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A true next-generation horror game

As a long-time fan of interactive dramas like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain or Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Sony’s Until Dawn easily piqued my interest when it was announced at Gamescom back in 2012. Interestingly enough, the game didn’t start out as a PS4 project, but rather was originally conceived as a PS3 title with gameplay utilizing the PlayStation Move motion controller. That idea was scrapped with the arrival of PS4, and the game was subsequently rebuilt, rewritten, and redesigned from the ground up for Sony’s newer, more powerful next-generation hardware. Sure that meant a longer wait to finally get our hands on the game, but as I discovered during my play through, all the extra development time has paid off in spades.

Until-Dawn-PS4-pkg.jpgPlatform: PlayStation 4

Developer: Supermassive Games

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Release Date: August 25, 2015

Modes: Single-player

Genre: Adventure, survival horror

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Homage to classic horror

Taking cues from a wide range of horror classics like The Cabin in the Woods, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Descent, and The Shining, Until Dawn‘s story treads a carefully crafted path that rarely steps outside of well-established horror genre tropes. Teenagers stranded at a remote location? Check. Mysterious killer hunting the group? Check. Tried and true character stereotypes—the hotheaded jock, the curious bookworm, and the strong-willed hero—check, check and check.

Until Dawn may borrow a lot from popular films in the genre, but it doesn’t come off as derivative or generic in the slightest. That’s because two of America’s best indie horror auteurs, Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden, collaborated with developer Supermassive Games to pen a script capturing the right dialogue, cadence and mood needed for a terrifying slasher story. The penmanship overall is quite excellent, with plenty of memorable interactions between characters, red herrings to keep you guessing, and just the right amount of tension-building before the next big scare.

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Secluded cabin, danger lurking by

I won’t give away too much of the game’s story, but the basic premise revolves around eight friends who set out on a winter getaway to a remote cabin in the snow-capped mountains of Alberta (yes, Canada!) Their fun retreat soon spirals into a deadly nightmare when an unknown terror begins hunting the group, putting their very lives at stake. Trapped, appropriately enough “until dawn”, the teens must do whatever it takes to survive the night.

Your actions determine who survives

Following a similar branching narrative model establish by recent Quantic Dream interactive dramas like Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain, the story of Until Dawn relentlessly progresses forward after each decision (or in some cases, indecision) you make. Think of it like a modern-day Choose Your Own Adventure book, only once you’ve made a choice, there is no flipping back and picking an alternative route. The game’s strict save system ensures your decisions—good or bad—are locked in and the story presses on.

The Butterfly Effect

Udawn-screenshot.jpgTo ensure every crossroad you encounter stirs up a bit of paranoia, choices you make (big or small) have a ripple butterfly effect on the remainder of the story. Until Dawn even has an entire menu screen dedicated to this “Butterfly Effect,” which tracks the consequences of your actions over the course of the story. Choices can be as mundane as opting to peak at someone’s incoming text message, or as critical as deciding between taking the slow-but-safe route, or risky-but-fast shortcut, during a dramatic chase scene. In either case though, the effects on the story are significant, and irreversible.

It needs mentioning too that characters will die if you make the wrong move, even if accidental, and the story will continue regardless of the outcome. During my first run-through of Until Dawn, to my horror (and verbal protest), three of the eight teens met their untimely deaths. Of course, if you take all the best routes, and have a bit of luck on your side, it’s possible to complete the game with the whole group intact.

Watch for clues and warnings

Scattered around the environments are two main objects to help with your survival: clues and totems. Clues are found by investigation, for example searching drawers or finding scrawling on the back of photos, and mostly provide backstory on key characters and events leading up to this night of horror. Totems are the more interesting of the pair, as they provide short visions into possible futures, depending on your choices. Five different types of totems can be discovered (death, guidance, loss, danger, and fortune), and each one presents a prophetic future tied to their theme. For instance, a danger totem might warn of a threat lurking behind you, whereas a guidance totem could suggest who to pass a gun to. I found totems to be quite helpful and I likely avoided some deadly outcomes because of them; the trick is to find them though, and they can often be hidden in easily overlooked places.

until-dawn-screenshot-01-ps4.jpgIncredible presentation

Until Dawn is a gorgeous game that plays into the horror motif perfectly. The mountain cabin, a focal point for the game, is dark and labyrinth, stirring feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. Outside is a snowy, shadowy forest with narrow, twisty paths sure to give you the spooks. The camera work is also very impressive, serving to heighten the scares with uncomfortably high/low off-centre shots, and super creepy segments appearing to be from the eyes of the killer.

If some of the characters look familiar that’s because Until Dawn features an impressive cast consisting of stars like Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Rami Malek (Twilight), Peter Stormare (Prison Break), and Brett Dalton (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The motion capture performances are quite convincing, and so too is the voice acting, so I was quite absorbed in the dialogue and action over the approximate ten hours it took to complete the game. I didn’t realize how emotionally invested I was in these characters until I inadvertently killed a few off—leaving me literally mouth agape in disbelief and grief.

I also need to mention the outstanding soundtrack by Jason Graves, a veteran composer of the horror genre who also produced music for games like Murdered: Soul Suspect and Dead Space 3. For Until Dawn, his eerie, atmospheric compositions heighten each scene’s mood, from the soft exchanges between characters to the unnerving crescendos during times of panic and terror.

Final thoughts

As a huge fan of the horror genre and interactive dramas, I have to say that Until Dawn lived up to my expectations, and then some. It’s story initially comes off as straight from horror 101, but it quickly shows its depth and vigor with superb writing and convincing voice acting performances. Couple that with incredibly detailed and unsettling environments—amplified by an eerie, mood-enhancing soundtrackand Until Dawn is sure to have you at the edge of your seat the whole ride. If you’re a fan of classic horror, or enjoyed previous Sony games like Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, you’re sure to have a great time with Until Dawn.

+ Gorgeous graphics that perfectly set the tone

+ Excellent voice acting performances

+ Script sure to appeal to horror fans

+ Rich soundtrack enhances the mood

– Some scenes can be disturbing, not for the faint of heart

OVERALL

Gameplay: 3.5/5
Graphics: 4.5/5
Sound: 4.5/5
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5

Overall Rating 4.1/5 (82%)