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Until Dawn (PlayStation 4) artwork

Until Dawn (PlayStation 4) review

"Choose your own horror."

It seemed like such a good idea. A group of friends decide to relax and enjoy themselves at a ski lodge on a mountain, far from the prying eyes of their parents. One member of the group has a particular interest in this trip. You see, Hannah has a crush on Mike. He doesn't seem especially smart, but he's nice enough and has a generic handsomeness to him. One night, Hannah receives a note from Mike inviting her to his room late at night. Excited by the possibility, She goes to Mike's room. Unfortunately for her, the night becomes memorable for slightly different reasons than she hoped. It turns out the note was part of a prank concocted by their mutual friends to mess with her. Embarrassed and hurt by the ruse, Hannah runs out of the cabin, into the wintery wilderness on her own. She is followed by her twin sister, Beth, who also didn't know about the half-baked prank.

While on the trail of her shamed sister, Beth sees some strange stuff, such as a burst of controlled fire in the distance and a totem that seems to show a girl with a remarkably similar wardrobe falling off an icy cliff, but she is too worried about her sister to really care right now. She eventually finds Hannah, but they are forced further into the forest by an unseen force rustling nearby. They become cornered by the pursuer on an icy cliff (weird, right?), and Hannah nearly slips off the edge, desperately held up by Beth. As the mysterious, looming stranger comes closer, Beth is forced into a dilemma: let go of her sister and drag herself up, or fall into the abyss together. She chooses the latter, and the two sisters are never seen again.

A year later, the same group of friends return to the same cabin in the woods to find some semblance of closure. But before long, things start getting kinda weird. Whatever caused Hannah and Beth's disappearance seems to still be lurking around the mountain, and the gang discovers that making it through the night in one piece will be much more difficult than they realized. This is the opening act of Until Dawn, a game that tells a solid horror story while giving players a rare level of agency to create a unique experience.

The game obviously is heavily influenced by the works of the developer Quantic Dream, creators of high-concept, cinematic games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. You play as multiple characters during the story, and all of the characters are modeled on real-life actors. The actors you're most likely to know are Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek, and Peter Stormare, who is especially excellent as a creepy therapist whose strange questioning and ever-changing setting adds to the uneasy atmosphere the game is going for. The performances are pretty good across the board, putting real emotion and effort into their lines. The actors' virtual counterparts also help in this instance. The animations are subtle and realistic enough to provide emotional cues for the character's current feelings.The writing gets pretty silly and nonsensical at times, and it speaks to the performances of the actors that they're able to sell it as often as they do.

Until Dawn is much more interested in its story, and it shows in the number of quick-time events. Basically every action scene in the game is played in this format. The game transitions between cutscene and gameplay pretty seamlessly so you have to be alert at all times. While it does lead to watching the game's cutscenes, waiting for a button prompt to appear while a character attempts to run, climb, or fight their attacker, I was actually okay with it in this instance. It keeps the plot moving forward when it could be bogged down in elongated combat sequences that wouldn't really make sense in context.

But the game more than makes up for the lack of interactivity in those sequences during the rest of the game. Every character in the game can live or die depending on your actions. Their knowledge of what is actually going on plot-wise is heavily influenced by the things you find while exploring the environment. The way each character fights, or flees, when attacked, and what they can attack with is completely under control. Even interpersonal relationships between the characters are affected by how you handle their conversations.

For example, Matt and Emily are dating. Emily used to date Mike, who is now dating Jessica. Early in the game, you can see Mike and Emily meeting up in the woods in a way that hints that they're not quite over each other. When the group reconvenes in the ski lodge, you, as Matt, can choose to confront Mike about the encounter. Depending on how you speak to Mike, the incident can be blown over or come to an argumentative head. Scenes in one version of the conversation don't even exist in the other, and their feeling about each other can be strained or tightened depending on how the talk goes. This level up of authorship is rarely given to players, adding an extra layer of uniqueness and personal value to everyone's version of the game. I cared more about the characters because of how much their survival depended on me.

Until Dawn also utilizes the features exclusive to the Playstation 4 controller in some interesting ways. You swipe the touchpad to read through books you find or if you need to light a fire via a lighter or striking a match. The motion detecting abilities of the controller are used as well. There are several instances in the game where it is in a character's best interest to stay completely still. During these moments, a picture of the controller will appear in the game with a simple message: don't move. If your hands shift the controller even the smallest bit, the character in the game will move as well. It's a tense, nerve-racking, and brilliant mechanic that helps to build immersion and makes total sense for a game that constantly tries to unsettle you. In a game where those moments can be the difference between life and death, you share the character's desperation and nervousness.

Where other games may have withered under the largesse of this ambition, Until Dawn does well to match its aims as a playable horror movie. The game subscribes to several tropes of the horror genre. The mountain where the game takes place seems a long way from the rest of society. Most of the environments are shrouded in darkness. The score lies in the reeds, only coming out to accentuate jumpscares with VERY LOUD NOISES. The characters begin as stereotypes of young people that have existed in horror movies for decades. Where Until Dawn differentiates itself is in the details. And those details combine to make for an utterly fascinating game.


sam1193's avatar
Community review by sam1193 (September 24, 2015)

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