Release Date: August 25th 2015
Developer: Supermassive Games
Platform(s): PS4 exclusive
Playtime: Approximately 10 to 15 hours, but with great replay value
In the style of games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls comes that slasher film you never wanted to be a part of (but secretly kind of did), Until Dawn. This interactive survival horror game follows eight hapless protagonists, who have made the trek to their friend’s mountain lodge for a weekend of sex, booze, and horrifying violence. The game utilises a Butterfly Effect dynamic, whereby all of the choices you make directly affect whether any given character lives or dies. These choices can be anything from slapping an angry wolf to backing a friend in an argument, so be wary. As the great, albeit completely fictional, Andrew Ryan of Bioshock once said: “We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us”.
I have to say, I approached Until Dawn with not just a little trepidation. Although I absolutely loved Heavy Rain, it sometimes felt as though I was playing one long cut-scene rather than a fully formed video game. The experience was undoubtedly fulfilling, and the positive critical response the game garnered was well-deserved, but it inevitably felt like something was missing. I worried that Until Dawn would fall into the same trap, dooming the player to a series of QTEs (Quick Time Events) and a handful of choices that only marginally affected the outcome of the story. Having started my third playthrough of the game this week, I can happily say that I was horribly wrong.
In many ways, Until Dawn masterfully surpasses its predecessors. For one thing, the game involves you taking the helm far more often than you may like. It practically inundates you with choices, making it hard to tell which ones will affect the outcome and which ones won’t. What felt like major decisions in the game turned out to be inconsequential, while certain smaller choices led to pivotal events. Should I hide or should I run? What happens if I take that pair of scissors? Will anyone notice if I make out with this ice sculpture? In Until Dawn, the possibilities are as endless as they are endlessly horrifying.
Yet this alone isn’t enough to make the Butterfly Effect dynamic work. Sure it’s clever, and it made me think a lot about my actions, but I wouldn’t have cared quite so much about my choices if I’d been put in charge of, let’s say, the members of One Direction. While I’d happily watch Harry Styles be chased by a knife-wielding maniac, I came to care about several of the characters in Until Dawn that I was charged to protect. And this is where the game ultimately succeeds, not just as a survival horror game but as a video game in general. The eight main characters felt incredibly real and fleshed out, causing me to love some of them and abjectly hate others.
This meant that, regardless of how scary the game actually was, I felt terrified simply because I didn’t want my reckless decision-making to endanger the people I’d come to care about. It induced in me a sort of trembling paranoia that caused me to nearly snap my controller in half more than once. On top of this, the game is visually stunning and many of the scenes are incredibly well-realised, looking as though they’ve just been cropped from a big budget blockbuster. This, coupled with the effective use of music, combined to create an effectively oppressive atmosphere.
So, as with all survival horror video games, here’s the rub; is it scary? The game is like a bizarre amalgamation of every horror movie you’ve ever seen and ever horror game you’ve ever played. There’s a sprinkling of Saw, a dollop of Friday the 13th, some hints of Silent Hill, and a huge steaming helping of meta-commentary à la Scream. You’d think stuffing a game full of so many horror clichés would be a bad idea, but Until Dawn somehow manages to make it work.
My greatest criticism of The Evil Within, another survival horror game to have recently graced next-gen consoles, was that it relied far too heavily on clichés without having a substantial storyline to justify them. Until Dawn does just the opposite and uses these horror tropes to great effect while still maintaining a level of self-awareness. At certain points the game even directly confronts you, asking why you are doing this and what you think you might get out of it.
By making you complicit in the survival and/or death of the characters, it begs the question; why do we want to watch these people be terrorised? It is every horror movie you’ve ever seen, and in being so it forces you to ask yourself why you would ever watch a horror movie in the first place. What joy do we get out of a genre that necessitates and advocates the suffering of others? Well, that’s a debate for another day. But let’s just say the game is scary, in more ways than one.
Gameplay: 8/10, for those of you who despise QTES, it may not be the one for you, but the game contains a lot more playable portions than its predecessors
Storyline: 9/10, the Butterfly Effect dynamic is mind-blowing, and becomes even more so on a second or third (or tenth) playthrough
Fear Factor: 8.5/10, the game uses just the right amount of gore, jump scares, and atmosphere to make it pretty damn scary, coupled with that most terrifying of things: a sense of responsibility
Overall: 8.5/10, in spite of having played “Alien: Isolation” and “The Evil Within”, this has to be my standout survival horror game of 2015