Anyone familiar with my work (or who knows me personally) will most likely be aware of my intense, unyielding hatred for David Cage and his assorted works. A man desperate to usher in a new age of videogames by making interactive films that fall apart under the weight of his own incompetence as a story teller, with horrible depictions of women, ideas stolen wholesale from other intellectual properties, and a tendency to throw inexplicable martial arts fights into things for no real reason. Why am I using space in a review of Until Dawn to slag off David Cage? Well, Until Dawn feels like it was made by an alternate universe David Cage, who understands the difference between homage and rip-off, and who knows how to make a well-paced story that isn’t cinematic at the expense of interactivity. Basically, it’s this sort of game done right.
One year after a group of friends enact a prank that leads to two of them being killed, the dead girls’ brother invites the group up to the family lodge where they died, as a sort of group therapy through reunion type deal. It’s the classic horror set-up; a group of teenagers alone in a lodge in the mountains/woods cut-off from the outside world. Each one fits a basic character archetype: the final girl, the nerd, the dumb blonde (not my words), the jock who’s gone up a snowy mountain in a letterman jacket and tracky bottoms- they’re recognisable characters, but not based on anyone in particular. The story follows horror lore rather closely, but mixes up locations and threats; moving from a lodge in the snowy woods to a dilapidated mine and a sanitarium all without breaking flow. It’s due in part to characters being split up, with each of them working towards a goal -whether it be to help the group or simply escape where they are- and the game just lets them get on with it. The game is done in a slightly episodic fashion, with “Previously on” segments and Peter Stormare appearing after each chapter as a therapist asking you to basically tell him what you’re scared of. The latter pays off and is generally well done. The former is quite poorly done; the game doesn’t have any break between episodes, and will instead play a cutscene then smash cut straight to “PREVIOUSLY ON UNTIL DAWN”, making the whole thing seem unnecessary. The game’s ending also seems quite sudden and convenient, but overall the story is well-paced, gripping and shows a good understanding of horror, compared to a lot of modern “Survival Horror” games. Also, though graphics aren’t something I normally mention, it’s worth pointing out that these are quite possibly the best graphics I’ve seen in a videogame. While its palette isn’t as expansive as something by Naughty Dog, the character animations and details in the game are excellent, and the facial capture in the game is genuinely amazing. Pausing the game brings up the face of whomever you’re playing as, and they all look fantastic. Clearly Supermassive didn’t mess about with all that Sony money.
Gameplay wise, it basically plays like Heavy Rain. You walk around, interact with environments, make choices and engage in quick time events. The most noteworthy parts are those last two. The choices never feel forced; they’re a mixture of dialogue and character interactions that matter partly because everyone’s a teenager, and partly because they may come back to bite you later (more on that shortly). The other choices usually come up during action or chase scenes. You’re running after someone in the woods- do you take the safe route down the path? Or do you risk sliding down a rocky hill? Do you barricade the door, or keep running and try to get a headstart? There are also times when not acting at all is the best way forward. Not that the game makes it obvious. The choices work so well because of what the game calls “The Butterfly Effect” (named for the actual theory); a dedicated list off the pause menu shows the choices you made, and the effects of that choice, expanding as the choice continues to have consequences as the story goes on. It’s nice that as well as the natural results shown in-game, it also actively details exactly what’s happened and why, which you can completely ignore if you wish. It works a lot better than Telltale’s vague “X will remember that” message. Also literally every character in the game can die, or none, or any number in between. Certain characters can only die after you reach a certain point in the story, but said story can end with everyone in the main cast having suffered a horrible, gory death. It adds a real tension to all the action scenes when you realise that one wrong move can get a character killed, and there are no do-overs. You have one save file and cannot go back until after you clear the game; someone dies, they’re dead for the whole run time. Unfortunately this can be made slightly irritating due to one particular QTE where you have to keep the controller completely still. Most of the time it’s not a big problem (it’s actually done quite well), but a slight twitch can result in failure, which happened to me right at the end of the game when I wasn’t expecting it and a character I really wanted to live got murdered. Still, there’s always my next playthrough.
My only other gripe is a slight spoiler, so skip down to the wrap-up if you want to go into the story completely blind, which I do recommend. The supernatural enemies that are hinted at for a while then finally show up late in the game are really generic. Considering what they are (an established supernatural creature), they could have looked so much more interesting than they do. But it’s just a small thing, they’re still genuinely threatening.
Overall “Until Dawn” is excellent. It handles choices better than any other game in this genre, the graphics are arguably the best ever seen in a game (certainly a console game), and it puts David Cage’s weak-sauce attempts at an interactive film game to shame; using horror lore as a jumping-off point for an intense story that grips from start to finish. It’s the PS4’s joint-best exclusive with Bloodborne, and a must-see if you own the console. Having said that, it’s quite short, so maybe wait for a price drop.
By James Lambert