Until Dawn's a QTE-ridden horror whose best beats play out as an amalgam of some of the cinema genre's stronger works, none of which we can name else they'd reveal too much about what happens.
This adventure plays out over one night, the story sliced unevenly into mock 'episodes', covering each hour until dawn (we clocked it in around eight hours, so the in-game time is a little iffy) and following its cast as they try and work out a way to survive until then. Such is the game's premise, none may live to see it.
The game tracks eight characters, a mix of unknown names and recognisable faces de-aged into teenagers via motion and facial capture, spending the night at a mountain cabin. The game takes its time introducing its cast one by one and explaining the mechanics, a slow burn that's agreeable as there's a lot of relationship baggage you need to absorb. While Until Dawn's been transformed from teen slasher in the vein of Scream to something more sinister, it still operates on a strict set of rules: every decision impacts what's to come, actions have consequences, and no one is safe. And correctly-used QTEs are key to survival.
Correctly-used, rather than timed. Because alongside with those rules, Until Dawn does play on convention. Sometimes doing nothing despite on-screen indicators suggesting otherwise is the best course. It's your choice to let people wander off on their own, when history says it should be you screaming at the TV at their stupidity in doing so. The cast are carved out of genre stereotypes, but some, surprisingly quickly, shed shallow character traits and just become relatable people stuck in a horrific situation.
While that last's supposedly due to deeper traits measured by a scaled meter tracking your currently controlled character's relationship with everyone else, it never feels like a barometer for anything meaningful other than multi-playthrough comparisons. Perhaps having nearly twenty years on the mixed emotions of adolescence meant we engaged differently than what genre complicity dictated. Adam Hills' mantra of "don't be a dick" seemed to shake everyone into sensibility.
(Side note: apart from one character that has a few lines that skirt close to Always Sunny's Dennis' for implication, Until Dawn's conservative on horror staples of sex and alcohol. No one's brought the latter, though there's a couple drunk in the prologue section, and the former's eluded to only in the odd poorly-phrased metaphor. Aside from two characters getting clothes-firmly on frisky and another walking around in a towel for spell, Until Dawn's nicely neutered when it comes to T&A and drink binges. And drugs. Gore, not so much.)
Supermassive Games enforces gut instinct. Firstly through a series of seemingly disconnected therapy sessions between episodes, as Peter Stormare plays someone analysing you through associations with picture cards. You realise quickly, in best Ghostbusters fashion, your decisions decide the form of your destructor. Linger however and Stormare will snap at you with the meta-message that your experience will be better for going with the gut. The developer's checkpoint system is more heavy handed in this - it saves after decisions have been made, and you've only one save per game. There's no going back to fix mistakes, and much better for it. One concession though: a post-game mode unlocks the episodes to let you tinker.
There's very little in the way of puzzle work here, and that's hinged around scouring the environments for interactive items. The game will swop between different character groups repeatedly over the course of the story, but they all play the same. You move your character's head or torch (via traditional controls or gyro-sensors) as you explore, and items of interest flash as a white light. You're following mostly linear paths, the odd detour uncovering clues that aren't necessarily needed to get a rough idea of what's really going on as well as totems which offer a brief flash forward of events to come.
These are split into different pole categories, offering hints towards fortune or potential deaths. Too brief and too grainy and so seem inconsequential to begin, late into the game we started identifying them as the moment they predict unfolded. Coupled with the fact we'd started backtracking over familiar locations with the odd one-use interactive object - the lodge is but a small area in a mountain riddled with secrets - we started weighing up potential choices more based on their consequence, even if we had but seconds to decide.
We'd wished this to have bled into the story much earlier, but Until Dawn overlays multiple horror sub-genre tropes across its play time. The game's middle is as different to its climax as that is from the opening. If you tried to argue the game's fractured storytelling is a result of the production changes, you'd be wrong. There's a Cabin in the Woods vibe here if only because the game repeatedly throws you off track as to what's actually going on.
Each main vein kept us entertained and the switches, while abrupt, lead to a change of pace to ensure repetition failed to set in. While there's heavy linearity to your movements, they're always backed by a fantastic score (Jason Graves with one of his best works) that amps up the tension, and there's always an undercurrent of fear at something to come, or pure adrenaline as you're facing potential death straight on. We sat down to play around midday and, toilet breaks and snack trips aside, didn't put the controller down until around 9pm that evening when the credits rolled.
The story's not perfect by any means. There are plot holes that grow larger in retrospect, and some characters really get shortchanged for stage time and development. For a time we ended up thinking we were playing a horror-tinged Uncharted as Matt got the lion's share of the game's latter half. It's a title that could have easily cut a couple of faces and spent more time embellishing on those character traits emphasised at each person's introduction. Perhaps then they'd feel like they impacted the story choices more.
Equally some horror shock tactics don't work as the game too heavily signposted what scares were in store by way of picking picture cards. And our particular playthrough tried something that felt at odds with what we'd learn from very early on in the game, so any fear was dispelled.
We lost two of our cast before the game's end. The first by failing to learn from the rules, but the second felt grossly unfair. In some sequences you have to remain perfectly still, the game tracking the movement of your controller light. Move outside its surrounding border and you fail. For the most, this leads to some of the game's most tense moments (though you miss the on-screen action, so closely are you watching the tiny icon at the screen's bottom), but in a penultimate scene, we were moving in our seat as the icon popped up unexpectedly soon. Cue unfixable death.
Outside this, the gyro-sensor worked great. Shallow it may be, but we do feel more immersed when we have to push the pad forward to slam open doors, or twist it in our hands to open levers, pull open chests, or lift a letter into the light to read. Our colleagues at Gamereactor Sweden went for the traditional control scheme, and fumbled with the Street Fighter-like combo inputs to perform basic actions. Our advice? Choose motion control at the game's start. That said, we had to pause on occasion as scenes switched to centre our controller and recalibrate the sensor, so the moving of our torch's light was a more natural fit in relation to our controller position.
Visually, this game once again proves PlayStation's still ahead of the curve when it comes to attempting photorealism. Characters walk and react with a real-world authenticity and while the larger environments may not, occasionally, match the standard of character models, the studio's use of camera angles is top tier. Shame the included documentaries on the game's creation are so brief; we'd love to know more about the process.
Misfire? We say no. It'll only not be enjoyed by any who have sworn off QTEs or Heavy Rain-like titles as non-games unworthy of their time. Yes, Until Dawn feels like an interactive movie or horror series, but it's a very enjoyable watch - and play - while it lasts.