Until Dawn is the latest “playable movie” title that brings an 80’s style horror movie to life via quick time events and multi-level decision making. Thanks to a system deemed “the butterfly effect” the game will dynamically change in multiple ways depending on how you make choices leading to an interesting experience, and deeper emotional decisions. While controls slightly hold the game back, Until Dawn was a mostly rewarding experience.
The game takes a 80’s slasher film and blends it with a few other modern horror films to create an interesting new story. The game starts off extremely slow for several chapters as it touches base with every possible horror cliché you can think of. 8 friends get together in a remote cabin, they talk about sex (but unlike movies, they don’t actually have sex) and something goes wrong, but for whatever reason they all decide to come back and you guessed it, the trip goes even worse. While the game mentions the scenario is a lot like “slasher porn” and the developers noted it’d be a “B-Movie” type of story, it really isn’t. While the teenagers make a lot of sex jokes, it hardly goes anywhere especially when compared to true indie slasher “porn” films. (I’d know as I worked for a small horror movie company.)
Eventually the game opens up and we learn a bit more about the overarching elephant in the room for the friends, the disappearance of twins Hannah and Beth that the group feels responsible for. Some awkward dialogue sequences take place to explain each person’s personality, and you instantly hate half the group. The group then decides to create the typical horror film split into couples and not even a minute later each division finds themselves in unique danger. The story then spends it’s time jumping from couple to couple and each one will be in varying degrees of danger at all times.
In between “episodes” you find yourself at a psychiatrist that seems rather creepy and is asking you questions about fear. Questions will range between what characters you care about the most, or what scares you more, needles or knives? Your answers will dynamically change the way enemies come at you, or characters that will be put in possible danger. While it does seem blunt, if you play the game properly it really helps develop a rewarding experience. Some people may catch on though and simply choose the lesser of two evils to ease the tension on themselves.
This is a great example of the Butterfly Effect system that the game constantly explains to you throughout the experience. One decision here will cause a new route to open later, or it will cause another decision to be made that is even tougher. Some decisions are smaller like having an enemy carry a needle instead of a knife, but other decisions could literally end a characters life. There are points early in the game where if a character dies then some objects and routes later in the game are unobtainable at all. The story technically does dynamically change as you make decisions, and it emotionally pulls you one way or another. While you may be experiencing the same core story, the way it is told will change.
This game makes you truly feel your mistakes and regret decisions you make. At one point on my first play through I had a character I really wanted to make to the end, but I got curious at a specific scene. A few minutes later I almost walked away from my PS4 because the character fell into a trap and died. One decision lead to this and I questioned following through, even hesitant, but I was too curious. Bam, character dies and I kick myself. On my second play through I was careful and chose not to go that route and a quick one liner from the character made a deeper connection. “Boy I’m glad to see you guys again!” AKA “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t die this time…..”
The game does offer a road map to showcase your decisions and the effect they have later in the game via sub menus. This is rather neat because the core story remains basically the same no matter what you do, but how it is told and the emotional appeal will change based on your decisions. People can be mad at each other, or they can form bonds. The entire group could make it out alive, a few people could make it, or the entire group could die. Scenes play out based on decision you made, or mistakes you’ve come across.
That was the appealing part of the entire process to me, the true danger of every decision. If you decide to reach for something and a character gets injured, they need to deal with it the rest of the way. Or if a character does fall into a trap, they are simply gone and the story moves on without them. Better yet when the game leads you to believe you are making the right choice then quickly tells you how wrong you were. All of this is great and what makes it even better is that you can’t rewind. The game saves quickly after every decisions and the second you screw up you feel the impact immediately and you regret it, or you feel more powerful when you do it right. There is no retries until the end when you can replay the entire game, or start from specific episodes.
Personally that also has some downsides too because there were characters in the game that were poorly written. Emily for instance is not a likable character at all. Her nature and dialogue is so bad that you simply despise her at every turn, yet she kept chugging along for me. (Slight Spoiler: the only chance I got to knock her off had a greater impact on the group, unlike other decisions, and was pretty obvious that it was the “bad decision” so it held me back.) Yet on the flip side there are characters that you fall in love with and don’t want to lose, and once you lose them you get sad and annoyed because you are stuck with people you don’t care about.
This is where the lousy gameplay mechanics step in. I don’t know why, but there were moments in my game where the decisions were basically made for me. Right as the option to choose popped up, it already chose. I didn’t choose to utilize motion controls in my game so it couldn’t have been the way I was holding my controller either. I don’t know what it was, but this aspect was annoying me. Other times you hit quick time events and there needs to be a slow down on some of it. The “easy route” is just as hard as the “quick” routes and sometimes you have a split second to actually press the button.
Next there are times when a character is hiding and the game will tell you to “stay still” while a controller icon pops up and it shows you how much you are moving. While you sit there, an enemy will walk up and look for you. This had me holding my breath in “real life” as I didn’t want to be seen, and it was rather nerve racking. An absolutely friggin awesome idea that simply does not work. You seriously cannot move the controller at all, and it gives no breathing room to you at all. You move a tiny bit and the controller icon leaves the circle and the jig is up. No “warning get back in the circle!” or anything, you simply lose. That wasn’t the problem I had though, the problem I had was that I was literally not moving my controller AT ALL and it was still saying I was moving it. At one point I saw the moment coming so I quickly tossed the controller on my desk before it happened and within two seconds it turned red and said I moved. What? I couldn’t personally figure it out. I found that holding the controller “upright” made it a little better, but even then it still wouldn’t function 100 percent and sometimes auto fail me. During the last sequence of events I can make it through two trials, but the third trial always auto fails me and my character dies. It’s beyond frustrating because I have to replay the entire episode again just to see if it will finally function…..UGH! I eventually gave up on my “save everyone” trophy.
These technical flaws ruined some parts of the story for me. While the game was dynamically changing to suit me, when these errors popped up it created circumstances I didn’t like. I had a character down to the very last chapter, then right at the end it hiccupped and killed the character. I was so frustrated that I didn’t care what happened after that. It’s totally different than making the mistake yourself and it gets annoying fast. The second a glitch like this kills one of your characters you lose all interest in making decisions since it is no longer “your story.”
Quick time events and decisions are not the only gameplay either, which is neat. You can also slightly explore breathtaking areas of the game that include forested areas, mines, abandoned buildings, and of course the main cabin area. While you don’t technically need to walk in a straight line, you most likely will. The game has very few interactions and is held in a linear fashion throughout every episode, so you can’t really be smart about your approach. You can still walk around big areas and look at things, mostly the main cabin, but there is very little to actually play with or find.
Things you can touch will light up with an orb, you press “X” and will either pick it up, or look at it. This is how you find clues to several groups of secrets, and find some small totem figures that will show possible outcomes to an upcoming decision. The clues are helpful because they help reveal information about things going on around you such as nearby friends, danger areas, or escape routes. The characters will then take all the clues and start to get smart about their surroundings and even change story aspects later. The totems are helpful because it shows a possible danger a character will be in, but clearly notes it can be avoided. So if you see a character falling off a cliff, it’s perhaps a smart idea to keep them away from cliffs. On the flip side, the totems don’t always show a bad thing.
That being said beyond looking for random objects laying around, the linear experience kicks in. If you find the clues, great, the story opens up a bit for you and makes future decisions a little easier. Yet when you notice guns laying around, or other tools, you want to be able to walk up to them and take them. At one point my character was holding a rifle and then set it down. Shortly after setting it down there was a loud blast in a back room, and you could see the window shattered from the hallway. I walked back to the original room to try and pick the rifle back up, but it wasn’t even touchable anymore. While the game does throw small puzzles at you, I wish it would have allowed you to be smart in general about tactics like this. Instead it’s more story driven so the idea of a character hanging on to a gun will be up to the story and come into play later, otherwise tough luck, have fun quick timing your way back to it.
The game does have a slight camera issue in terms of directing you in one direction. It will change and have new angles everywhere you walk to be similar to a film, and to get in some imagery that is rather neat. The problem is that certain paths are somewhat hidden out of view, and often times your character will get stuck behind something due to the odd angle. Often I would walk back to areas and walk in one direction just to see if I was able to get to it, and if the camera changed angles I knew I could. It plays very similar to that of Resident Evil.
Until Dawn also has a great cast behind the characters to further enhance the game. A few of the characters are highly motivated, really engaging, and believable. While a small few of them sound a bit fake and annoying. There are times where the dialogue is just plain stupid, but I felt that it blended in with the parody feel of horror movies. Early on, during the slow intro chapters, the dialogue is really tough and cheesy, but as the game progresses and twists into its own thing then the true performances come out.
Personally I’m a big fan of “playable movies” and Until Dawn hit the spot nicely. If you are not a fan of these games then this is probably not for you. In terms of comparing it to horror movies though I feel as though it could have gone a bit further and been a little bit more mature. There wasn’t much gore at all, but what was there was neat. The characters are also having a big deal about kissing (or hugging) instead of something more, and they all feel older than the story makes them out to be. While a few characters mention booze they somehow forgot to bring it! It’s more of an entry level horror movie than anything and the “enemy” in the second half makes it less scary.