PS4 exclusive Until Dawn is, in simple description form, an interactive horror film that uses a variety of horror film techniques to scare players more than any other decision-based horror game we’ve come across. UK-based developers, Supermassive Games, obviously love the horror genre, as the company worked with Hollywood talents to put together this mature game that builds suspense, plays on the fear of the unknown, and utilises a blend of common fears and anxiety triggers for a unique horror experience you’d expect in a horror film. This may be why this game feels like such a victory. Because it is, both for the legions of folks like us who enjoy watching people run from knife-wielding maniacs on-screen, and for Supermassive Games, who has managed to bring the macabre appeal of a genre that has enraptured generations of moviegoers for roughly half a century and counting.
The main setting location of this game is set atop a snowy mountain that’s only reachable by a rickety cable car (of course) and see’s a group of friends wanting to ‘party like porn stars’ to mark the one-year anniversary of their friends’ disappearance on the mountain, after a prank they played went horribly wrong. The game is largely based on a choice-and-consequence system that’s a lot more impressive than other story based games. You will learn about the ‘butterfly effect’ early on in the game, and how each and every interaction in the game can affect the outcome.
These interactions aren’t just split second high-tension decisions that you have to make, but even the way you converse with the other characters in the game. Had an argument with a certain character? Don’t expect them to be there to help when you need them most. Broken a pipe or plank of wood? Don’t plan on using it when you’re being chased or attacked! Interestingly, the game will display whenever you’ve made a decision that changes the storyline completely, which made us seriously question every decision we made and the possible repercussions of each.
The number of potential storyline is fascinating, and the idea that two different people could play the same game and experience two completely different stories based on decisions they’ve made is fantastic. It’s not just the butterfly effect that makes this game interesting, though. Early on you’re introduced to a rather shady psychiatrist named ‘Doctor Hill’ whom some gamers may recognise as Prison Break’s Peter Storemare. Doctor Hill breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and addresses you directly to establish your fears and anxiety triggers by showing you a number of images and making you choose which makes you feel more un-easy.
This game features casts with a few familiar looking faces in it which I identified easily at the start, including Hayden Panettiere from Heroes as Sam and Brett Dalton from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D as Mike. Their characters show off some of the best facial and motion capture we’ve seen in a game. Powered by the Killzone Shadowfall Engine, Until Dawn is stunning and manages to capture all the nuances of facial expression, especially as the faces contort in fear, making the characters stand out and giving them more depth.
The game even plays with your own fears too. Another Hollywood cameo comes from Peter Stormare of Fargo as psychiatrist Dr. Hill. Between the chapter of Until Dawn, which all begin with a quick recap of everything that’s happened so far in the game, are sessions with Dr. Hill, who begins to interrogate you as a player on your hopes, fears and impressions of how the game is going so far.
It’s a great way of bringing you directly into the game and as soon as he finds out of how I am terrified of spiders, needles and not particularly fond of scarecrows, I slowly start to notice elements of the gameplay had been tailored to my own fears. Very smart of them.
The actual gameplay is a little of a mix. At a moment, you’ll be guiding a character through an area using the right stick to control the torchlight and picking up glowing points of interest in each room. You can interact with objects by picking them up with R2 and then rotating them with the right stick identifying them further. It’s then you might find a clue as to what happened to Hannah and Beth or to the identity of the masked gunman. But if you miss some of these clues, you might even miss out on some of the more informative cutscenes later in the game that gives you some hints towards the best choices you can make in this game as you progress further.
There are a lot of quick time event (QTE) sequences that forces you to press the appropriate button to make a jump mid-chase, reach a foothold in a climb or even avoid the grip of the gunman. It definitely makes for some tense and jumpy gameplay, but sometimes it feels like you want more control over your characters’ fate.
At first, I hated the sections where you are tasked with keeping as still as possible though, with the PS4 tracking the motion of the DualShock 4’s lightbar, meaning you as a player need to keep statue still in order to save your character. It increases the tension and starts your heart racing, mimicking the emotions felt by the character. It kinda grew annoying at one part (maybe it’s my shaky hands) as I keep failing but it eventually became easier later on.
It definitely had a great storyline with true American-teen horror movie moments that will have you leaping from your seat with fear, strong characters and some good gameplay elements, but ultimately this is a full-priced game that only lasts around seven hours at best. Graphics, on the other hand, was great but it definitely had some noticeable frame drops during snow area gameplay (must be due to the heavy snow particle effects), which I hope to be fixed in a future update (reduce snow particle effect to increase FPS).
Supermassive Games hasn’t gave out word on the possibility of a DLC for this title, so once you’ve finished playing, you’ve gotten everything out of this campaign-only title that you’ve just spent on. A free/cheap DLC would definitely do well to provide the players with a better overall experience with the game.