Review: Until Dawn
Until Dawn is a well-crafted tribute to classic horror films such as Halloween, Scream, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare of Elm Street and many more. In turning the premise of a slasher movie into a Heavy Rain style interactive adventure it largely succeeds, although shoehorning every cool idea from an anthology of Wes Craven and John Carpenter films into a single narrative does’t fully work.
Having a game that can be deconstructed scene-by-scene into horror’s ‘greatest hits’ highlights some key differences between videogames and film. What’s most notable is that videogames are interactive, and that they’re longer.
Until Dawn’s story is an odd blend of supernatural and psychological elements. It’s not a case of either-or, there’s time to do both. And whilst the films kill off characters quickly, here death is staggered across the game’s eight hour run-time. It’s even possible to keep everyone alive, which is an odd idea as doing so makes for an underwhelming slasher experience. Fortunately it’s extremely difficult to achieve on a first playthrough, and instead the chance for each character’s fate to be determined by the player is a hugely innovative component of the game.
The relatively slow pace means there’s plenty of time for character development. The bulk of Until Dawn focuses on eight teenagers, and each have their own annoying traits and relationship dramas. As Mike is introduced as Emily’s ex he’s also described as intelligent and driven. Quickly it becomes hard to keep up, which one was Emily again? And if this guy’s so intelligent then why does he look and talk like a dumb jock?
The long list of character traits feels like overload at first, but the story’s complexities actually help keep things interesting, especially early on when things could potentially otherwise feel slow. When you get to decide how Emily’s new boyfriend reacts to the sexual tension between Emily and Mike, it’s clear that this will act as a fun distraction until everyone starts getting brutally killed.
The dialogue is however notably weak, and each line of speech usually falls into one of three categories – annoying and melodramatic, forced and unbelievable, or so unbelievably strange that it’s legitimately hilarious. In comparison to 2015’s other great interactive story, Life is Strange, Until Dawn fares unfavourably, and not even John Abruzzi from Prison Break can save it.
If it was simply down to what the characters say it would be hard to like them, but through action they usually redeem themselves. Mike’s girlfriend is missing, he decides to explore the abandoned insane asylum looking for clues. It’s totally badass, irrespective of the fact that upon finding some evidence he exclaims “Jesus hot sauce Christmas cake”.
What’s key is that although the characters can be annoying, I was always trying my best to keep them alive. Because of this the game fundamentally works as an interactive story – I felt like weight was given to my decisions, and action sequences were tense and engaging. That’s in spite of the fact that they’re mechanically underwhelming. Even the overly-used quick time events aren’t as bad as usual; failure has actual consequence, and punishment beyond simply having to play through the section again. There’s also a merciless auto-save system that means you can’t undo events by turning your console off and on again.
Alongside QTEs you have many other tropes from the genre. Remember in Heavy Rain how you could fail at opening a car door? Well in Until Dawn many basic tasks are also oddly difficult. Walking in a straight line can be notably tricky, and whilst the control system draws comparison to the tank simulator some call Resident Evil, it’s admittedly not quite that bad – even if it’s far too easy to veer off course as the camera jumps between fixed points.
Resident Evil used its camera tricks to deliver notably impressive visuals, and here too the great graphics are a trade-off for limited interaction. When exploring the game’s world you’re only set loose in a small area, camera control is restricted, and there’s not much to do other than find stuff and progress the story.
Meanwhile the horror elements generally work well. The atmosphere is good and there are moments where you have to keep the controller still, which are nicely contrasted with onscreen events designed to make you jump. There are admittedly a few cheap scares, including the characters repeatedly ‘pranking’ each other in the early scenes and not one, but two jumps that involve a raccoon.
It’s surprisingly easy to get carried away listing everything that doesn’t work in Until Dawn, but it’s worth emphasising that from start to finish the game is superbly entertaining. Whilst everything from the camera angles to the narrative structure feels familiar, the element of player input is both ambitious and well-developed. It takes the key component of the genre – who will live and who will die – and makes this the part that’s interactive. It doesn’t matter that there are movies where the storytelling is more refined, because this is a narrative that you’re in control of – and that’s awesome.