The horror games so far have tackled many different themes, but none of them managed to capture the feel of the teen horror genre that started in the ’70s with the movie “Halloween”. The premise is always the same – a group of teenagers looking for a good time travel to a remote location and everything’s great until a maniacal killer grabs a sharp object and goes on a spree. It’s a plus if there’s a tragedy that happened before that trip and because of which the killer wants them all dead. From “Friday 13th”, to “Scream” and “I know what you did last summer”, this tried and tested formula had given the creeps to generations, but was also (rightfully) parodied as well. And now we can even play in such a movie, thanks to Until Dawn.
On year after a bad practical joke in which two sisters lost their lives, their brother Josh gathers the company that was present on that faithful night for another bout of drinking and partying to commemorate the anniversary. Of course, the location of this gathering is a cabin in the woods on one of the snow-covered peaks of Blackwood Mountain. The clichés don’t end here. Each of the eight cast members is an archetype of one of the typical horror movie characters in the way they look and act. That means you’re going have to stomach lots of face-desk worthy dialogue, especially if you can’t stand “bro-talk”. Yet this is where the charm of Until Dawn lies, in simulating characters and scenes from a genre that had strived for decades on hilarious clichés and often one-dimensional characters. If you’re had any experience with this genre, there is a likely possibility that you’re going to enjoy this ride.
And what a ride this is! After initial introductions of the characters, and who’s with whom, who was in a relationship or argument, every one of them goes in their separate direction while a shadowy machete-wielding figure looks on from a distance. You’ll switch between each character in turn and each one of them will have a part in the story during the game’s 10 in-game hours (until dawn, as the title says). Mechanics of Until Dawn are quite reminiscent of the games from Telltale and Quantic Dream studios, in it’s combination of free exploration and quick-time action sequences. And because it’s a horror game, every character can get hurt – by their own or another person’s fault. The nonlinear structure of the game is based on the so called “butterfly effect”, a chaos theory according to which one small event can influence another, much bigger one. Every interaction, every decision and dialog can influence the outcome of the scene, or even the whole game, thus putting the player in the thankless role of an executioner for eight virtual lives. Sometimes you’ll have to make serious decisions in a nick of time, while sometimes you’ll have all the time you need, but what both have in common is the cold sweat panic you’ll feel while paranoia creeps in and you wonder which choice is the right one. The true horror is usually not on the screen but in the mind of a player as he makes a brutally hard decision.
So that the game doesn’t turn into stumbling in the dark looking for a switch to continue the story, the developers have put in a multitude of clues and totems that you can collect. While the clues reveal the background of the game’s great dark storyline, the totems offer you glimpses of the future. Divided by their colors, the totems can portent a character’s death or save one of them; i.e., it shows you the scene that you should avoid or enact. The hints are never too clear, because the shown sequences last for barely a couple of seconds, but finding most, if not all, of the totems will greatly increase the survivability of characters. To be fair, you’d also have another advantage if you’ve seen a lot of slasher horrors and you know not to run towards the ominous sounds or to try to use a knife only in a hopeless situation. But not everything depends on your genre knowledge. The quick-time events that require a quick decision also play a major role in the game, and sometimes you’ll simply need to hide. When that occurs, you’ll need to keep the controller perfectly still so that the built-in gyroscope doesn’t move the on-screen indicator too much. These are the tensest parts of the game, during which we didn’t blink nor breathe; scared that even a smallest tick might jolt our controller ending with brutal consequences for our character.
The creepy atmosphere of the eerie mountain would be hard to convey without quality shadows and lighting, but Until Dawn is safe on that account. The modified engine from Killzone Shadow Fall shows some of the best light effects that we’ve encountered on PS4 so far, and the character models are up there too. What really stood out the most was the character animation however. Motion capture had obviously played a huge part in this project, and when you complete the game be sure to check out the short documentary on it, accessed from the Extras menu. The visual spectacle has it’s price though, and the PS4 sometimes struggles to keep up with the minimum 30fps and slowdowns can be noticeable, sometimes even during the quick-time sequences. The cast is full of great young actors that have appeared in well-known TV-shows and their experience shows – Until Dawn not only looks fantastic, it sounds fantastic too. However, our favorite cast member is Peter Stormare, who’s absolutely brilliant as a psychiatrist who analyzes you between chapters using tests, similarly to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In conclusion, the production and direction of the game are some of the best on PS4 and beyond. One fault might be that the camera could have been better positioned, because the “cinematic angles” can sometime get in the way of good room visibility or the controls can suddenly switch when you move from one angle to the next.
Designed by passionate fans of this particular horror subgenre, Until Dawn was made in the same vein, mostly as a tribute – the game seems aware that the story is sometimes completely silly, but that does not distract it from it’s course. If you’re ready for such a precedent, you’ll have a great narrative experience, a true interactive movie that immerses the player since it’s excellent introduction, and offers real ‘cause-consequence’ choices that puts even Heavy Rain to shame. So play Until Dawn in the dark with headphones on, or with a bunch of friends around you, and visit the Blackwood Mountain and the cabin on it’s shadowy peak. This is an adventure that you’ll love to retell – if you survive!
Author: Bojan Jovanović