Until Dawn has had a long and strange road to its eventual release on PlayStation 4. Originally announced as a PlayStation 3 title utilizing the PlayStation Move controller, Until Dawn has been revamped, reworked, and is now out as a PlayStation 4 game utilizing far more traditional controls. Before we get into my review of the game, here are a few caveats. I’m a a big horror movie fan, especially of the slasher genre. I don’t generally play a lot of horror games, survival in particular, have never really gelled with me. My expectations for Until Dawn were cautiously optimistic; this seemed like a game I wanted, I’ve never really had the strong urge to play as a cop/photographer/sweet dude who is part demon while battling against hordes of zombies/ghosts/other sweet demons, but I have wanted to see someone take a stab at doing a game that dwells in the slasher drama. I wanted to play as a group of irresponsible teenagers being picked off one by one. Until Dawn seemed like it would offer that, but it also seemed liked an idea that could be really lukewarm if failing in execution, and there were some warning bells considering the amount of time it took to get Until Dawn to market. The question is, how did Until Dawn come out?
Until Dawn is easily the biggest surprise of 2015, and as viscerally exciting a game as you’ll find anywhere. In Until Dawn you’re put into the shoes of a group of 8 friends who come together for their annual gathering at Blackwood Pines, a reclusive mountain lodge. The group is still reeling from a tragedy that befell them a year prior. After a quick prologue unfolding the events of one year prior, things get ominous as the opening credits start. Now title credits are only a small portion of a game, but it cannot be understated how much of a first impression they can make. A huge shout out to Supermassive Games for crafting the best title sequence since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The song choice for the credits is impeccable, Amy Van Roekel turns in a haunting rendition of the folk song “Oh Death”, and it chills you to the bone. Coupled with the song is a set of images that hint at what you are in for, and man does it look terrifying. A secluded mountain lodge with an adjacent derelict Sanatorium, with an abandoned mine running as an undercurrent through the area? Sure, let’s just go with it!
The story and the characters within Until Dawn are fantastic. Though some think the story has come up short, I have to strongly disagree with these sentiments, as I feel these elements stay true to their source of inspiration, and grow only stronger as the roughly 8 – 10 hour playthrough progresses. Supermassive hired actual horror movie writers Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick to write the script, and their love of the genre shows. The story is a tense one, filled with mystery, and seemingly disparate elements at the beginning. After the game gets going, and you are subjected to series of whirlwind plot twists, the scope of the story focuses as you try to survive a hostile mountain with generations of tragedy and horror under its belt. The thrilling story is boosted by a cast of mostly likeable characters. Until Dawn pulls off a neat trick by starting the eight protagonists off firmly in archetype, and the dialogue is campy enough for any 80s horror film, but, through the game’s course and its power of choice, these characters are capable of subverting their archetype to find unseen depth as a result of the trials they go through. Without spoiling anything, one of my least favorite characters initially came out as my favorite by the end, which is a fairly impressive feat of character development.
The power of choice is king in Until Dawn and you must choose widely. Choice is everywhere in the game, from the story interludes, where you get to reveal your personal fears, only to have them utilized against you in the game, to the choices you have to make for the characters in the game. Once again, you have a party of eight, all can live, all can die, and anywhere in between. Their fates are dependent on the choices you make. Some of those choices are impossible choices that need to be made in a very short amount of time, making the tension of it all paramount. Don’t defend someone in an argument, they aren’t there to back you up later. Do you keep a gun for yourself? Well guess what, the person you left without it is defenseless somewhere down the line. And there is a cost of all of these decisions as the butterfly effect is everywhere in Until Dawn. Also scattered throughout the game are important collectibles that provide information about the mysteries of Until Dawn, information you need if you want the best possible outcome, there is a lot to find, and you’re bound to miss some of it your first time around, as one step in the wrong direction can trigger the story forward without getting to pick up that last collectible. Death is brutal in this game as a single, totally innocuous choice can lead towards the instant death of a character forever putting blood on your hands.
I felt the stress of these things very heavily for the first portion of the game. Here is the biggest tip I can give you for your first playthrough of Until Dawn, and I can’t emphasize this enough, LET IT GO. Until Dawn is a playable horror movie, and horror movies hinge upon imperfection, things go really bad for people stuck in a horror movie, and that’s why we love them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll definitely be back for a perfect playthrough come Halloween season, but I celebrate the mess that was my first playthrough. In my first playthrough three out of eight of the main characters survived, and that was great. Each death added character to the story I was telling with my actions, and by the end I created an original horror narrative collaborated between the story, the characters, and the choices I made. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had in any medium, not just video games. It’s also worth noting that Until Dawn is definitely meant to be played multiple times to experience the full story, as such once the game is done, it allows you to replay specific chapters in the game in order to alter your decisions, and to pick up clues you may have missed.
The game’s controls work very well, and even really increase the level of dread at times. In video game shorthand, this game controls very much like Heavy Rain. You navigate your character around the environment, looking for clues. These action bits tend to play out via quicktime-event. Perhaps the most thrilling parts require you keep the controller completely still, lest some disaster befall your character, there are some moments of this towards the end of the game that had me holding my breath for long periods of time in fear that I might jostle the controller and doom my people to an instant gruesome death. It was really exciting stuff, and as visceral a reaction I’ve had to action in a video game that I can ever recall. I think in comparison to Heavy Rain, the controls fare better in Until Dawn. While there is a lot interaction with the controller (use the joystick to open the door, swipe the motion pad to flip through a book, etc), its far toned down from the control obsessed Heavy Rain, and the gameplay flows so much better for it.
Finally the graphics in Until Dawn are great. I was honestly really surprised as I knew Until Dawn had started life as a last generation game. It’s clear they did a lot of reworking on the game, and the graphics are impressive. The character models are expressive, and the environments are oppressively dark and foreboding. And while I’ve mentioned the characters before, a huge kudos goes to the actors of Until Dawn. They pulled double duty providing not only dialogue, but physical aspects of the characters as well. They do a damned good job, and really take the whole experience to the next level.
The Verdict: 10 out of 10
Until Dawn isn’t perfect, I am sure I could have found something to nitpick on if I really really tried. But all of those nitpicks were washed away by the sheer joy I had with my time with Until Dawn. Make no mistake, Until Dawn is a masterpiece of a game, and a shining jewel in the crown that is the PS4 library of exclusives. Anyone bemoaning the lack of Sony exclusive titles this year is doing themselves a huge injustice by not giving this amazing game a look. Until Dawn is a bold, different take on the horror genre, and I’m sure it will be an annual ritual for many gamers come the Halloween season. The scariest possible outcome is the one where you decide not to play this game!
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Adam Leonard is an Associate Editor with MONG, his favorite horror movie is Halloween, that is also his favorite holiday and he is obsessed with haunted houses (the ones with actors playing ghosts, not the ones with actual ghosts, though those are pretty cool too). He also contributes to Creepy Kingdom. You can also find him on Twitter and IGN.