The best way I can describe Until Dawn is to call it a self-aware, playable version of a 1980's slasher flick. The character's behaviors are mostly irrational, the dialogue is campy, and the jump scares are relentless and abundant; however, I couldn't help but love it. And even though Until Dawn hits a lot of the same notes as an 80's horror movie, it's very much its own entity. Until Dawn is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But having compelling characters, a dynamic music score, and some of the best facial motion capture I've seen in a game make this a journey worth experiencing.
OK, so what exactly is Until Dawn? I've had this question posed to me by a few friends wondering if it was worth their time. The best way to answer this question is to tell you what it's not. First of all, it's not a horror game. I know the marketing team has billed this game as such, but unless you're extremely susceptible to easy jump scares, then this game really won't scratch any survival horror itch you might have. Think of it as Heavy Rain: Nightmare Edition. Until Dawn plays very similarly to Heavy Rain or really any Quantic Dream or Telltale game you can think of. Your choices matter just as much as your familiarity with the button layout on the PS4 controller. However, the "butterfly effect" Until Dawn so prominently touts doesn't necessarily alter the outcome as much as you'd think.
The butterfly effect in the game is, by definition, the same as the actual butterfly effect. I'm sure most of you are familiar with it, but it's basically chaos theory. Every small action will result in a larger consequence at a later time. Until Dawn takes this idea and puts systems in place that make even some of the most mundane contextual actions (like inspecting a baseball bat or whether or not to throw a snowball) have some interesting outcomes later on in the game.
Even though I'm not someone who actively hunts down Let's Plays, I found Until Dawn an interesting game to watch other people play and see how their choices affected the outcome of their playthrough. Unfortunately, after watching three other people play and experience some sizable differences from each other, the game still plods along the same basic path. Yes, all your "teens" can die (I use the word teens tentatively as the actors portraying them are probably late twenties or early thirties). But the game shambles on regardless of who you've mistakenly (or purposively) killed. The outcome of your actions still brings you to the same place in the end, albeit with more or less people present. That outcome was still satisfying, but when you lift the curtain and see the gears turning, it's a little disenfranchising to see your lack of actual power to change the outcome of the ending.
Given that Until Dawn focuses heavily on dialogue and narrative, I'd be remiss to not address the actor/actresses performances. Supermassive Games spent a decent portion of their budget pulling in names like Peter Stormare and Hayden Panettiere and it was worth it. Peter Stormare (Dr. Hill) and Rami Malek (Josh) deliver their lines with a kind of exaggerated flair that echo's the games love affair with cheesy, 80's horror clichés. The rest of the cast gives solid performances with only a few being kind of flat or unmemorable. And each line and subtle delivery quirk is complimented by the stellar facial motion capturing. One minor complaint I have concerning the VA is not associated with delivery or performance, but rather the actual audio for the voices. It seems like something went wrong in the mixing department as the voices sounded somewhat muddled, as if they were bouncing off damp cave walls. I had to turn down the sound effects and music in order to actually hear some of the lines. I did grow accustomed to it over time, but it was a little jarring at first.
As I mentioned before, all eight teens can potentially die in one gruesome way or another. One problem I have with this mechanic is not its inclusion but its implementation. I also noticed this to be an issue in the Let's Plays I watched. Many of the deaths and the manner in which they are triggered seems to come down to a single missed button prompt in a quick time event or worse, the game punishing the player for missing an arbitrary item. That being said, as linear as Until Dawn is, you're rewarded for exploring your surroundings as meticulously as humanly possible. But some of the character deaths feel... cheap. When this game is on point, it's giving the player agency over a tense situation that tears you between two equally terrible outcomes. It's a shame then that determining who lives and who dies feels less out of your control than it should be.
I hate to make the Cabin in the Woods comparison, but Until Dawn feels like it's treading down a similar path. I kind of hated the majority of the cast at the beginning and they make every horror movie mistake you can possibly think of, which includes but is not limited to: Splitting up constantly, sex equals death, chasing AFTER a potential serial killer, and saying the line "I think we're safe now". But it was all kind of endearing as the game progressed. I grew to care about what happened to this blundering group (well, all of them except one) thrust into a horrible situation.
Until Dawn's gameplay consists of walking, button prompts, and choosing between option A or B. I may be oversimplifying it, but the real draw here is the story and sense of immersion this game creates. There is one interesting gameplay mechanic that bears mention though. There's a sort of "steady hands" feature that tasks the player with keeping the controller completely motionless during certain moments. The sensitivity on the controller is extremely high and I found that even breathing too heavily would cause the motion sensor to jump. But even this small touch further felt immersive as I was sitting there, holding my breath, along with my character.
Until Dawn is endearing. I know that's probably a strange adjective to use when describing a game that reveals in gore and excessive amounts of expletives. It's a game that isn't afraid to play with your emotions and take chances on crafting characters you sort of love to hate. Even though I have my issues with Until Dawn, I was strangely absorbed into this beautiful, yet awful world where I was able to experience a Hollywood horror movie in video game format.