Note: This review was supposed to go live a few weeks ago, but due to some numpty hitting the draft button instead of publish, this one has been sat waiting for weeks. Apologies for the delay, but better late than never, right?
Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn is a bit of an odd one; on one hand, I’m completely blown away by the presentation and intuitive gameplay, especially with the ‘Butterfly Effect’, but on the other hand, I can’t completely enjoy the horrors it presents because I’m a total pussy and the story isn’t the strongest (it’s still pretty good), yet I’m still playing the game for a third time. So why is it so good?
The premise is one we’ve seen a thousand times before; a bunch of horny American teenagers take to a cabin in the woods to spend a weekend drinking beer and engaging in the usual promiscuous behavior that we’ve witnessed in countless crap movies. Sounds like a nice time, right? Except, obviously, not everything goes to plan and people end up as cold corpses.
As far as story games go, Until Dawn is story through-and-through. The first couple of hours are a little on the tedious side as we’re introduced to the cast of characters who ech reveal themselves to be a touch cliché – though I suspect this is very much an intentional decision by the writers. It does become a little boring after a while, what with the corny and, at times, crude dialogue. I found myself seeing if I could pick out the cast members and remember their previous works in TV and film. Horror films usually spend a few short minutes during the first third giving us a look at who’s who before getting on with proceedings. It works nicely in movies due to the fact that your average cinema flick doesn’t last more than a couple of hours. However, in the case of Until Dawn it’s an entire movie’s worth of cringy acting that gets allocated to giving us the rundown on the cast.
The good news is that it gets better. The story, which I won’t spoil here, is solid – even if it does trudge through well-trodden ground – and I found myself sat glued in front of the TV with eager anticipation as chapter after chapter rolled through. In all fairness, the acting could have been a little better, considering talent involved, but it’s perfectly serviceable and even lends more to the silly B-movie style of movie from which it borrows heavily.
I was originally concerned that I’d be spending most of my time watching the screen waiting for on-screen prompts to appear. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find that the majority of player control is presented via the traditional third person where you’re free to have a mooch about; something integral to finding clues in order to experience the different conclusions the game presents.
That said, if you’re not a fan of quick-time button-pressing events, you’ll probably find yourself groaning the whole way through as Until Dawn does rely heavily on QTEs. We’re so used to being in total control of a character when we play a game, that it’s quite jarring when your entire belief system in how a game is supposed to control gets pulled away from you and you’re left, controller in hand, with no idea what you’re doing next. Okay, it’s the same scenario we’ve been through in the past, but with the stakes being so high (often a characters life hinges on what button you press) it doesn’t feel all that forced. Put simply: it works for what it aims to do; cock-it up and someone ends up as worm food; get it right, you’re still sat there with a pounding heart as the next event unfolds, though depending on what you choose to do, it may be different to what the next guy playing the game ends up doing.
That’s actually the single-most impressive thing about the game, in my opinion anyway. With each play through there are instances where you have to make a decision that affects the way the rest of the story plays out. It’s not just a cheap gimmick either, it works, really, really well. I’ve only managed to get through the game twice and I’m around halfway through a third play through, yet, I’m still no closer to getting every possible ending and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to keep certain characters alive. A decision earlier on may have saved Jessica from becoming another casualty, but a couple of hours later she’s dead anyway. What gives, man?! There is no happy ending here – just ends of lives.
That’s not a bad thing by the way, as it gives you a reason to play again and again. However, the scares may fall flat after the first and second play through, though as I mentioned before, that’s not something I actually minded as I’m a bit of a wimp. When the scares come, they come hard. You’ll be scouring an area, making your way along when suddenly you’re screaming and dropping the controller. They’re effective – if a little cheap at times – but only when you’re unprepared for them, so rest easy knowing it’ll be a little easier to overcome the shocks second time around. Just a little.
Despite the sometimes dry and uninspired performances from the actors, the overall presentation is top-notch, even if the frame rate could have been a little smoother. It’s not a game breaker, though, as you’ll never be on the spot with the need for pin-point precision, so it’s not really an issue when it comes to gameplay, it just takes you away from the filmic experience a touch.
Graphically it’s a beauty. Facial features have been very well done, though the overall movement of characters is a little stiff at time, but again, it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen in a game and it still is very much a next-gen beast. That said, it does look a little odd at times due to the nature in which the faces of the actors were digitally placed onto bodies which often results in the faces feeling very much alive, but the bodies being marionette-like.
Environments are well detailed and the immersion is incredible; so much so that it’s easy to sit back and forget you’re playing a game and not watching another naff teen horror movie.
Until Dawn is out now, exclusively for PS4.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted using a retail copy of the game that the author bought himself before release. Special thanks to Marek for helping supply the goods.