Horror is a difficult genre to execute. The rise and fall of tension, as diegetic strikes of a bow on strings slowly creeping up your spine and you spot something move just outside of your peripheral vision until suddenly, boom. Nothing. It’s all dropped and you breathe a sigh of relief.
And then the killer gets you. A horror staple for sure, and one we’ve seen before, but much like the slasher pics it draws from, Until Dawn knows just when to ratchet up the cheeseball horror.
Until Dawn may not execute gaming horror in a new way, but it creates a flawless and atmospheric experience by relying on both the influence of horror film predecessors and the strengths of the gaming medium. It’s a thrill ride, one that will have you anxiously anticipating every twist and turn right up to the final curtain.
Throughout the ten chapters of Until Dawn you’ll control eight different teenagers, all visiting a secluded mountain lodge owned by the Washington family under ominous pretense. A year prior, on a similar trip, a mean-spirited prank goes bad; Hannah Washington is embarrassed by the group and runs out into the wild snowy forests of the mountain, with her twin sister Beth pursuing her. They disappear, with no bodies ever found, and now on the anniversary of their disappearance the seven teens responsible return to the lodge to comfort the twin’s brother Josh in his mourning.
The star-studded cast runs the typical gamut of horror film tropes. Jock-bro Mike and his new girlfriend Jess, the standard pairing of promiscuous Fred-and-Daphne types; good guy Matt and bad girl Emily, the odd couple of the group; dorky Chris and shy Ashley, the shy friends too nervous to admit their feelings to each other; best friend of the twins and survivor trope Sam; and the depressed, slightly-off brother of the deceased sisters, Josh. All eight adjoin in the lodge before going their separate ways, usually in pursuit of some “peace and quiet” (wink wink nudge nudge).
It’s once the gang has split up that the night predictably goes wrong, as events ramp up and danger looms overhead. Mike and Jess are stalked on their way to the guest cabin by an unseen predator with thermal vision, Chris and Ashley see ghosts and mess with an Ouija board, and Sam (played by Hayden Panettiere) makes the compulsive decision to up the ante and take a quiet bath by herself. At some point, I was wondering if every character secretly just wanted the night to be filled with blood, screams, and a lot of running from slow-walking killers.
The B-movie cheese quickly became endearing though, and soon I was enjoying the sheer gratuity and brazenness of the game, because Until Dawn seems to revel in its tropes more than simply rest on them. From psychos in clown masks to death games and red-eyed deer, there’s no shortage of new thrills, and each one seems to continually raise the bar.
Just how all this is tied together is Until Dawn’s greatest mystery, and it’s one you’ll slowly unravel as you progress through the game. Episodes can be broken up into a common loop of gameplay: starting with a slow exploration of a new area, finding your way forward while searching for clues and collectibles, until some obstacle or danger arises, which then leads to a chase scene or action event with QTE’s. Camera angles frame all the action in stylish, nerve-wracking pictures, reminiscent of Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Long hallways stretch out before you, and action ramps up quick, often requiring quick reflexes and split-second decision-making skills to survive. Until Dawn isn’t too heavy on the gameplay, much like Telltale titles and other similarly narrative-driven games, but it does find ways to keep you engaged beyond just tilting the stick forward.
The aforementioned collectibles are scattered everywhere, and though the majority are easy to find, I still finished my first playthrough missing a solid quarter of them. Most are snippets of info or clues that are weak on their own, but as a whole help you understand the bigger picture of what’s happening on the mountain. These clues are even integrated into the story, and characters will have different dialogues depending on what they’ve each individually discovered throughout the course of Until Dawn.
Besides clues, there’s also totems that give you visions of the future by staring into them. Some tell of future danger and death, while others offer guidance and visions of helpful decisions to make. While useful, in many cases it was difficult to discern the actual situation until it had already transpired, and several contain mild spoilers for later sections of the story. It’s very worth it to pick them up and didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game, but those wanting to stay blind to each decision’s consequences might want to avoid watching them too much.
As Until Dawn was originally planned to be a Move game for the PlayStation 3, it still retains some relics of those concepts in the DualShock 4’s gyroscopic controls. You can control your light source by pointing the DS4, rotate clues and items by shifting it back and forth, and several sections require you to stay perfectly still to hide from danger. You can stick with traditional controls and use the right stick instead, but it often felt like I was fighting the stick to control my flashlight with the right stick, while gyro controls felt much smoother and more natural when trying to fend off a rabid killer, angry deer, or something much, much worse…
One of the most grim aspects of Until Dawn is its willingness to let injury and death befall its protagonists. You can finish the game with no survivors to tell the tale, and those who die stay dead. Combine this with the fact that there is no option to reload previous saves or jump back scenes, and you’re left with feeling the consequences of each and every action taken.
The butterfly effect is a major theme of Until Dawn, and each seemingly minor or major event plays into the game in some way. Picking up that flare gun and launching it into the sky for help may seem like a good idea right now, but using it means you might not have it later as a self-defense measure. Many decisions in Until Dawn are challenging and must be made in seconds’ time, often forcing you to trust your instincts and go with your gut, hoping for the best. Throughout these episodes, your choices will gradually accumulate in small timelines, showing you just how things gradually went wrong, and how one distrustful glance or snarky comment can lead to danger, or even death.
Capping off each episode is a segment with a mysterious analyst, played by Peter Stormare, who chastises you and prods at you in first person. These are strange segments that only build on the mystery, but soon you realize that something much more sinister is at play, and these sessions serve to not only prod you for info on your greatest fears, but to warn you that you may not yet understand the gravity of the situation at hand.
All of this is portrayed excellent by Stormare, and the rest of the cast nails their roles as well. Often it felt like I was watching and controlling the actors rather than the characters, and I came to really enjoy how much work was done for each role, especially by Rami Malek for his role as Josh.
Lots of time was spent motion capturing and properly rendering the eight protagonists to make those moments happen, and the result is incredible. The graphic detail of the game is stunning at times, with hair being the one odd outlier. Facial animations and textures look gorgeous, eyes glimmer with depth, and lines are delivered with that much more emotion for it. This fidelity does take its toll on the PlayStation 4 though, and it isn’t uncommon to see framerate hitching and dips below 30 when the screen gets busy.
Sound is a major high point for Until Dawn, and it’s no wonder why. The natural sounds and foleys are perfect, especially with headphones on, creating an amazing ambiance of dread. Jason Graves, the composer behind Dead Space’s eerie soundscape, lends his talents to Until Dawn as well, and elicits much of the same power found in Dead Space here. The arrangements are drawn out and emotive, reacting to your movements effectively and keeping the tension steadily rising and falling at just the right times.
The tale of Until Dawn manages to last just the right amount of time, not too long but not too quick either. My first playthrough clocked in at a little over ten hours, and combing back through for collectibles and ensuring a 100-percent survival run would take under half that time, thanks to the game allowing you to revisit specific episodes to change the overall outcome. Some may find that short, and for a full-price offering it can seem that way, but the combination of the quality of the story and the thrill of each scene is fairly worth it.
While there are certainly twists and turns, by the end of Until Dawn, every thread somehow ends up neatly tied with a bow. Most surprises are a little easy to see coming, but it’s still a blast seeing it through. My one recommendation is to play with friends – not only is Until Dawn fairly fun to watch as well as play, but everyone yelling at the screen for different choices is oddly reminiscent of watching a slasher flick with friends on the couch, except now, you can actually tell the damsel dressed in just a towel to run instead of attempt to hide under the conspicuous bed.
Until Dawn is a fun ride, and one I was sad to see end. There’s really no other experience like it out there, merging narrative adventure with horror charm and a brilliant photorealist aesthetic. The story begs for the player to comb back over, both to find every shred of info and to find a way to save everyone by dawn. Short documentaries are included as well, a personal favorite of mine for unlockable features, which let you delve into the making of the game through every stage of development. While it isn’t perfect, it serves to be something fresh, interesting, and memorable, certain to be fun whether you’re enjoying it with friends or sitting home alone, with the blinds shut and headphones on, pale-white knuckles wrapped on your controller, just hoping that the next corner won’t spell doom for your favorite character.