The horror renaissance of 2007 is well and truly over. In recent times the genre is having a bit of rough patch. They are increasingly running out of ideas and as a result they are homogenising – I am finding it hard to differentiate my ‘Sinister’ movies from ‘The Conjuring’ ones! While there is the odd stand out movie; the entire genre is in danger of repeating the mistakes it made in the late 80s. There are only so many times you can watch a young, attractive couple get haunted by malevolent spirits.
Thankfully though we’ve had some high quality horror games to fill the void left by Hollywood – in recent years we’ve had ‘Alien Isolation’, ‘Resident Evil Revelations 2’ and the ‘Resident Evil HD Origins pack’. And while these are all top quality games; they don’t really capture the golden age of horror movies of the mid-to-late 80s…
…that’s where ‘Until Dawn’ comes in.
‘Until Dawn’ is SuperMassive’s love letter to the cheesy horror movies of the early-to-mid 1980s and it is clear from the opening few minutes that they are a developer who are enamoured by their source material.
The setup is the classic; a bunch of good looking teenagers are spending some time in a luxury cabin in the woods to celebrate the life of a friend that died in the same woods the year before. Of course it doesn’t take long for things to go very wrong for our group of friends – but it is here that Supermassive play their trump card – the characters pair off and as they do so too does the narrative! In fact the narrative splits into four distinct stories and it is here that the true strength of ‘Until Dawn’ becomes clear. Supermassive knew that only one story would be dragged out to fill the 10 hour running time so by telling four-interwoven stories allows them to tell a collection of stories providing a punchier pace while keeping the player coming back to see what happens next.
Supermassive have also bookended the main narrative with another story revolving around a psychiatrist asking questions of an unseen character, these scenes are carried by Peter Stormare’s incredible performance and while their purpose is unclear at the beginning; they quickly make sense after only a few ‘episodes’.
The main story is excellent too! With enough twists and turns throughout that will surprise and shock even the most ardent slasher fan – there is even a final act reversal of expectations; the game subverts everything you have known until this point and the story changes completely. It is completely unexpected but it was; in hindsight, completely telegraphed through throw-a-way comments of minor characters as well as visual clues and even in game collectible items. When it happened I was shocked when I really shouldn’t have been – this is the true sign of an effective twist. It is a textbook example of a twist and it is brilliant – injecting the final act with energy while raising the stakes for the player.
The narrative is told through the gorgeous in-engine cut scenes that are head and shoulders above 90% of other current gen games. In fact the whole game is one of the most beautiful available on the PlayStation 4; it is truly a technological marvel. Through expert use of fixed perspectives showing us only what we need to see has allowed SuperMassive to go to town on lighting, set dressing and graphical clarity – while it is never scary (outside of a few jump scares scattered about) it is incredibly atmospheric and it draws the player into the universe and adds to the immersion.
Where the story really shines however is in its branches – at various points of the game you will be put into situations of grave danger or presented with a simple choice; depending on your choices the story will change significantly! Characters will live or die based on what you choose to do and arcs will change accordingly; it is possible to kill all the characters as well as getting every character to survive! While the game’s main narrative will continue on its path to the story beats and predetermined set pieces, you will get an impressive amount of variation of scenes depending on who you keep alive; and when they live/die – it adds masses of replayability and makes every playthrough different to an extent that it feels fresh and new! However – it does mean that you will make a decision that sucks for the character. You know the type of decision I’m talking about; the decisions that we all shout at the TV about in movies and swear that we’d never be that stupid! I guarantee you though…
…you are! Once a decision is made – it is impossible to back out of meaning that a characters death/survival is inevitable and you are powerless to stop it unless there is a gameplay element in the scenario.
All of this would mean nothing however if the characters were unlikeable, and that is thankfully not the case. While these characters are all horror tropes (the gorgeous cheerleader, the outsider, the jock etc) they are all incredibly well acted and insanely likeable. You will want to save them all and if you fail at any stage you will experience remorse for poor decisions and miss them throughout the rest of the game – every death has a knock on effect on the player and the story. It is truly impressive.
Whilst this game is a lot of fun and I enjoyed it immensely; it is not perfect. Because of the game’s focus on branching storytelling the interactivity is severely limited throughout, meaning you often feel like a passive participant in scenes – most of the gameplay involves QTEs and specific manipulation of the analogue sticks/face buttons. For me though this is a necessary limitation as it means that you can lose yourself in the narrative and be swept along for the ride – I feel that treating this as a flaw is akin to complaining that Mario Kart doesn’t have a story mode; these games have a very clear focus and intention and they not only meet these goals but surpass them at every opportunity.
Overall ‘Until Dawn’ is an incredible experience and a must own title for any PlayStation 4 owner – it’s one of the under-rated exclusives this generation and it is one that can sit shoulder to shoulder with the very best of them! If you haven’t played this game; get out there and rectify that!
Have you played Until Dawn?
Why not share your experiences in the comments below!