Review: Until Dawn - A Beautiful, Terrifying, but Niche Night on PS4
Sony Computer Entertainment
Adventure, Survival Horror
Review copy provided by the publisher
I have a confession to make: I’m extremely weak to horror movies. The good ones hit me in the gut like a baseball bat, and it’s really difficult for me to sit through them until the end. That’s why I really hoped for Until Dawn to be a bad horror. I can laugh those off.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The plot is relatively classic. A group of teenagers is stuck in a mountain lodge, that is very conveniently completely isolated from the rest of the world. The problem is that just a year before, two of their friends went missing in that location, so the atmosphere is definitely uneasy.
In that kind of situation things start going wrong on the double, and that’s exactly what happens in Until Dawn.
It’s hard to say more without delving deep into potential spoiler territory, but the story is solid. It sticks to known tropes enough to play on a sense of nostalgia for fans of the horror genre, but it comes with enough unique twists to set itself apart.
The narration itself is the true strong point of the game, with the player’s choices heavily influencing not only the final outcome, but also radically changing the path that will lead to the final credits, almost from the very start. This concept is made even more fresh by the fact that there isn’t (at least that I could find) a real game over. If a character gets killed, the story will just continue without him or her.
In the end, there isn’t even a real bad or good ending. There are simply many different ones. A horror flick where everyone survives would probably feel rather weird, while one where most of the protagonists die might be more satisfying for some than one that ends on a positive note. Ultimately, whether you’ll like the ending you get will depend on your taste, and there’s a high chance that it will fit your taste if you made coherent choices through the game.
Speaking of choices, some are quite predictable, some are definitely more tricky. Some have small, almost negligible effects, while others (often unpredictably) have a big influence in the story. They’re implemented well enough that you’ll feel like you’re having a solid influence in the evolution of the story. Despite the fact that some consequences were more difficult to predict, and the game often kept me guessing, I felt relatively in control all the way through.
You cannot save or reload, and that’s an intentional implementation to make the player take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. The system can be tricked, though, as you can simply close the application when something goes horribly wrong, and rebooting it will place you at the latest checkpoint. This lets you at least go back on some of the most recent mistakes, but at times a consequence might be rooted too deep into your choices to be completely avoidable.
Personally, I found the characters a bit hit and miss. Some are genuinely likable, others are intentionally depicted as complete jerks, but at times I had to wonder “do American teenagers really talk like this, or the scriptwriter simply went overboard?” Some of the lingo used seems forced, trying too hard to imitate a youthful vernacular. I really can’t believe that a young lady, no matter how scared, would exclaim “holy cannoli” during a life and death situation.
Weird lingo and arguably excessive cussing aside (be prepared to hear the F-bomb a lot, possibly more than warranted), the quality of the horror experience is very compelling. The narration builds tension very well, with near-perfect pacing and extremely creepy situations, and then unleashes the hounds of hell exactly at the right time. The only problem is that Until Dawn goes a little overboard with the typical jump scares. At times they’re spot-on, but there are cases in which they feel gratuitous.
If you’re the kind of person that likes horror flicks to have a mix of tension building, creepiness, jump scares and some gore (not too much, really), then you’ll find Until Dawn a positively terrifying and satisfying experience. On the other hand, if you really dislike jump scares and prefer a more pure psychological experience, you may want to steer clear, as the game delivers them in spades.
While the soundtrack is basically perfect, especially in the quality of its sound effects, voice acting matches characters in their hit and miss nature. While during the majority of the game it’s expressive and well delivered, there definitely are more moments than I would have appreciated in which overacting runs rampant, probably trying to make it up for the fact that Until Dawn is not a movie, and while the characters are very well designed, they still aren’t as good at visually expressing their feelings as the real thing.
Visuals are definitely a strong point for the game, which is arguably one of the most beautiful titles on consoles. Environments are beautiful and well lit, and characters are simply stunning in their complexity and textures.
Actually, our protagonists are so well modeled that paradoxically there are quite a few moments in which the “uncanny valley” effect takes place. Basically, they are so close to photorealism that at times they feel weird just because they miss that target by just a little.
Some really neat effects like footprints in the snow, great lighting (if you like darkness) and spot-on weathering, complete a really spectacular visual suite that feels positively impressive, uncanny valley moments aside. Until Dawn is as beautiful as it’s creepy, no doubt about that.
Animations also show an extreme degree of variety, in the attempt of making the characters and their acting feel more natural. The mission is normally accomplished, even if the walking animation can be a little stiff at times.
Speaking about walking, you’re going to do a whole lot of it. You can press L1 to accelerate a bit, but you’ll still be quite slow. The game makes you walk around a lot in order to build tension with a slow and almost methodical pace. It’s appropriate to this game, but if you can’t live without action, Until Dawn is probably not for you.
Gameplay is very similar to the adventure games of old. During the vast majority of your time with the game, you’ll be in control of your character’s movement, and you’ll be able to interact with some elements of the environment. I can already hear the usual “gameplay snobs” screaming to the top of their lungs about this, and those that want total control at all times should probably steer clear, but Until Dawn is definitely no movie or visual novel. Its interactivity is appropriate to its genre, and the enormous amount of choices and consequences create a gameplay experience that is much deeper than many will give it credit for.
That said, if you’re not a fan of quicktime events, this isn’t the game for you. There’s a metric ton of them. The good news (at least for me) is that they are extremely forgiving. I am normally very bad at quicktime events, and I didn’t fail a single one during two complete playthorughs. As a matter of fact, I did go back and fail a few on purpose just to discover that most mistakes aren’t even fatal on their own. You’re very often given the chance to recover from them.
If one of your character dies, it’s much more likely for it to be a consequence of a choice you made, than of a failed quicktime event.
As a funny note of color (even if some might consider it a breach of immersion, and I can’t even say that they’d be wrong), looks like the folks at Supermassive Games forgot that guns need to be reloaded. Considering the theme of the game, and the fact that there definitely are some survival horror-like situations, the lack of reloading can be identified as a missed opportunity. It could have been used as a very effective plot point, and blasting around with the infinite sawed-off shotgun of doom definitely feels a little wrong.
While there are flaws here and there, Until Dawn is a very well put together experience, mixing great graphics and complex storytelling in a super-tight package. If you fit its very specific target, meaning that you enjoy the specific kind of horror it reproduces, and you don’t mind old-style adventure-like gameplay and quicktime events galore, you’ll find it a really exceptional and fairly unique game, that will scare the hell out of you in all the right ways.
I stayed up the whole night finishing the game and writing the review, and now I really need to sleep for a few hours. Too bad that I already know that I’m gonna have nightmares. Thank you Supermassive Games… Dammit.