Even though some horror movies can terrify you, there’s some sense of comfort knowing that you’re just along for the ride. The backseat position in a scripted horror movie allows you to take the fetal position under a blanket or peep through your fingers, but in Until Dawn, you have to actively participate in your very own custom-crafted horror experience, making life or death choices for a number of unsuspecting characters, and it’s the most unnervingly fun thing we’ve played in a while.
Until Dawn’s set-up is something we’ve seen in countless horror flicks: after a prank gone wrong leaves dead bodies behind, the group of prankster friends come back together on the one year anniversary of this mishap to atone for their misdeeds and celebrate the lives of their fallen friends. This group of eight good-looking teenagers contains all the stereotypical horror movie characters – the ditzy blonde, the bitchy girl, the jock, the nerd, the girl who’ll make it to the end of the movie because she’s more famous than everyone else. Here, however, the lives of these characters are entirely in your hands.
Until Dawn offers up a branching series of “Butterfly Effect” decisions which impact events down the line. Since you play as each of the eight main characters (and since each- or all- of them can die on a given playthrough), this makes for tension the likes of which few games offer. In other horror games, if you screw up a section you can simply replay it right then and there; Until Dawn autosaves, so if you make a bad choice, you’re stuck with it until after you beat the game. You’re always going to get to the end of the game, it’s just about who you can keep alive and who let die in the process.
And what’s great is that it’s not just a case of left or right. The decision-making scenarios are well-crafted and require some gut-feel, because you often don’t have too much time to weigh up the options. What’s even better, is that you sometimes don’t have to choose, and doing nothing is also a viable option in Until Dawn.
The game is centred around these heart-pounding moments, but there is some actual traditional-styled gameplay involved. In between the action, you’ll be able to move freely around the level and search for clues which can help piece together what’s actually going on. There’s some bonus things to spot and find and you could easily miss them if you race through the game. It adds a layer of exploration.
As for the presentation, it’s one of Until Dawn’s strongest attributes. Some excellent motion capture and a great cast comprising of Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Brett Dalton (Agents of Shield), and several other talented actors, including Peter Stormare (Prison Break, Bad Boys II) who puts on one of the best performances as a psychiatrist who interviews you after each chapter, and how you answer him affects how the next few chapters play out.
The strong cast and writing is also bolstered by some haunting camera angles and particle effects that help set the mood. You always feel like you’re being watched by someone or something, and it’s incredibly unsettling in the most clever of ways.
The game is structured a bit more like a television series than a movie in part due to its length, which is about nine hours. Expect story arcs and mini-story arcs throughout the course of Until Dawn, he said, all of which players can explore through playthroughs with different consequences.
The promise of small decisions affecting the whole game is all over game boxes these days, but Until Dawn really does deliver on those declarations. The most unassuming and unrelated choices can come back and bite you or potentially save you, in one form or another, and it’s impressive how the developers have weaved this throughout the game. This, along with some brilliantly funny writing and downright scary moments make Until Dawn somewhat of a gem in the oversaturated gaming market, reminding you that sometimes careless actions can have dire consequences.