It’s been a long time since we got a game in the morning and played it all day until we completed it in the evening, but we just did with Until Dawn. It’s not that it’s a short game, a single playthrough takes around 8 hours, but it’s got the addictive aspects of a good mystery/thriller novel that are so often lacking in games. Well paced and hardly ever letting up, the game even tries to force you to take breaks with it’s ‘previously on Until Dawn’ sections popping up like a serialised TV show, but we just used those as a chance to get a drink and head back into the game.
Until Dawn is mostly unique but owes most of it’s gaming inspiration to David Cage’s Heavy Rain/Fahrenheit/Beyond: Two Souls with a little dash of Telltale’s most recent games. There’s very little actual gameplay, instead you simply wander around the locations as a whole cast of different characters, making decisions and taking part in the occasional quick time event. This might not sound engaging but it allows the developers to create something truly cinematic and allows you to focus on the story, there’s no real skill involved in this game and everyone is going to see the end one way or another.
That end is really the unique selling point of the game. There’s no going back to quicksaves in this or ever having to redo a checkpoint. Every decision you make is permanent and all of the characters can die, with the game carrying on anyway. Your end might be with every single character dying before dawn, or you might end up saving everyone, whether they deserve to be saved or not. This would really require multiple playthroughs and it’s really not worth playing with a guide at your side to get the ‘best’ ending, you’ll be much more invested if you just make the decisions you feel are right, and then learn to live with the consequences. You can always watch the other endings on Youtube.
The story takes place in a holiday home up in the mountains in the USA. A group of teenagers go there annually and after a tragic event one year, they return a year later in order to try and move on. It’s definitely teen-slasher movie trash in places, but very knowingly so. It plays with cliches and then goes some way to subverting them. It ends up being half way between a homage and a parody, but always feels appropriate and entertaining. The scares come thick and fast, with a mixture of gradual tension building and what the game itself calls ‘cheap shots’. If you have a Playstation Camera plugged in the game will take a short video of you for each of these jump scares and the results are incredibly entertaining. This needs to be a feature in more horror games. By the end of the story we were a little immune to some of the scares, particularly once you discover what’s really going on, most of them lose their effect, but this is inevitable and we’re glad that the game does a good job of explaining everything as long as you go out of your way to find every little scrap of information. There’s no cliffhangers here.
With games that revolve around choice there’s always a debate about how much freedom you really have. Of course there’s a certain amount of railroading, but after watching other people play through sections, there’s enough differences to really reflect the way you’ve been playing, particularly when it comes to characters getting killed off. The game makes a lot of ‘the butterfly effect’ and often someone dying early on might seem inconsequential, but in the menus you can actually see the effect that it had later in the game. For example, if you get someone killed, they might not be there to open the door to save another character later, killing them as well.
It’s impossible to predict the results of many of your actions (although it’s much less random than many games that try something similar, there’s a surprising amount of logic involved) but to help you out there’s totems dotted around that give you a small glimpse of the future. These are 2-3 second clips that show a possible future event. Sometimes they seem impenetrable and useless as warnings, until you kick yourself later when the same scene plays out. Occasionally there’s a really helpful clue in them though, showing a positive course of action that you never would have considered. As a quick tip, it’s often best not to do anything at all.
It helps that the game also looks absolutely gorgeous. The environments aren’t technically very exciting but the lighting is extremely effective and the character models are often spectacular. Real actors have been used and carefully motion-captured throughout and it has really paid off. Some of the characters might be annoying, but all are convincing and it helps the plot no end that’s it’s so easy to get attached to these characters. The facial animation seems almost on-par with LA Noire (hey that rhymes) but even little touches like the way their clothes move and the way light reflects in their eyes is used incredibly well. The art direction is fantastic and while one location is definitely overused, every environment is filled with important details.
We really don’t want to spoil anything so it’s hard to espouse the achievements of this game, but it really is a success in a genre that’s gone from strength to strength in the last five years. The production values are top notch, the story is solid and the pacing is spot on. If you enjoyed anything like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead, you owe it to yourself to get this.