Episodic gameplay and choose your own death games have become incredibly popular recently. Until Dawn takes certain elements from those games and expands upon them in all new ways. The results are intriguing and sometimes spot on, but does it maintain that high level of horror throughout?
Much like any teen slasher film, the game revolves a group of friends who all feel incredibly guilty about something they did the year before. Returning to the super creepy mansion on the hill during a snow storm, they must work together (or not), figure out what is terrorizing them and possibly survive until dawn. While the storyline is one that we’ve seen plenty of times before, the gameplay experience does still feel like something fresh.
Unlike the typical choice based game, this one really hammers home the whole butterfly effect idea. It’s a crucial part of the game and players can see how everything from interpersonal relationships, discoveries of clues and items and even ability to complete QTEs effectively can change the entire course of the game. Characters will live or die depending on your play style, and these diverging paths instantly add curiosity about replay to the experience.
The first five chapters of the game were an incredibly scary and tense experience for me. I was jumping at every startling noise, afraid to look around corners and generally filled with that glorious fear that I was hoping for from the game. It was so intense that I could hardly go to sleep as anxiety about evil scarecrows, spiders and even that creepy therapist were consuming my imagination. With the creation of an excellent mood thanks to some impressive scoring, as well as those classic camera angles that let us see threats without the ability to warn the characters, Until Dawn creates tension right from the beginning.
Unlike other games of its ilk, I found Until Dawn to offer players plenty of agency and control, while still giving a primarily cinematic experience. It was really intriguing for me to watch as characters grew more or less adventurous or brave as the game went on, becoming my reliable friends to go check out unusual noises or protect each other. Unlike so many games that say the choices matter, this one really seems to take that to heart, even giving flashbacks sometimes to show just how wrong you were to question your boyfriend or hesitate when chasing after your girlfriend.
The powerful suspense and horror elements are maintained across a range of environments. From the creepy mansion to the abandoned mines to the seriously terrifying sanatorium, and even the snowy mountain passes each feel uniquely disturbing and dangerous. Particularly well done is the ability to do nothing in certain scenarios; I quickly decided that I’d rather keep the world of nature in balance by not killing anything that moved, although that wasn’t always the easiest (or best) choice to maintain.
Unfortunately, the game couldn’t keep that suspense alive, despite its best intentions. After a core element of the horror is revealed, the fear of the unknown is dispelled. Sure, the game is still filled with plenty of worry and suspense, but once I knew the source of that danger, it simply wasn’t as scary anymore. Additionally, there were only a couple characters who I really liked; as long as they weren’t going to be killed off, I didn’t really care about what happened to the rest. This meant that my careful gameplay from the first part of the game soon turned into collectible hunting (particularly for clues about events from the past and hidden totems that give guidance clues or death premonitions) as I sought to simply protect the characters I liked and not worry about the rest.
When characters die, it is an incredibly gruesome experience with many of them ending up decapitated. However, the ways to prevent these deaths often come down to simply holding the controller still at the specified times or getting the QTE right rather than decisions made at the start of the game. While I felt pretty blasé about the survival of most of the whiny teens, I was genuinely upset when one of my favourite characters died just moments before dawn.
Throughout my first play through, I was convinced that I would want to go back through and see what could have been if I’d played differently. There is an episode select option that unlocks upon game completion that allows players to replay chapters and experience them in new ways. However, there is no functionality to skip certain sections which means watching the same psychiatrist scenes repeatedly, or playing through the elements you “got right” again just to get to that one part that you got wrong. Once you complete those elements, it is then necessary to complete the entire game all over again as you can only see the result of your new decisions once you reach the later points in the game. This sort of defeated the replay elements for me – I wanted to see what would have happened if I saved a few characters, but I simply wasn’t interested in playing through the entire last chapters over and over again just to see the outcomes. I hope that they institute an “update the butterfly effect” option or something in future builds to help players explore what could have been without forcing them to experience the whole thing again.
In fact, once you’ve experienced the full game, it really is hard to be afraid again on a second replay. I tried playing through certain early chapters again, but they simply didn’t have the same mood or fear once I knew what the characters were up against. Even the jump scares didn’t surprise me and I found myself focusing solely on collectible hunting and certain butterfly effect moments rather than truly being immersed in the game again.
As great as the sound and music is (the shrink’s office has the Goldberg variations playing? genius!), that’s how bad the facial animation is. While sometimes I could pick up on an emotion from the character reactions, for the most part they all looks like characters out of Twilight. The voice acting was pretty good at times, although the script was so clichéd at points it was cringe worthy. It’s meant to be a teen slasher experience, with the good and the bad, but those faces were almost a distraction from the rest of the game.
Last Updated: August 24, 2015