Until Dawn - Review

http://invisiblekidreviews.blogspot.de/2015/09/until-dawn-review.html

Horror movies can oftentimes be more frustrating than fun. Especially in horror flicks that are guilty of shamelessly comitting a sort of "overkill" in utilizing well known horror movie clichees of teenagers making dumb decisions that ultimately get others or themselves killed, viewers tend to think that they are easily smarter than them.
With studio Supermassive Games' Until Dawn, it's time to put your skills in horror movie survival to the test. In the form of a choose-your-own-adventure or interactive drama game in the likes of Heavy Rain or Beyond, Until Dawn is a horror story that lets you make the crucial choices that will either help the protagonists survive the night or have them killed.
It's an initially fun concept but in order for it to truely succeed, there has to be a branching enough and engaging story and especially charismatic characters to care about.
Is Until Dawn a serious competition for Telltale Games and Quantic Dreams, or is it nothing more than wasted potential?   



Story

The plot:
When eight friends become trapped on a remote mountain getaway gone wrong, things quickly turn sinister and they start to suspect they aren’t alone. Every choice the player makes while playing as each of the eight friends – even the seemingly trivial ones – will carve out a unique story. The player's actions alone determine who survives until dawn.
(source: Wikipedia)



Until Dawn centers on 8 teenage students returning to a mountain cabin a year after two of their friends tragically died. Having previously served as a nice cabin of one of the teenagers' family to spend their vacation in, the group has the intention of moving on and getting past the tragic memories around this place.
However, it doesn't take long till strange happenings occur and the teenagers are starting to get terrorized by an unknown person.
Until Dawn does an excellent job of setting the mood right. Fittingly enough, the entire game takes place during night in the snowy remote mountains without any reliable connection to the authorities or other people. Flowing into the game's set up, is the introduction of its total of 8 playable characters. While at first, each of the characters are obvious stereotypes from your typical slasher horror movie, Until Dawn nevertheless does great in introducing not only each character and his or her initial characteristic traits but also the characters' relationships and backstories to one another, which will greatly influence your choices and attitudes towards each of them in the longrun.
Horror clichees used in Until Dawn's setup, are clearly intentionally put into the story. Whether it's a very familiar plot point or a stereotypical character, the game's story never seems to overdo those clichees to the point where they annoy you but rather to set the perfect scene for a story from a seemingly traditional horror slasher movie.

The story has some twists and turns in store that you won't see coming.

With that said, don't be fooled to think that Until Dawn's story is bad. Though one might easily think of it as being a simple "Friday the 13th" or "Halloween" rip-off, the story has a surprisingly well developed and put together storyline that manages to blend multiple genres of horror into one convenient package. Sure enough, especially during the first half of the game, it might easily feel like you are actually playing three different stories or horror plots at the same time. Yet, Until Dawn's story parts all eventually connect and complement each other in the final acts of the game. Complete with twists and turns of which some will definitely catch you completely off guard, it's definitely a horror story with a lot of different flavors and which progressively gets better and more investing as it goes on.  
The game and its story are interestingly enough presented in an episodic fashion, complete with the obligatory previous episodes' recaps. Additionally putting another weird spin on the game, are short scenes with a mysterious analyst seemingly (played by Peter Stormare) speaking directly to you as the player and thus breaking the fourth wall in a way. Probing you with some rather tough psychological questions and choices, these moments further drive the story into specific direcctions and shapes and give the game an occasionally very unnerving yet fitting meta vibe.

In the end, you will even want to save the obvious "bitches" of the group.


Gameplay

Minor Choices and Relationships - "With a Little Help From My Friends"

Until Dawn is a game whose primary selling point is not to shoot as many enemies as possible but to make well thought through choices to shape the story as it goes along.
Choices gradually get more devastating and important as the game goes along. At first, the game eases you in with choices influencing the relationships of the characters like, "Do you side with your girlfriend in a fight or take a neutral standpoint in the situation?", "Do you spy on someone's phone or respect his privacy?". All these minor choices though are also factoring in on each of the characters' chances to survive and which ways the game's story will take. It all boils down to the game having a nice way of letting you set up the relationships between the characters by letting you decide how they act and treat each other (especially later in risky situations). Going to the pause screen gives you an overview of all of the minor decisions tracked, which of course also change each person's character traits and relationships as the game goes along. It's definitely interesting to see how other characters react to your decisions. And while it at first may come off as obvious to just always play "the nice guy", you will quickly learn that there are situtations in which it is the best way to also stand up or take aggressive actions in order to have as many of your friends including yourself survive the night.

The power of gossip.


Major Choices - "The Butterfly Effect"

The most significant choices in the game with the biggest chain reaction effects are called "Butterfly Effects". Resultingly, an entire screen with every single one of the game's big Butterfly Effect choices is accessible in the pause menu to keep track of what decisions you made. Yet still, the game gives you no warning how important or devastating a decision is before you make it. While this might at first feel like a bit unfair, it simulates a real life situation in such a scenario very well and forces you to handle each choice with a big amount of care.
As already mentioned, Butterfly Effect choices trigger major chain reactions in the game's story. Thus, a single of such decisions can decide and influence whether later in the game a specific person gets injured, whether they are forced to tackle a specific situation alone, whether they will have a weapon to defend themselves with and ultimately whether they are going to live or die.
Judging by the simple amount of Butterfly Effect choices present in the game combined with additionally influencing minor choices, it is actually quite astonishing when realizing in just how many different ways the story can unfold. Nevertheless, Butterfly Effect choices not necessarily trigger an either instant negative (death) or positive (life) outcome, meaning that an ongoing Butterfly Effect progress can still be altered and turned into the opposite as it goes along. This smart design decision avoids the game's choices of devolving into single black and white / "live or die"-decisions but rather decisions with great effects that still always keep situations unpredictable and flexible.

Damn! I should've seen that coming!
  
However, what of course makes all of your decisions matter in the end is the simple fact that once a choice is made, it cannot be unmade - in simpler terms, you cannot load a previous checkpoint or save file. It's only after the credits roll, that you can select a previous episode to replay it and find out what could have happened (avoiding having to play the entire game again if simply want to see a different ending or specific mid-game decision).
The result is (much like in other interactive drama games) that each decision feels incredibly important and that tension never lets go. Investigating areas constantly has you on the edge of your seat and you never know what split second decision awaits around the next corner. Cause once again, one simple mistake and your character is simply dead without any way to revive him. Just like in a real life scenario, you have to tackle situations carefully throughout the entire playthrough if you want to save as many as possible. It's truely exciting and intense at the same time like an intentionally enforced permanent death run of the game. Another nice side effect is that it avoids having to repeatedly watch the same cutscenes over again.

Important decisions imminent!


Quick-Time-Events - "Think Before You React"

It's exactly because of "once a character is dead, he stays dead" that Quick-Time-Events (QTEs) in Until Dawn feel intense and exhilirating. Until Dawn's split second QTE's require you to react in real-time and thus are really fast. Only rarely does the game implement slow motion into its QTEs. It all, once again, means that once a QTE is failed, the game doesn't give you a second chance at it. This results in many hard choice-moments like when you have to choose whether to take the safer but slower route or the faster but riskier one, when you are being chased or have to pursue someone (since riskier routes always lead to more QTEs). With QTEs being able to pop up at any given time, you have to be ready for anything.
Furthermore, aside from simple button prompts, the game has a good share of moments in which you have to hold the controller absolutely perfectly still, simulating you not moving when danger is nearby. This is surprisingly enough used to staggering effect during the very last acts of the game, which we won't spoil.
Also, there is a good number of times, in which you have to quickly aim and shoot. Though it's a bit weird not seeing the characters ever having to reload their guns or running out of ammo once they obtain them, what makes using guns still an interesting game mechanic is that it's not always a good choice to always shoot at anything that seems dangerous. Oftentimes, you are given the choice to shoot in situations, in which though it's the best choice to simply do nothing at all, especially when taking action would only further provoke danger. This means that guns don't become simple "win"-items in the game on which to hold on to, but rather instruments that have to be used with care. Or in other words, it simply becomes more important to think rather than just react. And nowhere is that more emphasized than when you are given the choice to shoot or not.

Each bullet can make a difference.


Investigation Gameplay - "The Dead Zone"

But Until Dawn is not just dialogue, reacting to QTEs and making choices.
Most of the game actually has you wander around in areas or make your way to a specific destination. Those moments are especially powerful since the atmosphere really kicks in, giving you plenty of time to get immersed in the game's dark and snowy forests where danger seems to be able to pop out at any given time. It's always a very uneasy feeling walking along the remote paths in the forest and feeling helpless and lonely even when in having a partner.
As you move along, you also often come to forking paths that require you to choose which way you want to take. While it's mostly not hinted at which path leads to which situation, it's a nice feel of uncertainty. Choosing a specific path can indeed make a difference in the game since it can eventually trigger events that prevent you from going back.

Wrong Turn?

More interestingly though, is that the game rewards exploration in meaningful ways. Rather than exploring the area to obtain collectibles to simply unlock trophies, there are hidden clues and items scattered throughout the world that lead to a better understanding of what's behind all the strange occurences and help you connect all the different events and informations into a bigger picture. Obtaining clues and getting more information on the situation also directly influences the story since characters can actually tell the others about their findings and thus involve the investigations in conversations.
The most powerful items though are mysterious hidden Totems. Once found, they offer a short 2 second glimpse into a possible future, either showing you a character's death, a fortunate outcome, a moment of danger or give you a helping hint to prevent something bad to happen. Totems can be incredibly helpful if taken into account right. They amp up the tension throughout the game considerably since their offered individual glimpses are so short that you have to watch the glimpses multiple times in order to find out as much as you can about that short 2 second snippet, like: "Who exactly is that person in the glimpse getting killed?", "How is he getting killed?", "Where and when is that happening?". Especially since Totems don't necessarily show a glimpse for an event that is immediately about to happen, Totem's can show glimpses for events that may happen only far later in the game or not even at all if avoided berforehand. Totems therefore are powerful tools, yet also scary foreshadowings and nice puzzles themselves.

I see dead people.


Graphics
 

It wouldn't be exaggerated to say that Until Dawn features some of the most lifelike and detailed character models that we've seen thus far on this console generation. From expressive facial movements to incredibly high def textures and texture mapping making even pores on the characters' skin look authentic, it looks simply incredible. Also, it doesn't hurt that characters actually really look like the actors they are based on (most notably Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare). It's all topped off with some very creepy and dark locations surrounding the remote mountain cabin. Until Dawn might not feature an onslaught of nonstop monster attacks like in Dead Space, yet the uncomforting horror atmosphere is superbly established throughout the game, very much comparable to the one felt in the Resident Evil remake. 
Even though the game does not run with a constant 60FPS rate, this won't bother anyone too much seeing how well presented and polished the game's all around package is.  


Sound
 

What would a horror game be without great sound design?
Until Dawn delivers a very solid to excellent package in the sound department. Most notably, sounds play a very central role in being able to identify dangerous situations in the game. Thus, it's no surprise that the game offers a wide and well placed variety of sounds, like screeches, screams, bumps and other scary sounds to scare you in the night.
Voice acting performances are a bit hit and miss but overall still good. It's just that some of the more experienced star actors like Peter Stormare are clearly stealing the show from some of the other teenage actors. But that's only a rather minor gripe.

What's not to like about Peter Stormare?


The Verdict

Until Dawn is one of the most pleasant (and scariest) game surprises for quite some time. Especially when it comes to the genre of interactive drama games, which have been mainly dominated by the studio of Telltale Games and Quantic Dreams, it comes off as very unexpected that Until Dawn manages to not only match the high technical standards set by its competitors, but to raise the bar gameplaywise, all while wrapping it up in a surprisingly intense and engaging horror story.
Whereas the game plays around and utilizes well known horror movie tropes and clichees, Until Dawn never truely feels like a tiresome been-there-done-that experience as it cleverly blends different horror genres into a cohesive bigger story. The game does a fantastic job of immersing you very quickly into the world and setting up its unnerving atmosphere. And even when it's clear that you won't necessarily like every single one of the protagonists involved, you will eventually want to save every single one as you spend the night with them. And that is no easy task.
Until Dawn features a wide multitude of minor and major choices that greatly influence the paths the story can take. Since the game doesn't feature a checkpoint system or lives, choices have to be made with intense care and thought, going even so far as simple missed QTEs being able to entirely kill off your character (and resultingly reshape the story once more).
Until Dawn is a game that doesn't treat its player like a reacting puppet but encourages to think rather than simply react. Resultingly, it's for example not always the best decision to always take a shot with a gun when the game gives you the opportunity to.
Furthermore, Until Dawn gives the game additional investigative opportunities by incorporating a big amount of free roam wandering through the world and finding clues to the story's mysteries and so called Totems that grant you short glimpses into a possible future event.

Summed up, Until Dawn takes the concept of already existing successful interactive dramas, like most notably Heavy Rain, and amps the gameplay up considerably with its creative variety of mechanics in combination with a superb atmosphere, that make Until Dawn a game that is easily a must play for horror fans.
Though of course, extremely story-driven games like Until Dawn always suffer from their quite small amount of replay value (except for finding out what else could've happened and trying to safe everyone), Until Dawn remains a fantastic "experience" rather than a "traditional game". Thus, fans of interactive dramas can easily pick up Until Dawn right away, while non-fans or casual gamers owe it to themselves to at the very least experience it once as a rental. Until Dawn is a horror experience that shouldn't be missed and one of the finest examples of interactive drama games to date.   


          

 Final Verdict: 9 out of 10 

Status: Amazing!




Big thanks goes out to Sony Computer Entertainment and Harvard PR
for providing us with a review copy of the game.

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