After a tragic accident leads to the death of two of their number at a mountain getaway, Josh Washington and his friends return the following year. Guilt still hangs over the group and tensions are high, but that’s not all – this place was never right to begin with. There’s a spooky cabin. There’s an abandoned sanatorium. What’s more, someone – or something – is stalking the teens.
Is it a psycho killer? a supernatural threat? or some monstrous horror forgotten in the mountains? Is it something else entirely? Or is it all of the above? The teens are going to find out over the course of the night – whether they want to or not…
Until Dawn is a horror adventure that plays out a bit like Quantic Dream’s titles, in particular Heavy Rain. This means that it’s really more of a movie or choose-your-own-adventure book than a game; the “gameplay,” such as it is, consists almost entirely of quick-time events and adventure-game style item-hunting, with the most innovative touch there being sequences where you have to hold the controller perfectly still. You’ll often have to make decisions and complete quick-time events on a timer, meaning it’s possible to “fail” a decision by not making it in time while under pressure.
Alongside the QTEs and adventure segments, you’re going to be searching for collectibles that elaborate on the game’s various mysteries. Fans of classic adventure games will like this aspect of Until Dawn, particularly since there’s a ton of exposition attached to these collectibles, but others may find it a distraction from the story. Who has time to slow down and pick up goodies while being chased around by a psycho?
In any case, the focus here is really on the characters and story. You’ve got eight playable characters, each of whom has their own personality and relationships with the others which are adjusted based on the decisions you make. The latter might not seem all that important, but when the poop hits the proverbial fan, your friends are far more likely to look out for you than your foes. This plays a surprising part in how the game plays out, since some characters can be presented in a far more sympathetic or damning light based on the decisions you make.
Said characters run the gamut of horror movie tropes. Sam, for instance, is your typical “final girl” character – a grounded young woman who generally stays out of the sexual debauchery going on during the trip. She’s played by Hayden Panettiere, doubtless an expensive lady to retain for such a project, so it stands to reason that she’ll be around for awhile. On the exact opposite of the spectrum you’ve got Jess, your cheerleader stereotype, who exists largely to titillate and to be menaced by the baddies. Other characters include the class clown, his mousy crush, the alpha female and her simpering boyfriend and, of course, a jock. They all act pretty much as you’d expect, though you have some agency in deciding what they do in different situations.
This agency is Until Dawn’s selling point. The underlying theme of the game is the concept of the Butterfly Effect, the idea that the smallest action you take could have severe consequences later on. When we talk about this, we have to bring up Heavy Rain again, because the same idea played a large part in how that one worked out. Characters can die – and once they’re dead, the game just goes on without them. Choices you make early on will come up later. Not every decision is life-or-death; more often than not, they just make minor changes or allow you to see an extra scene, but the little nod to the player is nice.
To help you choose, there are collectible totems scattered throughout the game that provide premonitions of a possible future, but these are largely unhelpful – you’ll get a scene of a character dying, for instance, but usually won’t get enough information on what killed them to intentionally avoid their death.
In any case, your response to Until Dawn is going to changed based on your expectations. The plot’s not going to swerve completely to suit your choices – there’s a story in place here and you aren’t going to take it too far off the rails. The particulars, though, are largely up to you. Most importantly, your decisions determine who lives and who dies and the story will shift to match. There are also psych-eval segments taking place between chapters along the lines of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories; these will determine certain details during the story, like which horror tropes are used to shock the player.
It’s a neat idea, but again, it’s not going to change the entire game. Think of it as taking a road trip – you’re eventually going to reach your destination, but maybe you’ll take different exits so you’ll see different things along the way. This, combined with the fact that a single playthrough of Until Dawn is relatively short at around 6-10 hours, means that you’re best off replaying the game a couple of times to experiment with different choices and the resultant consequences. There are several endings, so it’s worth at least a couple of runs.
Until Dawn’s graphics are some of the best on the console, naturally. The characters are modeled after real actors, so you’re bound to run into some uncanny valley-type issues, since everyone look fairly real while simultaneously looking not quite real enough – Jess in particular is a big offender thanks to her unintentionally horrifying smile. Animations are high quality as well, as is the game’s voice acting, and all in all the presentation is top notch. We’d expect no less for a game built entirely around its presentation, of course, but the fact remains that this is one of the games you’ll use to show off your PS4.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the game’s violence is fairly graphic. It might not quite on par with Mortal Kombat X, but it comes very close at times; some of the death scenes are absolutely brutal. It’s also a highly atmospheric game. This a very tense experience on par with some of the best horror flicks out there. Suffice to say, this isn’t an experience for everyone, and I can imagine players who aren’t very into horror will find the experience more stressful than fun.
So is Until Dawn a game that’s worth checking out? Sure! But is it worth checking it out for $60? That depends on how badly you need your horror fix, not to mention how happy you are with the fact that there’s very little actual gameplay. Honestly, this is the sort of game that’s going to see lots of trades in the coming weeks based solely on its genre and short lifespan, so you won’t be paying full price for long. Much like the classic slasher flicks it emulates this has Redbox Rental written all over it, and that makes it absolutely worth the time you’ll spend with it. Just make sure not to have squeamish friends nearby.