Until Dawn is a game I’ve been looking forward to for some time, and I’m pleased to say Supermassive Games has delivered something well worth the wait. At heart, it’s playable horror movie that skilfully assembles familiar genre tropes into an atmospheric and engaging ride.
In terms of plot, I’m going to say very little. The game clearly wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, but even name-checking some of those films might spoil surprises for you, especially if you’re a horror fan (which you probably are if you’re interested in this game at all).
Having said that, get out your scorecard and tick the boxes with me as I give you a very basic plot outline. A group of attractive teenage friends (check!) gather in a remote location (check!) on the one-year anniversary of a great tragedy (check!), before seeing a bunch of spooky stuff (check!) and winding up separated (check!) and killed one by one (check!).
Well, that last point is actually flexible. In fact, it’s the core conceit of the game. See, the idea is you control the characters in turn through various perilous scenarios. You make the major decisions – stay put and hide or try to flee, and so on – while exploring your location and looking for clues as to what the hell is actually going on. So based on the actions you take, it’s possible to end the game with any combination of the kids alive or dead. I lost one of the group fairly early in my first go-round, then made it through much of the game without any further catastrophes before some bad late decisions left me with half the cast dead by the time the credits rolled.
Speaking of the cast, they’re uniformly excellent. Supermassive’s casting director deserves kudos for bringing in some great young actors – exactly the sort of people you’d probably see if Until Dawn were an actual horror film instead of a game. You’ve got the likes of Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Rami Malek (The Pacific, Mr. Robot), Brett Dalton (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), etc.
Each of the eight main characters fits into a basic horror movie stereotype: the jock, the mean girl, the nerdy one, the sensitive one, and so on. But each actor plays their role to perfection, creating characters you’ll sometimes hate but ultimately root for as you push on toward morning. Oh, and Peter Stormare has a hilarious and yet tremendously creepy role that I’ll leave you to see for yourself.
Graphically, Until Dawn looks just gorgeous, with obvious effort put into capturing the actors’ expressions and movements. Seeing the face of an actress like Hayden Panettiere onscreen definitely helps to reinforce that blurring of the line between horror game and horror film the developers were obviously going for.
All the action is complemented by a wonderfully eerie score from composer Jason Graves (best known for his work on the Dead Space series). Like any good horror score, there’s a heavy emphasis on strings, with the music gaining intensity as the tension ratchets up through the night.
Alright, so the acting is great, it looks great, and the music augments the mood nicely. But how does it actually play?
Well, quite nicely, overall. For the most part you just walk around, explore the location, and soak in the ambience. But at various points you’ll be tasked with making split second decisions. You’re being chased, do you go left or right? In cases like these, you just push the analog stick in the direction you want to go.
During particularly tense moments, the game incorporates quick time events. Like, let’s say time is of the essence and you have to race to save another character. Do you take a fast, risky path, or a safer but slower route?
Now, normally, I hate QTEs. But Until Dawn doesn’t go nuts with them, Quantic Dream-style. They’re used sparingly, and in a way that feels right. When you’re running to help your friend and you either hit that button combination perfectly and jump across a gap, or mess it up and stumble, it feels like the gameplay is servicing the story in a good way. The dexterity needed to pull of the QTEs correctly is a good analogue for the physical feats your characters attempt.
Motion controls are also integrated into the mix well. Sometimes you have the option to hide. If you remain perfectly still, you might escape undetected. But one accidental flinch of your controller and it could be curtains.
On the negative side, the camera placement can sometimes be a little wonky. You have the ability to pan your view left or right a little, but other than that the viewpoint is essentially fixed. So sometimes you’ll be walking toward the camera, and other times it’ll be at your back.
I understand the decision to take some of the camera control away from the player. Using fixed angles does give the game a more cinematic appearance at points. It allows the developer maximum control over what you’re looking at in a given scene, and can thus focus your attention.
But it can also lead to awkward situations where you can’t see around corners or can’t figure out where to go next because you can’t see a door from where the camera happens to have been positioned. And so you wind up blundering around the edge of the frame just to try and find an exit, which pulls you out of the experience a little.
I had a couple of other issues with the game, but they’re honestly quite minor. Until Dawn is a tad short, taking maybe eight or nine hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. But on the flip side, the replayability is very high if you want to get a look at all the different endings. I’ve played through twice so far and will absolutely be going back for more.
There’s also no save feature. But again, I can see the design rationale there. What better way to make sure all your choices have real weight than forcing you to stick with them? Oh, you died because your character didn’t pick up anything to defend themselves with earlier? Bet you’d like to reload that part and give it another go, right? Well, you can’t. Tough.
For the most part, the character deaths feel fair. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you successfully complete a life-saving QTE, and on the occasions where I made bad decisions, I generally found myself saying “Okay, I probably should’ve seen that coming.”
And it should be noted after you complete the game once, you unlock the ability to replay any of the 10 chapters however you’d like. So if you don’t feel up to a full play through, you can go back and fairly quickly see what you might’ve done differently in a given segment.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Until Dawn. While it doesn’t do anything especially innovative or unique in terms of gameplay, it’s still a great experience. This is definitely a game I see myself revisiting regularly. It’s a must for horror fans, and a good bet for everyone else too.