Release Date: August 25, 2015Platforms: PS4Developer: Supermassive GamesPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentGenre: Adventure-Survival Horror
In Until Dawn, a group of eight teenagers return to the snowy mountain retreat where two of their friends disappeared exactly one year ago. It’s a moody, choice-based adventure game with the perfect setup for a horror movie, complete with eerie settings, like a creaking cable car, an isolated guest cabin in the woods, and a decrepit symposium. Players will move through the tense and slow-burn of a story, crafting different relationships between the teenagers and plotting a course for the narrative to see who will make it out alive. These moments of relationship building are intercut with scenes of an unidentified character being interviewed by a psychiatrist, which add to the unsettling mysteries infusing the game world. Everything is vibrantly brought to life with pointed acting by Hayden Panettiere and company. However, the core elements of the gameplay and the ultimate ramifications of your decisions in Until Dawn leave the overall experience feeling like nothing more than a cheap jump scare.
The game’s true nature became abundantly clear upon completion of my second playthrough, where I made entirely different choices and still ended up in the same general place. That’s the thing about Until Dawn: many of the outcomes are entirely inevitable, regardless of your input. At one point, I had to choose between saving one of two characters from a Saw-inspired death trap. On my first go, I chose to save Character A, so Character B was sliced up like a Christmas ham. The second time, I chose to save Character B, but something in the death trap machinery went haywire and Character B ended up dying again anyway. The illusion of choice is often a sham. Yes, characters are able to die in some tense and gory ways, but they’re only ever able to die in very specific instances, regardless of what you try to orchestrate to the contrary.
These domino chains of decisions are deemed as Butterfly Effects, which follow the idea that one minor decision can drastically alter the future. What’s more, by looking at the Butterfly Effect menu screen, it’s incredibly easy to read the descriptions of events and figure out exactly what you need to do to achieve a different result the next time around. There are only twenty or so different Butterfly Effect sequences throughout the game, and half of them don’t have any real impact on the overall outcome of the story. For instance, early on in the game, one character has the option to kill a squirrel who’s sitting on a tree stump. If you attack the squirrel, then another character will mildly get attacked by a crow a few minutes later, but escape unscathed. If you don’t hurt the squirrel, then “nature remains in balance” and the crow attack doesn’t happen. No real consequence or effect on the story either way.
Another disappointing realization is that a lot of those relationship-building decisions you can make in conversations don’t really matter in the end, as characters can just die before reaching any sort of payoff or completing their arcs. It’s a shame, too, as some of the dialogue choices are really smart and intriguing, and there’s an extensive menu system which outlines everyone’s personality traits and their relationship status with the other characters. And all of the answers you give throughout the inter-chapter psychiatry sessions, like what you’re most afraid of or which character you dislike the most? Those don’t really seem to have an effect on anything, either, as far as I can tell. The story itself is intriguing for a good part of the way, especially as you get to know each of the lively personalities, but things quickly get derailed as more and more horror movie tropes and revelations enter the mix.
Based on my experience with Until Dawn, there are almost no additional or unique gameplay segments outside of the main progression path that open up as a result of your decisions (I only came across one instance over three separate playthroughs). Everything plays out in the utmost linear fashion as the developers intended, with the only difference being who lives or dies before the sun comes up. People expecting hundreds or thousands of different pathways and endings are going to be extremely disappointed. For those curious about these alternative plot points, the game opens up a chapter select feature upon completion of the story for you to experiment with. But it’s kind of strange to find this chapter select alongside the strict single save and autosaving mechanics that are instilled to make you live with your decisions. If you can replay specific episodes to alter the narrative after the fact, why can’t we just make multiple saves?
From a gameplay perspective, Until Dawn is as bare-bones as they come, even when compared to other games in the genre like Heavy Rain or Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In addition to choosing dialogue branches and narrative progression, perhaps the biggest gameplay element comes in the form of hunting for collectables. Most of these collectables shed new light on the mysteries that lurk under the shadow of night, while other collectables called Totems give you insights into how certain characters might die through brief prophetic video clips. This is a neat little feature that serves as clues to upcoming decisions, in case you want to avoid or pursue any of the prophecies that are depicted. Hunting for collectables gives a good incentive for exploring the atmospheric environments, but if you’re not interested in finding them (as you won’t be on multiple playthroughs), then you can breeze through the entire game in a single afternoon.
Quick Time Events are frequent and fast, but they’re mostly limited to climbing up a wall or running through the woods. I lost count after a while of how many times I had to choose how to execute a pathway for a character as they climbed up a small cliff. You’ll also arbitrarily light lanterns, flip through journals, and shoot padlocks off of doors. One moment of brilliance comes in the form of evading a pursuer by making a split-second decision to either run or hide. When hiding, you’ll have to hold the controller completely still so as not to be heard, and these moments are actually genuinely heart-pounding and tense. I constantly found myself holding my breath and praying along with the character that the pursuer wouldn’t find me. But then again, I think it’s something to be said when a game’s strong suit is holding the controller completely still and not touching anything.
Although the graphics are gorgeous, the framerate constantly suffers. I experienced extreme slowdown and choppiness during a snowball fight between two characters that rendered the game all but unplayable for a few minutes until the next scene booted up. Another annoying feature is that after the completion of every chapter, or every time you start up the game again after a break, you have to sit through an unskippable “Previously on Until Dawn…” feature, which recaps all of the cutscenes you just had to sit through. These recaps are entirely counterproductive to the immersion factor of the game, and they become especially frustrating when completing several chapters back to back in a single gameplay session.
For a game that’s all about its choices and alternate pathways, Until Dawn feels incredibly streamlined and manipulated to be as linear as possible. Without these elements, the game becomes a skeletal collectable hunt peppered with QTEs and the occasional tense cinematic. The premise is absolutely great, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Although your first playthrough will still be enjoyable, thanks to some relatively strong voice acting and the thrill of the unknown, once you unmask all of the game’s tricks, that fun quotient is lowered considerably. It’s the video game equivalent to a B-horror movie, but instead of the self-aware campiness that could make it a beloved cult classic, Until Dawn seems destined for a murky existence in the bargain bin instead.
Joe Jasko is a game critic.