A horror story about a bunch of horny teenagers trapped in and around an isolated cabin, whilst being picked off one by one by a mysterious masked figure who seems to bare some kind of grudge against them? No, it’s not every slasher movie ever made, it’s the PS4 exclusive horror title Until Dawn.
The plot isn’t actually as predictable as it sounds. Until Dawn is actually a surprisingly clever game that purposely sets itself up with a clichéd horror story and then has fun with it, throwing in a few twists and playing with the audience’s expectations of what typically happens in slasher movies.
A year after a group of careless teens play a distasteful prank which goes wrong and results in the disappearance of two girls, they decide to meet up again in the same place, which just happens to be a lodge high up in the mountains. They intend to live it up and have a good time to honour the memory of their probably dead chums.
It isn’t long after the group of seven remaining friends arrive that it becomes clear that they are not alone on the mountain, and whatever or whoever is up there with them might want to do them harm.
I’m aware that this comparison has been made many times already, but I’m going to make it again regardless. Until Dawn is a Quantic Dream game in all but name. The player controls several characters in third-person, who move slowly around linear environments with tank controls, looking for something that moves the plot along.
Most of the game is effectively a cut-scene, but with choices strewn through-out. The choices can be anything from deciding how to answer a question to choosing whether a character lives or dies.
Until Dawn is at its best when its forcing the player into difficult choices that can and will result in dire consequences; it’s at its worst when it’s fully emulating Heavy Rain by making the player hold down buttons just to open a cupboard. I know that there has to be some elements of gameplay, but by the end of the game and/or during repeated playthroughs, having to go through the rigmarole of picking up and rotating items, or pulling switches, really starts to grate.
More than any game I’ve played thus far (and just to be clear, I haven’t played The Order: 1886 yet), Until Dawn truly showcases the PS4’s capabilities. The graphics are staggering with only the slight awkwardness of facial expressions marring the experience.
That’s not to say the mo-cap is bad. Some of the actors are recognisable, and there are a few great performances from the cast. Peter Stormare is fantastic as Dr Hill, the psychiatrist who profiles the player in-between chapters. He’s constantly disturbing and delivers every line of dialogue in the most unusual and unexpected way imaginable, keeping the player constantly on edge. It’s just a shame that he isn’t utilised more, and towards the end of the game, his screen-time is limited severely.
Whilst Until Dawn isn’t terribly frightening, it manages to be atmospheric with its spooky forests and constantly lurching abandoned mine shafts.
In the first few chapters, it is overly-reliant on jump scares. It almost made me laugh how many times the game attempted to make me jump with something that ultimately turned out to be nothing. Later on, the horror comes from the gore. In true slasher movie style, there’s a series of horrific deaths that will make even a seasoned horror fan wince.
Despite not being as scary as it might have been, Until Dawn is a great game for other reasons. By presenting horror tropes so openly, it allows the player to toy with them. Do you lead the characters into a situation that your movie experience tells you will end with them dead on a spike, or do you use logic to attempt to keep them safe?
The game allows for both, offering a number of endings in which the player can potentially save or lose every character. It’s superior to Heavy Rain in the sense that no ending feels like failure. Even if most of the characters die, it’s still entertaining and offers the player something new each time.
Wearing its influences on its sleeve leads to some truly memorable moments through-out the game, where both the player and the characters’ judgement is clouded by prior ‘knowledge’ of horror stories and how they play it. Unfortunately, I can’t say anymore without spoiling.
The characters are distinguished from one another through their ‘traits’. Every character has a list of qualities including things like ‘bravery’ and ‘honesty’, which gives the player an indication of what kind of person they are, as well as a measure of how strong their relationships with the other characters are.
It’s then up to the player whether they use this information to influence how they player each character, or if they completely ignore it and make the characters do whatever they want. It’s an interesting and potentially intelligent mechanic, depending on how purposeful it was. The characters’ traits then alter as the story progresses based on what you have them do.
Until Dawn stands out from the shelf amongst all the Ubisoft influenced triple-A games competing for space on your PS4. Apart from being a genuinely enjoyable game, it’s a mainstream horror title which is something that I’ll always celebrate as proof that the genre still has air in its rapidly degenerating lungs, and it’s doing something completely different from any other game released in the past few years. Quantic Dream must be kicking themselves that someone else nailed their formula.
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A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.