I watched Sam step off the bus. Ten hours until dawn. My choices in those next ten hours would determine whether she and seven of her friends lived or died. Initially, Until Dawn pushes the concept of the butterfly effect very hard. This is the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings today could be the cause of a hurricane in a year, or in simpler terms, the chains of small events that can lead to devastating outcomes. While this was probably for the benefit of those who haven’t been inundated with coverage and trailers for the last year, it was a relief when the tutorials ended and I was finally able to settle in to the unsettling nature of a night of horror on Blackwood Mountain.
Until Dawn plays much like a Quantic Dream horror game, and if I didn’t know that it was Supermassive behind this one, I would think that this was the successor to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. That means it’s a narrative and cinematic heavy game, with a lot of the walking around, conversations, and quick-time events (QTEs) left to player input. Until Dawn even has its own Press X to Jason moment as a character continually yells out “Ash? Ash!?! Ashley!?” though sadly, you don’t get to press X to call for Ashley. He does it all on his own.
The cinematic nature of the game means that the visuals need to look good to immerse the player, and they do for the most part. I was impressed with how each character’s body and facial animations looked, though there were a few times that something just looked off and unnatural about the scene. Close-up camera angles paired with quick movements often saw frame-rates dropping. Character movement can be a little bit clunky when trying to explore for clues or totems, but overall these small faults didn’t get in the way of the tense nature that Supermassive was trying to achieve.
Before you start the game, here are a few tips. Turn off the lights and turn up the sound. It’s important to get the right mood for a game like this. Take note of the smattering of special features that give you a behind the scenes look at the development. It’s something I wish more developers would include in their games. Next, jump into the settings menu. Make sure to keep global stats off for your first time through so that other players’ decisions don’t affect your gut instinct. If you’ve got a PlayStation Camera, turn on this function. It will record your reactions at certain jump scare moments, appropriately titling these captures “cheap shots.” Don’t worry, the game doesn’t overly rely on jump scares. There’s plenty more to be afraid of than a few simple…no, actually, I think I’ll let you discover those on your own.
In fact, Until Dawn successfully blends the best elements of a whole slew of horror films, from campy summer slashers to torture porn, and supernatural thrillers to creature movies. There’s even an aspect of psychological thrillers thrown in for good measure. You actually get your own therapist in between chapters who will help tailor the game to your personal fears, and I implore you, answer his questions honestly for the best experience for you.
While I don’t want to give anything away, I’ll say the entire ten hours isn’t a stretched out version of I Know What You Did Last Summer. The story is actually one of the most impressive points of the game, and I found it to be well written and paced from beginning to end. The characters and narrative may start off in a completely predictable and cliche way, with a bunch of horny teenagers making consistent sex jokes and bad decisions for the first quarter of it, but Until Dawn accomplishes what a traditional length feature film cannot. It evolves the story arc, somewhat believably develops the characters, and perhaps the most important part of all, it gives the viewer control.
For my first time through, I was trying desperately to save all of the characters. I would try to make intelligent decisions to keep everyone grouped together. I’d try to be reasonable in conversations. I tried, I really did. In the end, only two of the eight friends survived the night. Some were killed through carelessness on my part. I mean, I did play the entire game in a single ten hour sitting from evening until about three in the morning. My nerves were a little fried. I was living their nightmare with them. So when it came to one of the times where I had to hold the controller as still as possible — perhaps the most stress inducing quick-time event — I screwed up and it didn’t end well.
It all just went downhill from there. A number of bad decisions and failed QTEs later, the credits rolled with two characters in some severe need of therapy. Knowledge is power though, and the next night I booted up the game with the intention of truly saving everyone. Scattered around Blackwood Mountain there are a variety of clues to unravel the mystery of what’s going on and how it all connects together, as well as a series of collectible Native American totems that give a brief vision of a possible future. Armed with these, and the knowledge from my first playthrough, I was able to make another run and successfully save everyone, though it wasn’t without its white knuckle moments and wondering how the butterfly effects of my decisions early on would impact each character later in the story.
On the third night, I decided that everyone would die. I would actively try to fail. I had really enjoyed my first two playthroughs, but my night of massacre on Blackwood Mountain is where the cracks in the game really began to show. I made the characters all angry at each other. I split everyone up where possible. I failed every quick-time event. Every. Single. One. It didn’t matter. Some characters just refused to die.
There are certain narrative points that each character needs to survive through, and Until Dawn course corrected every one of my actions until they had played their part, no matter how hard I tried to kill everyone off as early as possible. I even replayed a few chapters (unlocked after you complete the game once) numerous times to do everything I could to change the outcome, and was always met with disappointment. I also found plot holes when the game needed to follow a particular narrative path, but lacked the characters to do so (they can’t have possibly known about the cable car key!), or awkward moments when characters were just bystanders in scenes after they were expected to have been killed. I understand it’s a daunting task to script and change everything on if someone is alive or dead, but this is supposed to be an interactive experience, not a static film.
In the end, I did manage to kill everyone on playthrough number three, but I had to sit back in disbelief, because it was much harder to do than I imagined. There are several parts of the game that provide only a false sensation of tension, with no real weight behind success or failure. It did take me until my third time through to discover that, and I’m not about to tell you which decisions and QTEs matter and which ones don’t, so that you can enjoy your own first experience with Until Dawn.
I highly enjoyed both my first and second times playing, but it was a little disappointing to get a peek behind the curtain on that fated third run, which not only managed to kill all eight friends, but some of my own impressions about the game as well. The most disappointing part is that the story and other characters’ actions barely change based on the life or death of the other characters. Sam shouldn’t be saying she has to meet up with everyone else when she knows they’re all dead. It should have changed her actions. From my recollection, Heavy Rain actually had more dramatic narrative shifts in its conclusion based on four characters’ choices than Until Dawn’s final half does based on eight.
Coming from someone who has been through the game three complete times, at about 30 hours of total playtime, I will say that Until Dawn is worth playing, but do yourself a favor and don’t look up anything more about it. Disconnect and fully immerse yourself in the tension and the terror, feel the weight behind everything you do, and see how many of your characters you can have alive when dawn comes. That sensation of wondering what went wrong as the credits roll for the first time is a great one, and Supermassive has crafted an experience that is impressive the first time through. Once you know the magician’s secrets however, that carefully crafted experience begins to diminish and fade.
There’s a well written and unchanging lore here. It’s campy, but it’s horror and was never billed as anything else. The events on the mountain are set in motion and then wrapped around each of your decisions and characters’ fates. There are certain points and choices that will cause each character to die, some in a variety of nasty and horrific ways, and something about taking the reins of a character in a horror movie is just satisfying. Instead of yelling at the screen that they made a stupid choice, you get to beat yourself up for what you did to get them killed. When the sun rises and the final survivors are tallied up, you’ll realize Until Dawn isn’t perfect, but no matter which choices you make, it’s one hell of a ride.
Until Dawn review copy provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.