One of the most annoying aspects of modern game plotlines is how little you as a player can do to influence the overall outcome. Other than a select few games, like the ones that Telltale so expertly crafts, the player is basically just a cog in the overall machine.
The plot directs your actions, and you’re supposed to do whatever the game needs you to do to reach the end credits. Which is why a game like Until Dawn is an absolute breath of fresh air. It offers you an unprecedented amount of choice, a feature that most survival horror games have a lot of problems with. Every decision you make in the game has far-reaching effects, as your choices ripple through the overall plot to create several different plot events. Combine this with the witty send-up of the slasher genre and you have your very own 80s horror movie sandbox.
The plot is straight from the slasher film guidebook – eight youngsters plan a getaway on a snowy mountain, far away from the prying eyes of elders and other people. The get-together happens exactly a year after their friends Hannah and Beth (twins) disappeared. As you would expect, things go horribly wrong. Interpersonal conflicts split the group up into teams of two who venture out to solve things their own way. Cue the masked maniac and, for additional mayhem, a wild creature that begins to pick apart the teenagers.
After each chapter in the game, the game cuts to an unsettling psychiatric office where you are answering questions about the characters. This is where the game asks you to make the choices that determine the plot. Snakes or spiders? Ghosts or zombies? It’s an interesting way of offering the player narrative choices. These psychiatrist sections are where the game gets to demonstrate how well the butterfly effect is integrated into the plot. Innocuous decisions turn into major obstacles depending upon what permutations you choose. What works to get you through one chapter might be your undoing in the next. You’ll also have to make choices that determine the outcome of conflicts between the characters in the game. There are a lot of branching outcomes, each leading to interesting interactions that play out on screen.
Just so you know, you can’t conveniently rewind and make different choices if you mess up. Like real life, the choices you make are permanent. You’re only allowed to go back once you’ve beaten the entire game. This mechanic really drives home the weight behind your choices. You’ll have your favorite characters, and people you wish would just die. But, depending on what choices you make, people you’re rooting for might be killed earlier than you’d hope. Since you’re essentially playing God in these characters’ lives, you’ll feel the emotional weight of choosing one over the other.
You’ll have to solve some puzzles before you get to the end, such as figuring out how to turn the water heater on or sparking a fire. The game lets you know what objects you can interact with by painting them in a sliver light. These interactive objects hold the key to understanding the overall plot. They often contain clues and valuable plot information. If you’re one of those gamers who likes to skip over any text in your games, you’ll have a hard time understanding what’s going on. You’ll also come across totems that are capable of revealing the future. These totems offer foreshadowing for things that might come to pass. They are useful for helping you to make in-game decisions based upon what you saw. If you see someone falling off the mountain, you’ll be more cautious when you’re sending them to the edges of the map for exploration.
The action sequences are quicktime events that require quick reflexes to execute. Just like in real life, if a masked madman is chasing you in the game, you won’t have too much time to mull over your decisions. If you mess up, your characters might stumble, alert someone to their presence or just lose their balance altogether and plummet to their doom. Until Dawn keeps things snappy and very, very tense.
Until Dawn also makes fantastic use of the gyroscope on the DualShock 4. There are no gimmicks here. One sequence, for example, requires you to hold the controller absolutely still while your character is hiding. If you move it even a little, you’ll let the attacker know that you’re there and bad things will happen. You’ll have to hold your breath and keep your hands still.
The voice acting is fantastic. Whether the characters are being amorous or fear for their lives, you’ll believe the emotions being portrayed. The graphics, unfortunately, break the immersion occasionally due to weird facial tics and animations. It’s a minor annoyance though, because the actors nail the “scared teenager in a slasher movie” dynamic. The action is complemented wonderfully by an eerie soundtrack.
Overall, Until Dawn is a fantastic horror game with several innovative gameplay mechanics. It will make you think long and hard about the choices you make, and several sections will leave you literally breathless and terrified. As a gamer, there’s really nothing else you can ask for from a horror game.