Adam Rosenberg of Mashable just posted an awesome, in-depth review of UNTIL DAWN. Written by Fessenden and Graham Reznick, the PS4 exclusive hits stores tomorrow.
How many times have you sighed at a horror movie victim’s stupidity — “Why would that idiot hide under the bed when there’s a perfectly good door to run through?”
Until Dawn lets you answer those questions in your own way. And thanks to the intricately constructed story from Hollywood screenwriters Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, there are no right or wrong answers. Characters live and die based on your decisions, and whoever’s left at the end of the game is a reflection of how your story played out. They can all live. They can all die.
The setup is classic horror. A group of young adults return to the cabin where a friend of theirs (or two) disappeared exactly one year earlier. The disappearance happened after the group pulled a mean prank, so the anniversary trip back is fraught with different degrees of inner turmoil for everyone.
The cast is a line-up of genre stereotypes. There’s the missing girl’s brother, Josh, an oddly calm fellow who is unsettlingly at ease with what happened. He’s either still processing the loss of his sister or he’s up to something. Or both. You never really trust him.
Mike is the brash, courageous action-taker of the group. He’s charismatic. He’s got a way with the ladies. He’s kind of a dick. His girlfriend, Jess, is a pretty-but-stuck-up blonde. She’s superficial and borderline annoying, and she’s got “secretly insecure” written all over her.
Jess is constantly at odds with Emily, a former fling of Mike’s who shows up at the cabin with her new boyfriend, Matt. Emily is bossy and domineering, with a short fuse and little patience for the much calmer Matt, a quiet yet friendly jock. Also in attendance is Chris, a nerdy prankster and Josh’s boyhood friend, and Ashley, a “girl next door” type who crushes hard on Chris.
Finally there’s Sam. She’s the most obvious hero of the story, a strong, fearless woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or put Type As like Mike in their place. She’s got smarts and the ability to remain levelheaded in a crisis. She’s charismatic, but not a jerk about it.
It’s important to understand how these different personalities orbit around one another, because the interpersonal relationships are everything in Until Dawn. Over the course of 10 chapters, you get to take control of each of them at least once, and your choices dictate the flow of the plot.
Until Dawn is very good at keeping the illusion of control in the hands of the player. Like most choice-driven games, there are scripted things that will happen regardless of what you do — Josh’s sister always disappears during the prologue, for example — but it’s often hard to tell where the ironclad script ends and the player choice begins.
The presentation helps a lot here. While the frame rate never quite rises above the level of passable — it hovers in the 20 to 30 fps range all throughout — the fidelity of each actor’s performance is impressive. You easily recognize Hollywood faces like Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), who plays Sam; Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who plays Mike; and Rami Malek (The Pacific), who plays Josh.
They’re all motion captured, but they don’t feel like animated characters in a video game. All you see is a bunch of actors visibly working at their craft. There’s emotion in each performance. These are people that you can connect with. Yes, they’re also dumb horror movie victim who really should have grabbed that gun or turned on that light — but the illusion is strong.
The game also makes great use of restricted camera angles and carefully deployed audio cues to ratchet up the tension. You view and control each character from a third-person perspective, but what you see is always left in the hands of the game’s invisible director. The camera pulls in tight as you round blind turns. Or the musical score wells up slowly, menacingly. Until Dawn creep-out factor is exceedingly high.
The story leans heavily on jump scares, especially during the early chapters, before the real threat presents itself in full. There’s no easy horror sub-genre to lump it in with. You get a little bit of a slasher vibe, some torture porn, even a touch of creature feature. The story takes some unexpected turns over the course of nine or 10 hours. You see some twists coming a mile away; others make you sit up and shout as comprehension dawns.
As valuable as it is to sit down and let your impressions of each character guide the decisions you make, Until Dawn throws out some bones for those who would like some measure of control over the outcomes of key situations. Totems scattered throughout each chapter’s environment tease future events. They show you things like how a character could die if you make the “wrong” choice, or advise against acting on what might seem at the time like an obvious course of action.
But be careful about how you view what “wrong” is in the context of Until Dawn. Most will probably run through the game with an eye toward keeping everyone alive — it’s a natural instinct to preserve your lives in a video game, after all — but it’s arguably more important to base what you do around how you’d like to see the story play out.
Maybe you can’t stand Mike and want to set him up for an ugly demise. Or you think Jess deserves better than his punk ass, so you blow up Mike’s spot as Matt, after he accidentally spots the jerk hugging Emily in the woods. Not every choice is yours to make — but you can use them to engineer death in the same way you use them to save lives.
That’s the big achievement in Until Dawn. You can play it however you want and angle for the outcome of your choosing — but there’s no winning or losing. It’s a game that puts your story out in front, first and foremost. You don’t have to sigh at the idiot hiding under the bed, but you can cackle with sadistic glee when you force a character to do just that.