The interactive drama genre has, thanks to the tireless efforts of Telltale Games, become big enough that people besides Quantic Dream are willing to pump out a big budget entry. Until Dawn is perhaps the most ambitious of these games yet. It aims to put players in the middle of an 80’s horror flick. Instead of yelling at the blonde girl to not hide under the bed, you yourself actually get to make that decision! Supermassive also promised multiple endings, the ever present risk of losing a character, and a compelling narrative, and in all three of these things, it kind of succeeds, but not really.
As far as premises go, Until Dawn uses a familiar one. One year ago, two sisters were lost in the snowy mountains after a prank gone awry sent the younger one running in embarrassment. Now, their brother has brought the group of friends back together to reconnect and try to get over those horrible events. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and shortly after their arrival, the group is under siege from a masked maniac who seems intent to murder them all.
There are things the game does well, and things it doesn’t. The characters are hit and miss. Some are well thought out and interesting, while others exist solely to fill an archetype. It’s painfully obvious which are which, and it makes it harder to care about the fate of the less interesting ones as a result. Heck, you might even want to get Emily murdered on purpose, as an example. The plot takes a variety of twists and turns, and while some are painfully predictable, others are just bat shit crazy enough that you won’t see them coming. That’s because the game ends up trying to fuse several different genres of horror film into one story, and it doesn’t work well for the most part. There are a lot of plot holes and inconsistencies. It can be fun to go through it, for sure, but any subsequent contemplation will just leave you scratching your head.
Player choice is heavily emphasized in this game, and it works in several different ways. Firstly, there are “Butterfly Effects”. These usually come in the form of choosing between a couple of options. The idea here is that small choices early on can have far reaching consequences. Some of these work well; once choice, for example, decides whether a one character lets another get killed a few hours down the line based on how the first character acted toward them in a tense situation. Others, however, are far too convoluted, and the choices that give the optimal outcome are confusingly complex and unintuitive. You’d pretty much have to know about them ahead of time to see it through. Other choices in the game come down to quick time events. Some are “press X or die” and others are “do I punch this wolf in the face or not?” The fun thing is that the game has negative consequences in store for players who just mindlessly react to whatever prompt is on the screen.
So, can characters die at any moment? No. Instead, there are certain moments in the game where a character has the potential to die. Any failed QTEs outside of these moments don’t result in death, although they might end your scene a littler earlier than usual. About half of the characters can only die in one or two spots, while the rest have three or four. Two of the characters have magical plot armor until the final moments, and can only be killed by mucking up a QTE. Two of the characters, whether they die or not, are essentially written out of the game for most of it, making things less complicated as well. As far as the multiple endings go, it’s all pretty much a tally of who lives and dies. There’s some fun police interviews that run with the credits, but they’re not substantial enough to really qualify as different endings.
For a game like this, the story is key, and for Until Dawn, it’s a mixed bag. There are plenty of interesting moments, tough choices, and consequences to keep you interested for your first play through. However, the overall plot, like many a horror flick, is wrought with issues. Boring character archetypes, plot holes, inconsistencies, and other issues bog down the plot to make it more forgettable than it could have been. They tried to throw too much in the blender, and a good amount of it ended up splattered on the walls as a result.
Visually, the game looks fantastic. The characters were all done up with motion capture using the likenesses of the actual actors, and you’ll even recognize a couple of them. As such, they move and act pretty damn lifelike, and the attention to detail is such that you’ll see tears forming in eyes. However, the game constantly takes a trip to the uncanny valley. Of particular note is the tendency for characters to over-emote and exaggerate their movements. There are times when it can get creepy, and not in the way the developers intended. On the plus side, the art design is strong. The snow-covered lodge and the surrounding area is beautiful to look at. If it weren’t for invisible walls holding you back, it would be a great place to fully explore. The truly great news, however, is the game doesn’t suffer from slowdown. During intense action scenes, the framerate stays smooth and you don’t have to deal with pauses or awkward button presses as a result. For someone used to dealing with lower budgeted games in the genre, this will be a godsend.
More good news is that the game sounds pretty great from top to bottom as well. Each line is fully voiced of course, and they’re pretty solid. Sure, there are some moments where the actors ham it up a bit too much, but for this genre that’s acceptable, if not downright encouraged. The music is also solid, hitting all the right notes. The aural suite is full of creepy noises and wind rustling through trees to keep you on your toes. The jump scares in the game will get you often because of this. My only concern was that the game’s opening theme was just a tad bit too corny.
When it comes to the gameplay, there isn’t really all that much in a traditional sense. Often, you’ll just watch events unfold until you need to make a choice/perform a QTE. However, there are times when you’ll have control of a character. In these sequences, you’re allowed some exploration, though you’re mostly meant to hunt down collectibles during these bits. Its a bit jarring in terms of the pacing at times. For example, if a character is trying to get away from a lunatic in a mask, you’d expect a bit more hustle. However, it seems perfectly fine to sift through some old papers on a desk. You can press a button to move faster, but it’s still not the full sprint you would expect.
Let’s talk about those QTEs. There are three different kinds. You’ve got the standard “press x or die” sequences, as during a scene, a button prompt will appear and a rather quick timer will start. You have to press the correct button before the timer runs out to move ahead. Another form of QTE involves aiming at a target; whether it’s shooting a gun or swinging a fist, sometimes you have to decide if and what you will hit. Time will slow down, and you’ll have a few seconds to move the aiming reticle over what you want to hit. Then, you have to press a shoulder button. Sometimes, the correct option is to not hit anything, although failure to act can lead to death in places. Both of these are fine; they keep you paying attention, and have some potential importance to moving the story forward. However, the third QTE is “don’t move’. When this happens, the light bar on the PS4 controller will appear on the screen inside of a white line. If the bar moves out, something bad happens. The idea is that you need to keep still and not move the controller. However, the game uses a vibration feature which can mess with this. Even if you set the controller down on the ground, you could still lose these events as a result. It’s frustrating, and characters can die because of this. That’s just awful.
Playing through the game will average you around seven hours. After that, the game lets you start a new file from any of the game’s ten chapters. That’s great if you’re hunting down collectibles or aiming for a specific ending. However, your progress is hindered by the fact that you can’t make manual saves. The game auto saves only, even on repeat playthroughs. On top of that, in order for your progress to count from one playthrough to the next, you must complete the story from where you started. You can’t do something like go from chapter seven to chapter four, because if you tried, anything you did in seven wouldn’t count. It’s definitely frustrating, and greatly increases the time you’ll need to spend in order to see everything.
Short Attention Span Summary
So, how does Until Dawn measure up? For the first playthrough, the game is engrossing and addicting. However, once the curtain rises on the game’s tricks, you’ll find an interactive drama that offers far less than it first appears. The multiple endings are overstated, characters can’t die as often as you’d hope, the save system is flawed, some of the gameplay elements are downright bad, and the story has plenty of issues. However, the game is definitely worth that first playthrough. The production values are stellar, and the mystery at the heart of the game is interesting from start to finish. Consider this game a fantastic option for rental, or something to look for on sale down the road.