Until Dawn works despite a handful of fairly significant issues. If you have ever watched a horror movie and thought (or shouted aloud): “Why would you do that?!” – well now you get your chance to see if you would fare any better within the confines of the story. The end result is a tense experience with excellent production values that is worth playing this Halloween season.
Until Dawn actually reminds me of several games for various reasons. First, it was supposed to be a PlayStation 3 title that made use of the janky Move controls, but thankfully it was given more time to develop and the experience is no doubt better for it. It kind of reminds me of the Xbox 360 title Alan Wake, and the slow start that title got off to after its initial introduction.
Until Dawn really does a solid job of capturing a cinematic experience and putting you in control of it. As the player, you will move from one character to another at predetermined times in the narrative, controlling the choices that they make. The introduction does a great job of not only setting the groundwork for the story itself, but also explaining the controls. Initially Until Dawn reminded me of the narrative-heavy Telltale games. It is an adventure title that has you moving around the environment, interacting with other characters and objects of note in your surroundings. In truth, the story itself is only so-so, which should have been a death knell for a game like this, but there are plenty of saving graces built in.
For one, the environments are generally gorgeous, and I found myself wanting to explore every nook and cranny. This in turn added some supplemental narrative that helps to provide a crutch for the story itself by adding context to everything. Additionally, the music and the voice acting are terrific, helping to sell you on the characters if not the tale. I was invested in trying to keep the characters alive. Well, most of them. There were a couple I disliked and could not have cared if they met a grizzly end, but in a sense – that is a sign of success as well as I cared enough to dislike the characters, right? By and large the characters look great, though their animations and facial expressions are sometimes a little stiff. They look good, but for a game like this where they focus is so heavily thrust onto characters who have to emote and get the player to feel something, I suppose I was hoping for just a bit more on the expressions.
However, the more I played Until Dawn, the less it reminded me of a Telltale game and felt more akin to a game like Heavy Rain, due to the greater variety of controller and button manipulations. The feedback from the game felt somewhat more organic, making the use of buttons and sticks complement the onscreen action better. However, I do hope you like QTEs – because you will be seeing a number of them. For a game that seems like it should have a fairly low barrier of entry (this is not after all, a quick twitch shooter or a sports game where you are regularly using all four face buttons, a shoulder button and two triggers all in the same three second span), the QTEs can be pretty rough. Of course, elements like this are meant to add challenge and make a game out of things, but for someone like my wife or oldest kid who are for more interested in the story and the experience, having to be really fast on often random QTEs could be frustrating. That is not to say the QTEs are a deal-breaker. By and large they are well-implemented, and like some of the other controls, feel appropriate when they occur in the game. My favorite control mechanism was the ‘don’t move’ one, which has you holding the controller still while you are being stalked. It pays to have steady hands when you are hiding from possible death.
One nice twist on the gameplay are the various totems you encounter along the way. Picking these up and turning them over provides you a short bit of insight – a scene that plays out before the player’s eyes. For the character, it is usually just a strange, unsettling moment. For the player however, these are usually clues that can help you succeed. They often show a worst case scenario coming up, and being aware of that potential situation, the totems give you a chance to avoid that fate. This mechanic of the game reminded me of the Final Destination movies.
The branching narrative is interesting. The popular Butterfly Effect is touted heavily in this game, including its introduction, which I included a video of here. In theory, the Butterfly Effect can cause significant changes, and while the lives of the characters are in your hands, sometimes these changes feel more like ripples than waves. They are a great idea with only good execution that provides replay value for those who enjoy the game, however. I would have enjoyed some additional options to skip content on subsequent play throughs. Perhaps the concern was that would drain the tension out of the game and lessen the cinematic quality, but from a practical standpoint it would have been nice.
Until Dawn is a very cool experiment that gets more right than wrong. It has a heavy reliance on jump scares and the story itself was a bit of a letdown. Despite the fact that most of the characters feel like stereotypes, they are brought to life in convincing fashion and I found it easy to get invested in their well-being. That emotional attachment cannot be understated, because it helps to carry the experience even when other elements of the game might not reach their full potential. Until Dawn is a treat for fans of horror movies and should be played by anyone interested in a tense experience during the upcoming Halloween weekend.
Article by Nick