Have you ever watched a horror movie and kept yelling at the screen trying to get the characters to stop making dumb decisions? Have you ever wished that you could just tell those idiots what the hell to do? Then Until Dawn is the game for you.
Until Dawn is a narrative/exploration game in a similar vein to the works of Telltale and Quantic Dream. It released in the very non-scary month of August, but what better time of year to play it than now? Gameplay-wise, the game is no different from all of its other contemporaries. But what truly makes it stand out is its brand of horror that’s not only unique from narrative-driven games but most games in general. It’s a fantastic horror experience that sinks its teeth into you throughout the story and long afterwards.
Until Dawn tells the story of a group of teenagers in a frozen lodge in the middle of the Canadian mountains. A prank gone horribly wrong leads to the death of two of their friends. The friends meet up again one year later, but they soon realize that they might not be the only ones on the mountain.
The game is written in homage to classic horror films of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Anyone even somewhat familiar with Friday the 13th, Halloween, Saw and more will know what to expect: horny teenagers, masked killers, death traps, supernatural spooks and buckets of blood. While the writing is overflowing with horror tropes, its tongue-and-cheek nature keeps everything fun and fresh. From the constant references to sex, the deliberately cheesy dialogue, the jumpscare jokes from teens to the fact that the characters, modeled after their real-life actors, all look like they should be in their 20s even though they’re supposed to be teenagers, Until Dawn never takes itself too seriously and it’s a joy to watch.
But when it hit the fan, it really hits. That’s because Until Dawn crafts an effective horror experience. While starting things off goofy, it slowly builds up to some truly blood-curdling moments and only gets more disturbed as it goes on. Everything is wonderfully paced, and all of the game’s elements work in its favor in providing scares.
Your actions have a much bigger factor in who lives and who doesn’t than most narrative-driven games, keeping tension high as your characters avoid death lurking around every corner. And it’s not just immediate actions to worry about either; the game employs a “butterfly effect” system where actions you made in the past, no matter how small they may seem, can affect how the game’s events unfold.
It’s especially tense during the game’s multiple quick time events (QTEs). I generally find QTEs to be annoying in most games, but it works wonders here. Since you’re playing as a fragile teenager, the QTEs naturally reflect the hectic nature of whatever action the player is engaged in. It’s dumb to watch a character trip over a tree branch in a movie, but if vastly more compelling if it’s your own damn fault. It constantly keeps you on edge, and there will be plenty of moments where you’ll say, “Oh #@%$, why did I just do that?”
Sometimes, it’s not even your actions that decide whether you live or die. Sometimes the best option is to not do anything at all, such as by deliberately missing a button prompt during a QTE. It’s a feature I’ve seen implemented in many other narrative adventures, but it’s never been necessary for your characters to live like it is in Until Dawn.
Another QTE involves the player not moving their controller at all. So much as twitch, and the gyro sensors in the Dualshock 4 will pick it up and whatever monster is chasing you will tear you apart. I found myself literally holding my breath during these parts. It’s one of the most engrossing and non-gimmicky uses of motion controls I’ve seen so far.
Not only is the game’s graphics one of the most technically proficient on the PS4, but every pixel is dripping with atmosphere. The frozen, dark mountains of Canada, the damp, chilling mines and the blood-stained sanitarium are all frightful to behold. And the camera angles and lighting reminiscent of early Resident Evil and Silent Hill games add to the already unsettling and disorienting environments, being restrictive without making the game unplayable. And it’s all accentuated by a beautifully haunting musical score.
But you can’t have a system where your characters can die without making you want to see them live, and luckily Until Dawn sports many characters that you want to take care of. Initially, I thought that I was just going to hate every character, especially after what they tried to pull in the prologue. But now, I can’t pick a favorite. You warm up to them as their characters open up more and more. And even though they fit most of the stereotypes seen in other slasher flicks, their characters are handled in a believable way. Chris, the “nerd” character, never utters one pop culture reference to prove his geekiness and nobody else refers to him explicitly as a nerd. And of course, the stellar motion capture makes everybody come to life without being too alienating.
Clues and totems are hidden in each level. Clues are dispersed in a way that allows the player to slowly learn about the world around them and grow more and more unsettling as they go on. The totems are especially trilling to find as they show you a brief glimpse in the future, creating chilling foreshadowing and intrigue as you try to figure out how to avoid undesirable prophecies.
Clues and totems play a major part in the twists and turns of the story, so the game encourages exploration whenever it can. The game gives you a lot more land to cover, as well as the freedom to explore it, than most narrative games. There are some rooms I completely missed on my initial playthrough, such as Hannah’s bedroom in the lodge. Most of the clues and totems are cleverly signposted with subtle environmental cues, such as a quick glance at an empty room.
Though the story is as beautiful as it is terrifying, it’s not perfect. There are a few filler moments without any real buildup or even a resolution. The main threat, the most important element of any horror experience, constantly flip flops between the paranormal likes of Dracula or The Thing and the more practical likes of Jason Voorhees. While it keeps the players on its toes, I think the narrative would have been stronger if they kept it to one consistent threat. The prospect of paranormal threats are also a little hard to digest in the grounded reality of the world.
Clunky controls are effective for instilling fear in most horror games, but it can just get annoying during the game’s slower moments. Characters walk around rooms in only two speeds: a leisurely stride and a slightly brisker one. Characters don’t pick up clues and key items with one press of the button; you need to press X, hold R2, and then tilt the control stick to turn the object around. It’s pretentious at best and annoying at worst.
But despite a few flaws, you’d be hard pressed to find something as special as Until Dawn. While the 10-12 hour game is quite expensive at an MSRP of $59.99, the branching story, production values and collect-a-thon aspect make it compelling even after multiple playthroughs, much like the classic point-and-click games of yore.
Even if this game doesn’t look like your cup of tea, I still implore you to check it out. My sister, who almost exclusively plays Animal Crossing, dove into her own playthrough immediately after watching mine.
It’s one of the best narrative-driven games out there, subverting and refining both the tropes of horror and the gameplay of narrative games. It turns the passive nature of watching a horror flick into your own terrifying adventure. It’s a stand out among other great narrative-driven games, and it’s well worth picking up for all your Halloween marathon needs.