Long time readers will know that horror and I don’t really get along. As a genre I don’t find it particularly engaging although there have been several examples which have managed to break through my disdain. Still even those few examples haven’t been enough to change my base dislike of nearly everything that bears the horror tag. Indeed that’s the reason why I deliberately avoided Until Dawn for as long as I did and it was only after thumbing through numerous reviews of it did I change my mind. Whilst Until Dawn might not be the title that finally gets me to see the merits of the horror genre it is an exquisitely built game in its own right, one deserving of all the attention it has received.
It was just like any other winter getaway when eight close friends went to one of their parent’s mountain lodges for a weekend of partying. They were to spend the week revelling like all teenagers do, indulging in things that their parents would likely disapprove of. However their night quickly turns sinister as they are reminded of the tragic past that brought them here that seems to haunt them at every corner. Your decisions will guide them through this night and determine who makes it to the end and who meets their untimely demise at the horrors of the mountain.
Until Dawn makes good use of the grunt of the PlayStation4, bringing graphics that are far beyond anything that the previous generation of consoles was capable of. Whilst most of the time the graphics are hidden behind the dark horror movie aesthetic There are still numerous moments that allow you to appreciate the level of work that’s gone into crafting the visual aspects of the game. There are a few rough edges though with performance taking a dive regularly, especially in outdoor scenes or action heavy sequences. The game isn’t unplayable because of it however you can definitely tell that the priority was aesthetic over optimization, meaning a constant 30fps experience isn’t guaranteed. Considering this is Supermassive Game’s first PlayStation4 title I’m willing to give them a little leeway however I’d expect future titles to not make the same mistake.
In terms of game play Until Dawn is in the same league as other interactive fiction titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. For the most part you’ll be wandering around the mostly linear environment, looking at various objects and interacting with other characters to further the story. Until Dawn’s flagship feature is the “Butterfly Effect” system which chronicles most of your decisions which will have an impact on the story down the line. There’s also collectibles called Totems which when found show you a glimpse of a possible future event, allowing you to get some insight into how they might unfold. Finally for all the action parts of Until Dawn you’ll be using a pretty standard quick time events system. All in all at a mechanical level Until Dawn is pretty much what you’d expect when it comes to an interactive fiction game.
The walking around and looking at things part is mostly well done (with some issues I’ll discuss later) with interactive objects that are in your character’s field of view being highlighted by a small white glowing orb. This typically means that as long as you do a full 360 of a room you’re likely to find everything in it which is good as I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to try and figure out sometimes in games like this. Until Dawn does reward exploration, meaning that if you think you’re going down a non-obvious section chances are you’ll find something juicy at the end of it. Thankfully the walking speed can be sped up some as well, meaning you’re not going to double your play time just because you wanted to explore a little bit.
Whenever you perform an action or make a certain dialogue choice the screen will explode in a cascade of butterflies, indicating that your choice will impact on future events. This is a more extravagant version Telltale’s “X will remember that” feature with the added benefit that you can go back and review your choices at any point. Unlike most other games though, where decisions that will have major impacts on the story will usually be showcased as such, Until Dawn rarely makes such a distinction. If I’m honest I found that to be a little frustrating as it was hard to tell when what seemed like a minor decision actually had major consequences. In reality though that’s much closer to a real world experience so I can definitely appreciate it for that reason.
The quick time event system works as you’d expect it to, giving you a limited amount of time to respond by pressing the right button or moving the control stick in the right way. It’s broken up every so often by having you make decisions, like taking a safe route vs a quicker one or hiding vs running, which can have similar butterfly effect impacts as dialogue choices do. The one interesting differentiator that Until Dawn has is the “DON’T MOVE” sections which can actually be something of a challenge when your heart is racing and your hands are shaking the controls. So nothing revolutionary here, not that you’d really be expecting that from games in this genre.
Whilst Until Dawn does show an incredible amount of polish in most regards there’s still some rough edges in a few key areas. The collision detection is a bit iffy, being a little too wide at the character’s feet which makes you get stuck on objects that you’d think you could just walk past. This also extends to things your character holds like a burning torch which seem to lack collision detection, allowing you to put your character’s hand through walls. There’s also the performance issues which I noted previously which, whilst not degrading the game into a slideshow, are definitely noticeable. Still for a first crack at a game of this calibre it’s commendable that Supermassive Games was able to put out something with this level of polish, especially on a new platform for them.
Now being someone who’s avoided the horror genre it almost all its incarnations I don’t feel entirely qualified to give an objective view on how good the story is. Certainly it seems to share many of the tropes that you’d associate with a teen horror movie but whether they’re well executed or not is something I’ll have to leave up to the reader. To me it was a predictable narrative, one that attempted to use jump scares and triggered music to try and build tension. Whilst it didn’t bore me to sleep like so many horror movies have done I still wouldn’t recommend it on story alone.
Until Dawn is a great debut title for Supermassive Games on the PlayStation4 showing that Quantic Games isn’t the only developer who can create great interactive fiction. The graphics are what I’ve come to expect from current generation titles, making full use of the grunt available on the platform. Mechanically it plays as you’d expect with only a few rough edges in need of additional polish. The writer’s aversion to horror though means that the story didn’t strike much of a chord although it’s likely to delight horror fans the world over. In summation Until Dawn is a superbly executed game one that both horror fans and interactive fiction junkies can enjoy.
Until Dawn is available on PlayStation4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 7 hours.