Horror’s been a tricky proposition for games in recent years, especially in the AAA space, where the incentive to create games in this genre has dropped near to zero. Titles like Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Dead Space have either faded away, turned more towards action or both. While the indie scene is riddled with new horror entries, we just haven’t seen the support for the genre you’d expect in the last few years.
Here’s where Until Dawn steps in. In fact, the title is somewhat misplaced in its own era, probably to its own benefit. That is mostly down to incredibly long production for the game. This title was once supposed to be a PlayStation 3 game, with extended Move functionality. Back when this started production, Dead Space would have been all the rage. However, now displaced in a market it probably wasn’t designed for, it’s a breath of fresh air that stands as a great exploratory narrative well worth playing.
Until Dawn‘s set up is instantly recognizable to anyone who has even whiffed a teen slasher movie before. Eight ‘barely’ adults head out to an old mansion on a sinister mountain to commemorate a tragedy that befell a year before. And then…well things get bloody and nasty and gory and other horror adjectives. The characters are even instantly recognizable by design, as ‘the jock’, ‘the bitch-y one’, the class clown’, ‘the girl who will likely become the triumphant survivor at the end’ etc. Each of the characters you play are cut from a stereotypical cloth adding a sense of familiarity to the game, that Supermassive games plays with.
I suppose one thing I should answer off the bat is ‘is it scary?’ I’d say yes, at times. While it relies heavily on jump scares and never truly gets to terror inducing, there are certainly sections of the game that get under your skin in significant ways. It certainly looses some of its power towards the end when you figure out what’s happening, but that is pretty much par for the course in this genre. Most importantly though, it never stops being compelling. The way the story twists and contorts is constantly engaging, showing a lot of thought went into the plotting of the narrative. While Until Dawn deals with a lot of trappings that are usually vapid, like slasher movies and stereotypical characters, it does enough work to have you constantly feeling like there is certainly something clever going on under the hood. While Id figured out one of the central mysteries within five minutes of starting the first act, there was still a lot worth finding in this story that kept me going.
To give you an idea, the game plays out like Heavy Rain, having you make use of choices, quick time events as well as exploration to influence the story you experience, but with much less pretension than Quantic Dream’s usual offerings. The game knows what it is, and rarely tries to punch too far above its weight. Having said that, as you play as these characters and come to define them, they do transcend their initial trappings as archetypes. Yes, Mike will remain the jock, but he can unveil a fair bit of compassion as the story goes on based on your choices. As you progress, there is a real sense of agency with how you are forming these characters as people.
And that agency extends to gameplay as well, which I understand might be weird to hear. But stick with me. While your input can be sparse from time to time, when it’s asked of you, it matters. The game tells you about the butterfly effect a couple times in the opening hours, nearly to the point of tedium, but it does seem justified. Your playthrough might change drastically based on a simple decision made earlier in the game. Even when you think you might be doing right at some point, it can all come back to hurt you in the end. It’s clever and engaging stuff and I loved defining my own experience with the title. The diversity of where the game can go is pretty staggering and it really does help you feel like your experience is tailor-made for you. It’s all very clever.
Oh, and it is important to point out, that there is actually quite a bit of time spent with you walking around and exploring the areas you are dropped in. This was actually one of the other true joys of the title for me. The levels and areas a decidedly creepy and stick with you as you traverse your way across the unearthly mountain and discover its secrets. Until Dawn really does reward your exploration, giving you key information about the lore and what you’re up against when you stray off the beaten track. It informs the world in worthwhile ways and is forever ensuring you’re investing into this game in its fullest. This comes through by way of finding clues and information hidden in the environments. You’ll even notice your characters making reference to these little clues you find in conversation, reinforcing that your choice to go out and explore every nook and cranny always feels justified.
Also, I implore you to keep motion controls on. In a game full of surprises, I feel like the fluidity and ingenuity on display is absolutely one of them. Seeing how far Supermassive Games have been able to use the motion functionality of the Dualshock 4 genuinely adds a level of tangibility to the experience, which can often be the opposite for motion controls.
There is one quibble I wanted to point out though, and that was the weakness of the female characters. While Sam becomes a protagonist type figure in the game and is charismatic on top of resourceful, the other three women struggle intensely to justify their existence. This is almost certainly a remnant of basing these characters off of horror movie tropes, where they have been uncaringly handled in the past. That doesn’t entirely fly as an excuse here though. While most of the guy characters either have interesting, likable or redemptive qualities, besides Sam, the other three girls don’t have too much to admire about them. Em is an abrasive and unlikable character, Jess fades into the background as the ‘hot and sexy’ one, and despite Ashley having genuinely interesting qualities, too often she devolves into a screaming mess on top of merely being a love interest for Chris. In a game where ‘the Jock’ evolves into one of my favorite characters and the class clown shows a fair amount of humanity, the weakness of these female characters stuck out like a sore thumb.
With that said, Until Dawn absolutely should be on your ‘to play’ list if you own a PlayStation 4. It’s deceptively clever, with an intriguing lore and world that are worth exploring. The twisting narrative is a joy to see play out and I never felt it outstayed its welcome across its eight hour run time. Your choices matter in serious ways and the depth that can be plundered from choosing to explore make this a rich experience that consistently goes just a little farther than you might it expect. It is a joy, really. While it could have probably used an ending with a little more emotional resolution, I must say, I was continually impressed by the title. It could have worked on some of the characterizations a little more, but in the end it feels like a minor mark against it. If the idea of playing through a slasher movie sounds like your kind of bag, Until Dawn delivers and then some. While it’s never going to become an artful expression of what games can be, it is one of the truly fascinating AAA horror titles in the last few years.
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