Sex and Violence
Until Dawn is not your average survival horror game. While most horror titles mitigate their chills by offering players a sizable arsenal to dispatch the forces of the undead and other supernatural nightmares, developer Supermassive Games’ latest release forsakes firepower for tension and finely-tuned scares in an experience that comes across as the bloody hellspawn of Heavy Rain and The Cabin in the Woods.
The game’s premise is a familiar one: a group of teens host a party in an isolated mountaintop cabin in the Canadian wilderness. During a long night of alcohol-fueled chaos and debauchery, a mysterious tragedy descends upon the group of rowdy coeds and twin sisters Hannah and Beth meet a rather grisly end. After the brief yet poignant prelude chapter comes to a close, the story flashes forward one year, as the survivors of the previous year’s ordeal return once more to the cabin to commemorate the somber occasion the only way young, expendable horror movie-fodder know how: plenty of sex and binge drinking. Of course, the gang’s plans are quickly scuttled when a homicidal maniac crashes the party, systematically targeting the young, dumb and restless cast and subjecting them to a myriad of horrible, Saw-like scenarios.
If this is starting to sound like every other horror movie you’ve seen over the past several decades, you’re not far off base. Until Dawn is a lovingly-crafted homage to the slasher flicks of the 80’s and 90’s. From Matt, the letterman jacket-sporting jock to Emily, the gorgeous and manipulative man-eater who controls him with an iron fist, the characters all fit their established stereotypes comfortably. However, Supermassive’s clever writing and extremely effective world-building bring the game’s bloody and battered cast of characters and the ominous mountain setting to life in fantastic fashion.
Over the course of Until Dawn‘s roughly 8-hour story you’ll take control of each of the game’s lead characters as they explore the sprawling Washington estate and its surrounding locales. One of the game’s key mechanics is the way it handles decisive choices you make that have a direct effect on the way the story will progress. These choices, from forgetting to lock a door, or maybe inform another character of their lover’s infidelities, will cause a butterfly to splash across the screen. These seemingly inconsequential decisions can create significant moments of tension in the group, or even (and often) result in a character’s spectacularly gory demise. Suffice to say, every action has a consequence, and this degree of freedom awarded to the player can create wildly different scenarios each playthrough, encouraging you to experience the story multiple times to see all of the tale’s potential outcomes. Speaking of outcomes, you’ll also stumble across various Native American totems throughout your trek, and these tucked-away relics can offer clues to help you avoid an impending demise, or ways to handle an upcoming obstacle.
While the path you take is almost always quite narrow and evident, you’ll find plenty of small side detours to explore. These optional areas often yield more totems, and a slew of Resident Evil-style notes that help fill you in on the backstory of the lodge and the secrets surrounding the ancient mountain that serves as the game’s isolated setting.
Remember how I compared Until Dawn to Heavy Rain in the opening paragraph of this review? Well, that comparison isn’t just due to the game’s heavy focus on narrative over hands-on exploration. Much like Quantic Dream’s hit PlayStation 3 adventure, Supermassive’s digital deathtrap is filled to the gills with quick time events. Every action, even the most mundane action, is handled with a brief QTE. If those aren’t your thing you’ll likely enjoy Until Dawn quite a bit less than I did, but I myself found the sequences to be largely exhilarating, especially when rushing to save the life of another character, knowing one slip of the thumb could spell a horrific end for one of my rapidly-diminishing group.
Another standout part of Until Dawn‘s experience is found during impromptu psychiatrist sessions with “The Analyst”. Masterfully voiced by Peter Stormare, these segments dig into the head of the player, and as you reveal your deepest fears to the virtual shrink, your own nightmares will slowly manifest into the game’s story. It’s a neat gimmick for sure, and it’s fun to go back and make different choices that will slightly alter various aspects of the game each playthrough.
If you’re looking for a game that showcases the visual chops of the PlayStation 4, Until Dawn pumps out some serious polygons in all of their gory glory. Supermassive Games has done a stellar job of creating well animated and stunningly detailed character models that transcend the perils of the uncanny valley. The locales you’ll explore are similarly gorgeous and immersive, with sharp, detailed textures that breathtaking vistas that bring the frozen mountainside retreat and dank, foreboding mine shafts that snake beneath the craggy surface to life.
Of course, a horror game is only as good as its sound direction, and Until Dawn excels there as well. From the howling wind across the snowy mountainside bluffs to the howl of wolves in the distance, the game’s audio direction consistently keeps players on their toes as they explore the game’s inhospitable world. This level of quality also extends to the unnerving melodies that accompany the action, and the game’s top-notch voice acting, that often overcomes even the campiest moments in the game’s trope-laden script.
All told, Until Dawn is an exceptional entry in the horror genre that deserves a spot on your shelf. Developer Supermassive’s visceral love letter to classic horror movies delivers an exceptionally replayable experience that lasts well beyond the story’s initial eight hours. While the focus on storytelling over action and wealth of quick time events may put off some players, those who stay for the ride will be treated to one ghastly getaway that’s well worth the price of admission for any self respecting horror aficionado.
Final Verdict 4.5 / 5
Available on: Playstation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment ; Developer: Supermassive Games ; Players: 1; Released: August 25, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99