Until Dawn Review

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┬átype 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

Batman Arkham Knight Review

I have something of an affinity with the “Batman: Arkham” series. Arkham City was the first game I reviewed, way back when I got to go to its launch event; it essentially set this whole “Reviewingfloor” thing into motion. Arkham Asylum was fantastic- it really shook things up in terms of superhero games; its detail, gameplay and care for the source material made it the new benchmark for the genre. Arkham City took that theme and ran with it, although it sacrificed a more tightly-focused story for an open world. I even quite like Arkham Origins, even though it’s pretty much just the same thing, with some incredibly convenient story hand-waves. So now we come to Arkham Knight, the last game in the series, and a game already infamous for a broken PC port that recalled by publishers Warner Brothers. It’s the first game in the series on current-gen consoles, its open world now encompasses all of Gotham City, and it was shown to be a fair bit darker and more grim than before. It piqued my interest, certainly, but how did it turn out? Is it a fitting end to the trilogy? Some light spoilers ahead.

After the genuinely surprising death of The Joker at the end of “…City”, Scarecrow has stepped in to fill the main villain role. He’s battered and maimed after his run in with Killer Croc in “…Asylum”, he’s got a somber new voice courtesy of John Noble, and he’s threatening to fill the entire city with fear toxin. In reality this is a slightly ham-fisted way to make sure there aren’t any civilians in the game, but I’ll let it slide. I’ve got bigger fish to fry anyway. Throughout the story the key theme is Batman finally failing to save Gotham; Scarecrow hammers this home every time he addresses you over loud speakers that apparently reach every square inch of the city. Helping him in this is the titular Arkham Knight, a mysterious new villain with training, a private army of mercenaries and intimate knowledge of Batman and his various weaknesses. Who is the Arkham Knight? Well, without giving it away directly; he’s exactly who you think he is. Yes, him. Yes the reveal is disappointing. It makes sense it’s him but it’s spoiled by how much they hyped him up as a whole new character when in actual fact he’s, well he’s him. Ahem. Navigated that minefield like a pro. He’s also responsible for one of the absolute worst gameplay elements, but I’ll get to that. Rounding out the cast is the Joker, or at least a persistent hallucination of him born from exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Now you might think that bringing the Joker back is cheating really; a case of having their cake and eating it, and honestly it kind of is. Particularly when the game (SLIGHTLY HEAVIER SPOILERS) makes the ending confrontation all about him (SPOILERS END). Having said that, I can’t deny they use him well. Having him be a figment of Batman’s imagination means he has access to all of Bruce’s private knowledge, and can use it against him. He’s also genuinely funny, though in a rather dark way that suits the game’s tone. So at least two of the three villains are well done, and for the most part the plot is pretty good. It hits the bleak marks nicely, and there are times when it feels like Batman may genuinely fail, just as Scarecrow insists that he will. However, there are two key failures in the game that end up being reversed, with no real consequence. That’s where the story fell down for me, again it’s them having their cake and eating it. They want Batman to fail, but obviously Batman can’t fail because he’s Batman. It’s frustrating; they already killed The Joker, you’d think this wouldn’t be too far, especially with it being the last in the series.

Gameplay wise, it’s pretty much the same, except for new additions that just get in the way. Chief among them is the Batmobile. The Batmobile is absolutely ridiculous, and outstays its welcome after about an hour or so. No matter where he goes, no matter how unlikely it seems or how much trouble it is to take the Batmobile, Batman always finds a way to drag it along with him. They seem to have thought “Well, the Batmobile is useable for the first time, we better make the most of it”. What starts as a cool addition that adds to the whole “I’m Batman” feel quickly becomes the gameplay’s biggest weakness. The aforementioned gameplay element brought in by the Arkham Knight is having to constantly fight unmanned drone tanks. They pop up all the bloody time- you’ll be going to or from a story bit and suddenly a load of tanks will turn up, as the Arkham Knight shouts “YOU DON’T KILL PEOPLE, THAT MAKES YOU WEAK. NOW FIGHT MY UNMANNED TANKS” because that plan makes sense and doesn’t waste my time in the slightest. Elsewhere Batman has a new suit that lets him move faster, which in practical terms means you can now chain together stealth takedowns, and boss fights have been completely replaced with you and one of Batman’s mates teaming up to beat the crap out of a load of goons. It’s a step backward from the Mr Freeze boss fight, but at least you don’t have to jump out the way of charging big lads anymore. Other villains have been relegated to side missions that you have to complete in order to get the true ending (which is shit by the way), and while it’s nice to see them, the missions themselves are forgettable. The detective elements follow Arkham Origins’ lead and add synthesising voice clips of people for various uses and reviewing security footage, and these moments are a welcome addition. The combat and stealth are still really good, you don’t need me to tell you that; it’s an Arkham game. The stealth definitely seems easier though, but I don’t consider that a problem really.

Overall, this is a step backward. The story doesn’t go far enough, the ending doesn’t do the trilogy justice, and the titular Knight is a complete waste. The Batmobile spoils the gameplay every time it pops up (which is all the goddamn time), but the core gameplay of beating the shit out of criminals, jumping on them from gargoyles and doing light detective work still holds up. There’s fun to be had here, but it’s easily the weakest of the trilogy.

By James Lambert