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Until Dawn (PlayStation 4) artwork

Until Dawn (PlayStation 4) review

"Boom! Butterfly Effect"

In Until Dawn's introductory cutscene, Supermassive Games effectively uses the unique patterns of a butterfly’s wings as a visual metaphor. When you play the actual game, you'll find that the split ends of each pattern represent the various paths the game's narrative can take. The overarching metaphor serves as both the game's strength and its weakness, since Until Dawn makes for entertaining and intriguing interactive fiction, but too often it shows its hand to players.

The tale that unfolds in Until Dawn hits all of the typical beats you might recognize from the teen horror film genre, while throwing a couple of interesting curve balls that I won't spoil here. The fun starts as the group of teens (who each look older than their stated age) arrives for a weekend retreat at a mountainside resort owned by one of their parents. A similar trip was taken the previous year. At that time, a cruel prank led to the accidental death of a pair of their friends. That prior event puts a damper on the current proceedings. It also doesn't help that this time around, the surviving teenagers almost immediately fall victim to the first in a series of increasingly horrifying events that have possible links to the tragedy that played out a year ago.

The player's job is to help the characters survive the night, by having them make various choices and by successfully completing quicktime events. Gameplay is very much in the vein of two recent Quantic Dream games on PlayStation 3, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Those games were often criticized for their reliance on quicktime events, and I imagine that some will levy the same criticism against this game. However, the sequences feel authentic to the experience and contribute hugely to the tension one hopes to see from a horror title.

Many quicktime events require a simple button press during a horrifying chase sequence, while others employ the Dualshock 4’s motion sensitivity and challenge the player to keep the controller still. A missed button press or a controller movement often leads to harm or even death for the character, which was one of the reasons Heavy Rain was criticized. Here, though, it feels more in keeping with the game's dreadful mood.

The game’s visuals also help to establish a foreboding atmosphere. Events unfold almost entirely over the course of a dark and snowy night, which is rendered exceptionally well. This is one of the best looking games I've seen on the PlayStation 4 to date. Character models and movements are believable, the environments are carefully detailed, and the whole affair produces a lingering feeling of existential dread. Those factors, along with a well-written script and convincing performances, kept me engaged for ten hours of narrative.

But back to the butterfly effect...

The player makes tons of decisions in this game, many of which have a serious effect on the narrative's direction. These decisions can be mundane, like when you choose whether to pick up an object that may be useful later, or they could impact something as severe as the fate of a character's limbs. Players know that a choice is particularly important when they see an animation appear near the top left corner of the screen, accompanied by the words “Butterfly Effect Update.” Accessing a related menu outlines the impact of a given decision.

Such prompts serve as one of the more game-y aspects of the experience, and I have difficulty deciding whether I view them as a net positive or not. Certainly, it's interesting and useful to know which decisions will have an impact down the line, especially given how innocuous some of the choices seem a glance. Armed with that information, it's easier to know what to perhaps do differently on a subsequent run.

On the other hand, I like the idea of such systems remaining hidden. This result would surely be a more immersive experience, without distractions from the narrative. Perhaps it's unfair to expect a video game to act more like an interactive film, but I would like to see developers willing to eschew some of the medium's needless tropes when it has the potential to produce added immersion.

But I’m nitpicking, really. At the end of the day, those Butterfly Effect Updates are one of the few criticisms I can levy against the game. I was engrossed while playing Until Dawn, and in the aftermath, I've enjoyed discussing its diverging narrative with friends of mine who have also played through the game. I look forward to making another run myself, in the near future. After all, I want to see how far the butterfly effect truly reaches...


santellifa's avatar
Freelance review by Francisco Santelli (February 14, 2016)

Francisco Santelli is an avid gamer, overworked high school teacher, and aspiring rockstar. He is often accompanied at the keyboard by his cat, Matches.

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