Until Dawn is a 3rd person adventure / survival horror game by British developer Supermassive Games, and is exclusive to PlayStation 4. As a fan of the survival horror genre, I’ve had my eye on Until Dawn since it was announced at GamesCon 2014.
The game was originally developed as a 1st person Move compatible game for the PlayStation 3, but the developers ripped it down and rebuilt it as a PS4 exclusive title. Check out the trailer for the original PS3 version here. I think Supermassive made the right move by switching to more traditional survival horror game, I’ve played a first person survival horror game based on motion and it just didn’t work well – Rise of Nightmares for Xbox 360.
I initially questioned why Sony didn’t delay Until Dawn’s release until Halloween, which would’ve made perfect sense – after all, a lot of Hollywood horror movies are held over for the same reason. Then I realised October is earmarked for Uncharted Collection so that Mr Drake can go head to head with Miss Croft’s Xbox One exclusive Rise Of The Tomb Raider.
Until Dawn is presented in the same vein as pretty much every teen slasher movie of the past thirty or so years. Events begin in a snow covered mountain-top ski lodge; with a group of eight friends coming together for the anniversary of the disappearance of their friends, on the same mountain the previous year. Over the course of the game, you visit a variety of locations found in your bulk standard Hollywood scary movie, such as an abandoned asylum and mines closed after a mysterious incident in the not too distant past.
All the horror movie clichés are present – the group includes the jock, the nerd, the quiet girl, the bitch et al; some of the lines are cheesy, but delivered with gusto by a strong voice cast including Heroes’ Hayden Panettierre, Prison Break’s Peter Stromare and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Brett Dalton. The teens play pranks on each other, aware that their surrounding is already spooky enough, although that’s before the brown stuff really hits the fan. Obviously, as the location is relatively remote (the ski lodge can only be accessed by a solitary cable car), no one can get a signal on their mobile phone.
Until Dawn is built around the chaos theory principle of The Butterfly Effect. For those unfamiliar with the term – a butterfly flapping its wings today may lead to a devastating hurricane weeks from now; so even the smallest decision can dramatically change the future. Therefore your actions will shape how the story unfolds, and your story is only one of many possibilities. The game follows a very linear, heavily story driven plot, so if you’re a fan of free roaming sandbox-style games Until Dawn is unlikely to appeal.
The goal is to have as many of the teens survive through the night’s events until dawn. Depending on the choices you make, the entire group can survive, conversely, some or all may die over the course of the night. A tight autosave system means you can’t skip back to the previous save point. Once one of the characters meets their maker, that’s it for their portion of the game. Throughout the game, you make decisions that may ultimately seal a particular character’s fate – something as mundane as picking sides in an argument could have far-reaching consequences later on. Over the course of the game, you’ll play as each of the group at least once.
On my first playthrough, I managed to save just three of the group. I made my decisions based on gut instinct unless the choice was glaringly obvious. I’ll happily admit I made a few silly mistakes along the way, mistiming a few QTEs and making bone head decisions. On my second time around I changed a few decisions and improved my success rate to six. The game lasts about ten hours overall, which was an intentional decision by the developers in order to encourage multiple playthroughs. I found that as soon as I finished the game, I was itching to play again to see if I could save the entire group, which I’m still intent on doing.
Before the game begins you’re given a choice of control options – original, which pretty much speaks for itself, using the thumbsticks to make decisions; or motion control, using the DualShock’s inbuilt accelerometer to make decisions. I tried both the original and motion controls and found there were pros and cons to both. Using the thumbsticks to make decisions is a bit slow and clumsy compared to the motion setting, whereas it was easier to aim at targets with thumbsticks as the motion control was a little fiddly. You can select either control option mid-game via the pause menu if you’re uncomfortable with your initial choice.
Apart from the either / or decisions are quick time events and “Don’t Move” events. The QTEs trigger throughout the game, inevitably in panic situations and comprise of the triangle, square and circle buttons before a ticking timer runs out, leaving X as your means of interacting with objects in-game (along with one of the shoulder buttons).
The Don’t Move sections involve keeping the controller as still as possible – usually when danger is nearby. All you need to do is keep the lightbar shape within the border shown on screen for as long as it’s displayed. Personally, I didn’t find these sections too difficult, as I naturally play with my hands resting in my lap.
Throughout Until Dawn you’ll find clues that uncover what really happened to your friend following their disappearance, the true history of the mountain and surrounding area, and the identity of the psycho stalking the group – along with the psycho’s motivation for doing so. You’ll also find parts of Native American totems that can be found throughout the game, which foretell forthcoming events. Paying attention to these glimpses of the future helps to make the right decisions at crucial points in the game. Each totem also unlocks the events of the past, which plays as a video that builds up as you collect more and more of them.
The game is split into ten chapters, roughly one per hour. Bookending the chapters are fourth-wall breaking psychoanalysis sessions with a psychiatrist who tried to get to the root of your fears. You’re asked to choose between images – what are you afraid – spiders or crows? Needles or clowns? But what are you more afraid of, spiders or clowns? Your answers gradually bleed imperceptibly into the main game, such as a spider crawling across the lens of a CCTV camera. A neat little touch Supermassive have added is a series of behind the scenes featurettes, which build up as the game progresses. Some people may think this breaks the magic, but I found them enjoyable and a great insight into the gaming industry.
Supermassive obviously paid attention in horror class – you’re lulled into a false sense of security, followed by a false scare; like a precariously balanced tin can falling off a shelf. You’re then given a chance to catch your breath and calm your nerves before something truly scary makes you jump out of your seat. I’ve already mentioned I’m a huge fan of horror, and over the years I’ve become a little desensitised to this horror movie formula, but the game was so engrossing that I couldn’t help but jump, as some of the scares come out of the blue.
Visually, Until Dawn is breath-taking; you’d be mistaken for thinking you were watching a horror movie rather than playing a video game. My Dad mentioned that he’d seen the trailer on TV and was thinking of going to the cinema to watch it until he saw the PS4 logo at the end of the advert.
The camera is fixed at certain angles (a lot like the original Resident Evil) which increase the feeling that someone is watching the group, lurking in the shadows. The attention to detail is amazing, as is the face-mapping of the characters and motion capture. The surroundings are also impressive (and at times oppressive), with strong winds whipping snow across outdoor walkways and paint peeling and cracking off of the walls inside the asylum later in the game.
The musical score compliments the look and feel of the game, with a full orchestral score used to maximise the sense of foreboding. The soundtrack is haunting, yet subtlety weaved into the game – ramping up in pitch and volume during tense moments and building to a crescendo as terror takes over.
The story itself is well structured throughout the first half of the game, then veers away and presents a new threat. This is a little jarring unless you’ve taken the time to find all the clues, which add up to an intricately weaved backstory. At the end of the day, Until Dawn is like a roller coaster ride – some people will happily jump on and enjoy the ride and the scares, along with all its twists and turns. Others will shy away, preferring something safe and familiar, like the teacups.