Games that run like an interactive movie can be done very well or very badly; choice based games have the same problem and mixing these two game styles can be a risky move. In the case of Until Dawn, however, it pays off and creates something that is half video game and half movie while still keeping it entertaining.
Until Dawn is a horror game which is different to most but in a good way. It takes place on a mountain where the group of eight students have come together to “party like porn stars” and to mark the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of their friends, who went missing in the surrounding woods after a prank went wrong. It follows a slasher film recipe, putting a small group of people on a mountain far from civilization and no way to contact the outside world.
The group of eight are all the classic stereotypes you would expect to see in a teenage horror movie, and some of the smaller plot points seem like what you’d expect in a horror film about teenagers. There are plenty of traditional horror moments and scenes along with the typical idiocy seen in movies such as characters taking baths with headphones on or going to ridiculously great lengths to have sex in the woods. Moments like these are pretty laughable and still they somehow build atmosphere and make the player feel tense at the same time.
All of the characters are designed very well; they play their roles almost perfectly, and the acting suits each character. They never just stand still in scenes; they always move a little, fidget and react to what’s happening on the screen. They seem full of life and very realistic as a result, to the point that even letting characters you hate die can cause a ping of regret.
Within an hour, their holidays turns into hell with a masked madman after them before things take a much worse turn as they begin to be hunted by strange creatures. The personalities in the group clash and, as a result, they do what everyone does in horror films, they split up. The game follows each couple and person, giving the player a chance to see what happens to them and also to influence it.
The butterfly effect is the biggest feature in Until Dawn, and it’s heavily emphasized throughout the game in various ways which can be a little too obvious. In-between each in-game chapter the game visits a psychiatrist’s office where the player controls an unknown person who appears to be someone in the group. During the visit, the player answers a variety of questions which revolve around what scares the player and how they feel about specific characters. All of it will influence the game by adding more personalized fears such as giving an attacker a knife or a needle depending on how the player responds to the questions they are presented with. It’s a nice touch and makes the gaming experience feel much more personal; this is a much more obvious example of the butterfly effect in the game however as the vast majority of choices are blended into the narrative, so much so that the player probably won’t even realize until it’s too late.
The game branches very well and players will not see everything the game has to offer in just one play through; different choices will result in different things happening and with eight branching characters, there is a lot of content. It allows the player to control and craft their own horror story or delve completely into the story and lore of the mountain.
Players are always aware when a big decision has been made; the screen will display “butterfly status update” so players are never left in the dark when they do something that has significant consequences. There’s an option in the menu that allows the player to look at their actions and the ultimate effect of that action, sometimes just checking it occasionally will show that a ‘minor’ choice was critical to someone’s survival. This handy feature lets the player monitor the choice system in the game and see it can affect the rest of it, even the minor decisions from the start of the game will be featured in the later chapters of the story.
Once the game has been completed, the player can just restart the game for a whole new experience or replay it from specific chapters. There is no way to change the choices mid-game as the game locks the player in but this makes the horror experience much more entertaining and interesting.
In horror movies, camera angles are important and can give quite a bit of information. In Until Dawn this is also true, sometimes the camera angle is from the viewpoint of another hidden character who is watching the group of teens. It’s a great way of building suspense and is used very well; it even suggests certain things before the player is even aware of what is truly happening on the mountain. One of the most memorable examples of this occurs very early in the game where someone was chasing the two missing girls; the viewpoint used infrared vision, and the importance of this is only learned much later in the game.
The action is the game is done in the form of quick-time events where the time to react is limited but still requires precision to get it right. The player has little time to act as an enemy flies toward them or if they stumble into what could be certain death, missing a quick-time event can be lethal. They are also used when the player is racing after another character to try and save them, be too slow and the person will die. Missing buttons can have heavy consequences.
Aside from the main branching narrative there are also a few puzzles to be completed such as finding the tools to light a fire; slower moments like these are welcome and can be a nice way to talk more with other characters or explore the area a little. Some of these moments are still pretty tense but for the most part, it’s nice to have a small break from making a hidden life or death decision that will come back to bite them.
Collectibles in Until Dawn are pretty useful, especially the Totems. The Totems can be found in different locations and offer glimpses of what could happen depending on the choice the player makes; finding these is good, even the character death ones will help you as you work out the best way to save that character from their grisly end. These can be referred to throughout the game to save characters, avoid traps and stay out of bad situations.
There are also plenty of objects that can be picked up all over the place, these are narrative clues and warnings; the information they give build the story and raise more questions about the occurrences in the game such as what happened to the two that went missing a year ago. They may not feel very important at first, but the developers seemed to realize most people wouldn’t pay much attention to the lore or story development in a horror game at first, so they added a way to let the player see all the information they collected on the menu screen.
Until Dawn makes use of the DualShock 4 controller’s gyroscope and the game uses it well. There are moments in the game where the player can choose to hide, and if this choice is made then the player must not move the controller; if it even moves a little bit, then the character will be caught and if caught it could mean death. This feature is a nice touch to bring the player closer to the game experience, it makes hiding more interactive and makes the game much more tense.
The graphics for the game look great, it gives the game more of a CGI movie feel at times, and the environment has been very well designed. Each of the different zones on the mountain are well made and have their own creepy essence which adds some variety to the small location; the game may take place in a relatively small area, but it doesn’t feel like this when playing the game. While the mountain is a ‘small’ setting, there are many locations on it and underground which all feel unique when compared to the others in the game.
While Until Dawn isn’t perfect, it’s one of the best horror games to be released in 2015 any maybe even one of the best of all time. The branching story is truly diverse, and the amount of depth in it is incredible, a story like this is extremely rare for horror games, and it adds another layer of fear as the wrong choice will kill characters. It mixes so many horror movie clichés into one game, but it somehow works well; it’s not one to be taken too seriously sometimes with the goofy characters and the sometimes hilarious situations, but this just makes the game more tense at the right moments.
Until Dawn is a great experience for horror fans, however, some players might find it a little bit too slow if they dislike quick-time events; story lovers will enjoy diving into this as they seek out all information on the mountain, what resides there and the truth behind the masked madman. The branching story makes the game highly re-playable and plenty of hours can be put into this game.