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I may have mentioned it once before, but it bears repeating—horror and mental illness is a dangerous mix. Then again, it’s difficult to dislike something if you’ve haven’t experienced it before.
Until Dawn is the first horror game I have actively chosen to purchase and play. I could easily have said “nope, I don’t like horror games, I could have a heart attack or a shit-ton of nightmares, playing this is a bad idea.” I could have spent the $95 this game cost on Mighty Ape on a load of fun, but relatively less scary, indie games on Steam. Hell, if I’d never acquired a PS4, I would barely be thinking about the game at all.
But I did, didn’t I? I bought the game, and played it to completion. The fact that this review even exists at all is testament to that.
I say this because Until Dawn is a game all about choice. The core mechanic of the game is the “butterfly effect”—the idea that every choice you make has a consequence in terms of the story. It takes inspiration from the so-called “interactive drama” games that David Cage is known for, complete with quick time events, but by all accounts Until Dawn does this far better and can actually back up its promises. Every time I made a decision, I was wondering if I’d made the right choice, or if other choices I’d made had significantly affected my play-through to that point. It’s clearly a game designed to be played multiple times, because a single run will haunt you and make you wonder what you could have done differently.
The horror genre is a perfect fit for this kind of gameplay, and Until Dawn unashamedly revels in every horror movie trope you can think of. The story is a rather typical setup from the early 2000s: an octet of horny teenager stereotypes gather at a ski lodge in the Canadian wilderness a year after a horrific tragedy to drink, fuck and hopefully not get horribly murdered. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t say too much else, but there’s Ouija boards, Native American spiritual mumbo-jumbo, masked psychopaths (or so we think), an abandoned mental institution, mythical beasts and (oh yeah) lots of blood and guts. The writers clearly had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, and watching all the clichés unfold gives the game an element of cheesey fun that just wouldn’t be there if they took it too seriously. It helps that the actors delivered great performances, especially towards the latter half when the shit goes down.
This is not to say that it isn’t scary just because we’ve seen all before. There are a few cheap jump scares, as to be expected, but there are genuinely scary moments throughout the game, and the atmosphere is one that is perfectly uneasy. The core mechanic throws both red herrings and genuinely dangerous situations at the characters, all of whom can die at any moment because of your decisions. There are many moments where you can, in fact, choose to do nothing and it will end up being the best thing you can do. You have to be careful not to call the bluff every time, because you might just end up seeing Hayden Panettiere’s head bouncing across the screen as a result. Some decisions can be made easier if you know your horror really well, so you can maybe not investigate that weird noise this time.
There have been some complaints by other critics about the compulsory moments of motion control where you have to keep your controller perfectly still in order to progress—some say it’s almost impossible. For the most part I had no trouble with it as I have fairly steady hands, but there was one moment right at the end of the game when I missed the prompt, moved the controller slightly and ended up with a dead character. It was frustrating, but it was almost entirely my fault. Your mileage may vary, however.
In addition, the game looks amazing for a PS4 exclusive. The lighting effects are top-notch, as they need to be when you’re exploring the dark hallways for clues, and the environments and character models are well-rendered. Some of the walking and facial animations unfortunately dip into the uncanny valley, with the walking controls sometimes feeling stiff and awkward as a result. You aren’t playing this for the controls, however, and these may just be minor distractions.
Now that you know what I think, it’s time to decide. Should you make an effort and buy Until Dawn, or should you save the money for food next week? Make your choice, but be quick—there’s something behind you…