It's a fun romp through a horror movie, and the tension of all characters being able to live and die contributes well to the overall feel. At the end of the day, though, it's not exceptional and lacks replay value. A $60 price tag is too high for the experience, especially with companies like Telltale Games and Dontnod Entertainment offering similar experiences for lower prices. Until Dawn is still enjoyable, but perhaps it needs to wait for a price drop or rental.

Score: 7.0/10

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