Horror games aren’t usually meant to be ‘fun’ or known for being ‘a laugh’. Scrambling around in the shadows for ammo in The Evil Within, or managing a tiny inventory in Resident Evil can be harrowing and stressful experiences. And then there’s the nerve-shredding trauma of Bloodborne.
But what about horror movies? Beyond the blood and gore, we’re waiting for inevitable scare lurking around the corner to make us jump out of our skins and then laugh it off with friends. Until Dawn is the gaming equivalent of that horror movie experience and it’s been well worth the wait.
Before horror cinema became obsessed with low-budget, haunted house, night-vision camcorder borefests and the gorno genre fetishised the violence with series like Paranormal Activity or Saw respectively, horror films were generally based around hapless teens fleeing supernatural forces or maniacs with machetes. Until Dawn is all about that teen slasher style and runs the genre’s favourite tropes through a Heavy Rain filter with those all-important player choices affecting multiple lead characters who can die permanently. Supermassive’s game borrows intelligently from other games and films, as even the scares you might predict still threaten to send you scurrying behind the sofa.
I’ll not spoil the story, as it’s one of the most enjoyable pillars of the game. To set the scene though: a group of teens are trying to survive the night in a mountain cabin lodge. Naturally, a snow storm has taken out the lighting, caused issues with the ski-lift (the only escape from the mountain), a masked nutter is running around with a machete and there are some disturbing noises coming from the forest.
There are some recognisable faces too. Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Rami Malek (The Pacific, Night at the Museum) are amongst the victims and Peter Stormare (Prison Break, Fargo) shines darkly as the analyst in dream-like intervals. The likenesses are excellent, but let down by the disconnecting lip-syncing.
Let’s get that Heavy Rain comparison dealt with. Until Dawn is loaded with Quick Time Events (QTEs), potentially opening it up to a wider audience, but with enough replayability for the regular gamer to enjoy too. Moving around levels is done via the left stick, except during on-rails chase scenes, where you only have to worry about nailing the QTE prompts to avoid stumbling or even dying.
That’s right; anyone can bite the dust in Until Dawn. The butterfly effect is a central theme in the game and you’ll get a notification when one of your actions will impact future events. Some are clear, while others will only revel themselves later on. Throughout the game, you’ll be taking mental notes of what to try differently on a second playthrough (more on that later).
There’s nothing particularly challenging about the gameplay, although trying to hold the controller perfectly still when you’re hiding for the ‘Don’t Move!’ sections seems tougher than it should be. You’ll get to fire a few guns and throw some items, but you’re given loads of time in slow-motion to line up shots. While this sounds very casuals-friendly, the harsh timing of some of the face button QTEs could be quite off-putting when you try and put the controller in their hands. It’s a great game for people to watch though, especially if you’re letting a group of friends argue over choices, or better yet, replaying a chapter and scaring their faces off with a well-timed jump scare.
The interactivity of Until Dawn is the perfect tonic to all those times you’ve watched a movie and thought about how idiotic the choices made by the characters are. Now you’re in charge of their actions. So, if you’re being chased, you can choose to take the shortcut, or the safe climb. Hide under the bed or keep going. Attack the freak in the mask or run. It’s up to you and subsequently you must face the consequences.
You’ll also get to affect the actions between members of the groups, initially by getting involved with their bickering and later with life and death decisions. Amongst the excruciating mind games you may be asked to choose between saving one of two friends with a Saw-esque dilemma, or saving yourself from a fall or helping a friend first and so on.
Choosing who lives and who dies in Until Dawn is enormously liberating. Unless you’re the world’s nicest person, some of the cast are going to seriously get on your nerves and you’ll be letting them die as soon as possible by either flat out refusing to help them, or purposefully ‘failing’ an important QTE. Sorry, Emily, you’re never seeing the end of my game.
Until Dawn is one of the better examples of games that empower you with consequential choices to change the course of someone’s fate. But as with the competition (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Life is Strange and Heavy Rain), a second playthrough shows that some alternate choices inevitably bring you to the same outcome. Sometimes this is to show how little respect some characters have for others, or how you’ve already screwed up with previous choices, but it can make you feel like you’re not as in control as you imagined, which is a little deflating.
Sometimes, it seems like you can fumble your way through a section as ham-fistedly as you please and you’ll always survive as it’s not one of the game’s preordained ‘danger zones’. Or you might blink and find your head rolling across the floor. This is only really frustrating though if you’re trying to get a clean sweep of the Trophies. Play it for fun instead, and this is a fantastic new way to experience horror gaming.
- Can finally tell horror movie characters what to do
- Consequences to actions add replayability
- Strong plot that evolves throughout
- Lip-syncing is isn’t great
- Some choices mean nothing at all
- A minefield for Trophy hunters
The Short Version: This interactive horror movie is heaps of fun and packed with moments that’ll have you and anyone watching jumping out of their skin. Being able to kill off characters you don’t like is more fun than you’ll want to admit. You’ll definitely want to play it more than once too to put the cast through hell again and again.
Developers: Supermassive Games