“Don’t go in there” These words have often left the tense mouths of horror movie fans questioning the idiotic decisions of the genre’s protagonists. Until Dawn turns the tables, placing the fate of terrified teenagers squarely in your hands. Unlike the many 80’s Slasher icons, death is permanent, meaning your every mistake could thin out the cast of survivors and alter the game’s final outcome. Despite a bloated story and a troublesome framerate, Until Dawn is an exciting interactive movie that will delight suspense and gorehounds alike.
During a winter trip to a isolated cabin, a cruel prank results in the disappearance of two young girls. At the request of the sister’s still grieving brother, the friends reluctantly reunites on the same mountaintop one year later. But it doesn’t take long before their unease is validated through a series of disturbing events and cryptic warnings. A seemingly omnipotent shadowy figure is hunting down the guilty party, rapidly picking off the frightened teenagers with elaborate traps and vicious attacks. Trapped during a blizzard in the dead of night, the separated group must navigate treacherous obstacles in the hope of seeing the sunrise.
Until Dawn certainly starts off with an eye rolling premise and cringe worthy dialogue but it’s intriguing cast of characters quickly salvage the narrative. Childhood friends, former romantic partners, and conflicting personalities create tense scenes well before the gore starts flying. But it’s in life and death situations that previously withheld feelings bubble to the forefront, challenging the already strained relationships to remain intact, if only for personal survival. Though these interactions remain entertaining throughout, the story’s hamfisted attempt at replicating multiple genres of horror results in the first two act’s intense blockbuster set pieces trailing off into a straight-to-video grade finale. Still, the first six hours of its eight hour campaign left me second guessing every choice, even when the actual arc became predictable.
The “Butterfly Effect” system make up a large part of Until Dawn’s story and gameplay. Players will periodically decide between dialogue options, paths, and actions that alter the relationships between characters and potential choices as the game progresses. Every action is permanent, no save states, no do overs, only results. Until Dawn is at it’s best when neither of its decisions are preferable but both are the only viable choices. In one instance a character’s hand is slammed shut inside a bear trap while a pack of rabid dogs charge towards him. Should you amputate the fingers and flee or attempt to pry the claws back with a rusted machete?
But given the limited number of outcomes, you’ll occasionally need to make less consequential decisions while being funneled towards the next major event. These moments are poorly disguised placeholders but their brief appearances don’t detract from this exciting and engaging mechanic.
Though this may sound like an interactive movie, the majority of Until Dawn plays similarly to a traditional adventure game. Taking control of the eight different characters, players explore their environments and interact with glowing objects. Items range from newspaper clipping and notes that fill in the backstory for both the character and player, useful tools, as well as mythical totems that reveal brief glimpses into potential events. These objects have a deep impact on character behavior and do a great job of encouraging exploration. Even if the walking controls are loose and fixed camera angles regularly require players to adjust their avatar’s direction, these scenes are a nice break from the game’s more demanding moments.
Outside of exploration, action sequences such as shooting, running from danger, and climbing are time based, requiring players to quickly react to button prompts. But it’s the “Don’t Move” events that are Until Dawn’s most compelling feature. During a stealth scenario, players are tasked with keeping the controller perfectly still. The hypersensitive motion controls of the Dualshock 4 make this the most effective moments in the entire game and fully immerse the player into an unforgiving and gruesome world.
Until Dawn looks the part of a PlayStation 4 exclusive with highly detailed character models and stunning facial capture animations. Though happier expressions can creep into the realm of the uncanny valley, resting and stress faces are shockingly lifelike. Voice acting appropriately over the top, especially in the case of Peter Stormare’s exquisitely eerie Dr. Hill. While sparse, backgrounds display the game’s fantastic lighting with flashlights and torches eliminating rusted sewers and snowy paths. Disappointingly, Until Dawn’s framerate is an absolute mess, often fluctuating from the low teens to a solid sixty. Though this is far from ideal, it never interferes with the gameplay and only slightly distracts during cutscenes.
Regardless of its multiple endings, gameplay elements, and dramatic moments, Until Dawn comes down to it’s core narrative. What begins as a thrilling mystery eventually devolves into a collection of video game story clichés. Which is a real shame given how original and engaging the majority of its torture porn story is in the medium. Still, it unique “Don’t Move” sequences and “Butterfly Effect” branching storylines make it an easy recommendation for adventure fans and horror buffs alike. If you’ve ever found yourself creating masked killer escape routes, you need you play Until Dawn.
VGAD Score: 7.5