Confession: I love horror movies. I have said that before but it seems like a good thing to remind anyone reading this of. I. LOVE. HORROR. MOVIES. Slashers, monsters, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, goblins, demons, Ghoulies, evil puppets…. you name it. I am down for it. (Ok, I’m currently completely done with zombies and infected at the moment but, like their flood on the genre, I’ll get over it at some point.) I am also a big supporter of David Cage’s Quantic Dreams studio who have lead the way in story driven, choice based branching narrative games since Indigo Prophecy way back on the Playstation 2. I firmly believe that the approach to merging games with movies will eventually kill the endless inane arguing of are video games art. Why do I mentioning this? Simple. Until Dawn checks the boxes on both of these and I may gush a bit. Just a little.
Ten friends, who are all your basic horror movie trope victims, were hanging out at a cabin, only accessible by a cable car, on a snow covered mountain. They decided to pull a funny little prank on one of their number. The kind of prank that can only seem funny to kids in a horror movie. Of course, it doesn’t play out as they expected and two girls disappear never to be heard from again. One year later the missing girl’s brother decides to bring everyone back together at the cabin. Everyone quickly agrees that this will be a lot of fun and there is no way that anything could possibly go wrong. I mean… it’s not like there is a psychopath out in the woods or the cabin is haunted or there are monsters in the woods. Right? Wrong.
Developer Supermassive brought in a written with actual horror credits to write their bloody tale, Graham Reznik who cut his teeth working with directors Ti West and Jim Mickle. Supermassive proceeded to stack the deck by turning to indie auteur Larry Fessenden to co-author. The pair turned in a script that is up to Fessenden’s usual standards, taking some standard plot elements while bringing in engaging characters that can actually make smart decisions, some actually witty dialog to balance out the bad jokes that are required from the characters and joyfully turning tropes on their head. They finely craft some subtle dialog that feels real and impact the characters in ways that make sense. Their characters evolve and grow. Even if it wasn’t interactive, this would be a script worth seeing. The pair also teamed up for the movie Beneath after working on Until Dawn, making a giant fish movie that’s better than it has any right to be.
The cast is stuffed with familiar faces that bring solid performances. Standing out among the pack: Hayden Panettiere plays Samantha, the obvious survivor girl, capably- which is surprising. The recently inescapable Rami Malek play Joshua, the brother of the missing girls. Nicole Bloom as Emily, who gets a mention for playing my most hated character out of any horror in recent memory. I was gleefully awaiting my first chance to end her. She’s just so damn good at being painfully fucking obnoxious. The brilliant Peter Stormare has the thankless task of playing Dr. Hill whose purpose is to ask you questions that allows for the experience to tailor itself more toward the player’s personal fears and guage how you feel toward the characters. The soundtrack is dynamic and fits the mood excellently. The opening and credits are accompanied by Amy Van Roekel’s moody and chilling version of traditional folk song “Oh, Death”.
Using an upgraded Killzone Shadow Fall engine, Until Dawn is a beautiful game. The environments are finely detailed and drip with atmosphere. While some of the camera angles can be annoying, more often than not they help give the scene a sense of foreboding. As if the characters are being watched from the trees or to give a view of just how alone they are on the mountain. Character facial capture is also absolutely stunning. When in its most tense moments, I don’t think I’d have been able to tell them model apart from the real actor. Bodies move with real appropriate weight and details on their clothing are impeccably done. There are some awkward moments though that really stand out against the usually high standard. When picking up an object to inspect character’s wrists move in unnatural ways, it’s stiff and puppet like. Samantha’s being stuck in a towel that defies all laws of physics and holds together as if it was a sewn designer dress is another odd choice (JUST GIVE HER SOME FUCKING PANTS! Seriously, assholes.)
Game play is a tightly refined version of the earlier mentioned Quantic Dreams games. Hold a button to grab an object, move the right stick to pull it open or rotate it in your hand. It’s smooth and organic feeling, the gestures for actions never made me think “How the fuck does that work??” and quickly they become automatic. Quicktime events aplenty are liberally tossed in, maybe a bit too much and a bit too quick. While it was rare that I felt cheated by them, there was a spot or two where they went so fast that I completely missed seeing it was even an Quicktime event on my first play-though. Fucking Quicktime events. Bastards.
Closed-loop choice narratives have become something of a genre unto themselves with episodic titles that have been gaining popularity over the last couple of years. TellTale have made it their stock in trade. For me, these often feel too limiting, obvious and immediately funnel you right back into the led by the nose narrative. Until Dawn opens the loop considerably. While there are certain predetermined events that you can’t avoid, there is enough open that every decision actually feels like it bears weight. They do not have consequences are in the moment and mostly forgotten in the next scene, the game doesn’t just warn you that the character you just insulted will remember it. The reactions and the consequences are lasting. That fight you picked for fun with your girlfriend’s ex in the beginning? Yeah, that is probably going to bite you in the ass later after you’ve long forgotten about it.
While a couple of characters are slightly harder to kill, mostly so you don’t lose everyone in at the first possible opportunity, everyone’s life or death is in your hands. It often comes quickly and brutally. There are no checkpoints or retries. Deaths are often brutal and gore soaked. Jump scares are mostly thoughtfully placed and excellently designed. Unfortunately, because of the needs for the medium, there are also many that are crammed in just to be there and to pad the experience. Actually, “crammed in to pad the run experience” can be used to describe a lot of the second half of the game.
Until Dawn is highly recommended for any horror fan, it’s one of the best horror experiences I’ve had in a long while. It deserves to be a solid sleeper hit. Even if you aren’t a horror fan and are just looking for an interesting experience, Until Dawn is worth a look. It’s pluses far outweigh its problems. Though I do have a difficult time recommending anyone pay full new game price for it. It’s just too short and most are not going to get their money’s worth. That’s only going to happen for genre fans and those who replay it enough to see all the variables. Wait for a price drop and jump on it.
Until Dawn– 8.5/10- A great horror experience that is just too short and feels a bit too padded by the end.