This is an exciting time to be a fan of the slasher genre. For film geeks, the real fun starts next year with the release of a new Friday the 13th, as well as Halloween Returns and Leatherface. For gamers, it began with the arrival of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games’ PS4-exclusive teen stab ’em up, along with the games that are planned to follow it, including Summer Camp, Last Year and a Friday the 13th game.
Being the first of the pack, Until Dawn had a lot to prove. It also had quite a lot going against it, with it’s being a brand new IP, locked to a single platform, from a studio most people aren’t yet familiar with. It didn’t help that, for some reason, Sony didn’t quite give it the marketing push I would have expected them to.
This may be why this game feels like such a victory. Because it is, both for the legions of folks like us who enjoy watching people run from knife-wielding maniacs on-screen, and for Supermassive Games, who has managed to bring the macabre appeal of a genre that has enraptured generations of moviegoers for roughly half a century and counting.
There might not be a new face to add to the pantheon of movie icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Ghostface, but Until Dawn doesn’t need to rely on the uniqueness of its antagonist. What this game accomplishes, it does so with a rich cast of characters, a remarkable use of music and a slow build-up of tension, dread and suspense.
It’s impossible not to compare this game to Quantic Dreams’ similarly themed “interactive movie” and Indigo Prophecy spiritual successor Heavy Rain. Both games feature branching storylines that are affected by the player’s decisions, a focus on delivering a cinematic experience rather than a conventional “video game”, and a bad dude who seems to be channeling Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw.
The difference lies in their execution. As much as I enjoyed Heavy Rain, Until Dawn is like its freakier, more sinister older brother who spends too much time in the forest giddily digging through the bloated remains of felled woodland critters. It controls considerably better, isn’t afraid to lean on the slow-burn approach to horror, and while I preferred the pacing of Heavy Rain, Until Dawn makes up for its uneven narrative by introducing familiar ideas that ratchet up the intensity.
One of these familiar ideas are the Totems. This system had a grander impact on my experience than I ever thought it would. For the unfamiliar, scattered about the world are Totems that serve as prophecies based on five things: Death, Guidance, Loss, Danger and Fortune.
The Death, Loss and Danger Totems bring a Final Destination flavor to the game as they each tease a potential end to the person who found them, the death of another character, and the threat of imminent danger, respectively. Guidance can offer life-saving hints regarding future decisions, like which character should get a specific item that may save their life later on, and the rare Fortune Totem is like getting some good news after enduring a torrent of bad news.
For the stubborn players who need another incentive for collecting them all, each Totem also uncovers a small portion of a censored video that explains more of the surprisingly complex backstory.
Like a good survival horror game, exploration is key. In addition to the potentially life-saving Totems, hidden all over the world are items that shed light on the identity of the murderer who’s cock-blocking these poor teens, an unsettling event that transpired more than half a century earlier, and much more.
When you’re not exploring the stunningly beautiful world Supermassive built for us, expect to be making decisions. Each choice you make has an effect on the story. It can be something small, like building trust with the other characters, or something bigger, such as choosing a riskier option over a safer one that could — and will — mean the difference between life and death.
The personalities that make up the cast of Until Dawn are refreshingly unique. Each character feels like an actual person, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are more likable than others, but that can change fairly easily. The characters are “human” enough that even the ones I had decided would be my meat shields, if necessary, had the potential to surprise me.
When it comes to how liberal this game is with its gore, I’d say it sits somewhere between the Saw and Hostel films in what it’s willing to do to its protagonists. There’s plenty here to satiate Gorehounds, with endless opportunities for bone-shattering falls, fatal animal attacks, Saw-like death contraptions, obligatory games of hide and seek and the occasional deadly chase sequence.
Between exploration, making critical choices, balancing delicate relationships, heeding the warnings provided by Totems and working to find out just what in the hell is going on here, Until Dawn is able to keep from ever growing stale.
Then there’s the Analyst. I’m not at all surprised that Peter Stormare was as impressive as he most certainly is in his portrayal of the wonderfully bizarre psychiatrist Dr. Hill, but he really knocks it out of the park. I might even say he’s my favorite thing about this game.
Not content to just borrow from films, Supermassive took a page from the book of the woefully underrated Silent Hill: Shattered Memories — not to be confused with the not-worth-rating Book of Memories — but he resonated with me more deeply than I ever thought he would.
Until Dawn employs the Alan Wake approach to its narrative structure, which is episodic, complete with recaps of what happened in the previous chapter. Nestled between each of these chapters are brilliant, albeit brief, moments with the antagonistic Dr. Hill that involve answering simple questions. What these sometimes fourth wall-breaking sessions have to do with the game isn’t immediately clear, but the specifics are worth discovering on your own.
Quick-timed button presses are all over the place, and an alarming number of them made me worry about my reflexes. It didn’t bother me too much that they were so unforgiving in the time you’re given to react, but I’m also a heartless bastard who doesn’t mind watching a character I’ve grown to like having around meet a gruesome end because I couldn’t hit the triangle button fast enough. If that bothers you, you have been warned.
Weirdly enough, a few of the clearly unimportant QTEs I mucked up would wind up bothering me the most. When I failed to return Josh’s high five after a small victory, the look on his face left me feeling lousier than any of the many, many times I’ve embarrassed myself in exactly that same manner in real life.
Until Dawn isn’t perfect, though I’d understand if you thought it was based on all of the above. There are minor technical issues, including better-than-expected controls that still have room for improvement. The overabundance of jump scares had a tendency to get annoying and a few of the plot twists were too obvious for their own good. Thankfully, the large majority of these problems didn’t do much to detract from the overall experience.
The Final Word: Until Dawn is the most fun I’ve had with the slasher genre since Scream 2, and it accomplishes this while remaining true to its roots in survival horror. Be afraid. Be very afraid.