My friends and I have these nights that have become a bit of a tradition in our friend circle. We organise scary movie nights where we’ll binge on the best horror movies we can find until we can’t handle any more, then we binge on Disney movies until we feel better. We’re legendary at the pizza shop near my friend’s house, but that’s a story for another time.
It’s a weird, sadistic pleasure we all enjoy. That explains why I enjoyed every scream-inducing jump scare that Until Dawn has to offer.
Until Dawn is the story of eight high school friends who go back to the cabin they were staying at, when two of their friends (sisters) mysteriously go missing after a prank goes wrong.
Visually, the game looks amazing. Using motion capture with some well-known names (Hayden Panettiere and Peter Storm, just to name a few), the sense of Uncanny Valley isn’t nearly as off-putting as the motion capture in say… LA Noire.
Not only do the characters look realistic, the environments you explore look great, too. Eerie and unsettling, areas in the game only add to the suspense and anxiety you’ll feel during the game.
Sadly, the camera work lets the fantastic environments down. The camera in Until Dawn jumps to give you the best vantage point in the classic horror movie style. When you’re trying to navigate through 3D environments, this type of camera movement can break the immersion and really detract from the tense scene.
The biggest mechanic in Until Dawn uses to push you through the story is called “The Butterfly Effect”. This mechanic relies on the player making split-second decisions to situations and decides the fates of your fellow co-eds. It makes you think “What if I didn’t check his phone?” or “What if I didn’t try to wake up my brother?” Some of these decisions won’t affect your outcome, others will change it dramatically. It works really well with the quick-time events, where a stumble could seal the fate of someone else. Until Dawn combines the use of quick-time events and a brilliant inclusion of PlayStation’s Sixth-Axis motion control with a fantastic score and sound effects. Making a quick-time decision is hard enough when you’re trying to escape a tense situation, but when the controller is ticking loudly and violins are screeching, everything comes together in one anxiety-causing moment.
In the tense circumstances, every action feels like it’s life-or-death, and that’s the point. When you trigger a Butterfly Effect action, white butterflies will appear in the corner of the screen and you can see how this matches up with the story. These decisions also affect your relationship and personality stats. You can go back and review your decisions, along with clues or totems you gather along the way so you can modify your behaviour when you inevitably replay Until Dawn.
Until Dawn is also a massive, dirty cheater. During the game, you’ll be interviewed by Dr. Hill, who becomes increasingly more disturbing as you go through the story. He asks you what you’re more afraid of and the game uses this against you. Essentially, you have yourself to the game on a silver platter. During my interview, I said that I was scared of clowns, more scared of dogs over rats (big bitey vs little jumpy), and needles. The major scare it used was clowns, which made me scream (actual, blood curdling screams) on more than one occasion; much to the amusement of my jerk-ass boyfriend.
Dr. Hill reminds me a lot of the Games Master from the 90’s VHS horror game Nightmare, with most of his NPC interaction happening in changing environments and getting right up in your face. It feels like he’s actually going to crawl out of the TV and berate you in person. He’s a great way to break up the gameplay, but still keep terrified.
This game isn’t without flaws. Until Dawn started to lose me half way through the game when things took a weird turn after the plot twist, when the pacing changed and one plot device being used a little too much for my liking. The device makes sense in the greater scheme of the story, but it jumps from one bad guy to another without much explanation as to why. It also seems to focus on certain characters more than others. I felt myself wondering where one character was after huge repeating scenes with other characters.
The story also lacks in any kind of originality. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Until Dawn relies on several horror movie tropes like The Jock, The Bitchy Girl, and The Quiet Nerdy Guy. Any of these characters could be easily found in a remake of The Breakfast Club, if it happened to be set in a Canadian cabin during a blizzard. I did find myself rooting for one particular character, and then I accidentally killed her because I was playing to her personality.
Until Dawn managed to scare the pants off me and make me want more. Despite some poor camera movements and a slightly disappointing story, if this game was a movie, I’d pay to see it in cinemas and spill my popcorn all over myself. Definitely something I’ll be replaying again and still screaming like a terrified little child.
(Review also available on Player Attack)