Ever since Don Bluth made Dragon’s Lair in 1983, people have tried to make video games that were more like interactive movies, with varying degrees of success. But while Until Dawn (PlayStation 4) mostly manages to get the “interactive” part right, it doesn’t do so well in the “movie” department.
Made by Supermassive Games, Until Dawn opens with a group of twenty-somethings who are hanging out at a lodge in the woods during a snowstorm. After playing a prank on their friend Hannah, the humiliated girl runs off and into the woods, followed by her twin sister Beth…and neither are ever seen again. Now, a year later, their friends and the girls’ brother return to the lodge on an equally snowy night. But this time, they’re not alone.
Not surprisingly, Until Dawn is deeply indebted to a multitude of horror movies, including, both clearly not limited to, the original Halloween, I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Friday The 13th series, and The Shining, with elements of the original Evil Dead, Scream, and the Saw movies thrown in for good measure. But while you enjoy those movies by just watching them, Until Dawn puts you in control of the characters. Just not in the way most games do.
For starters, the game is built upon the same kind of button-pressing mechanics and thumbstick motions as Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. To open a door, for instance, you hold the R2 button to grab the handle, then to move the right thumbstick towards you. There are even times when, you have to hit a button before time runs out, though unlike in the God Of War games, there are always have dire consequences if you fail. During one scene where you’re chasing after someone, not hitting the square button in time causes you to trip and fall down. But you don’t break your arm or die, you just say “ouch,” get back up, and keep going.
As for moving around, Until Dawn employs a fixed camera like an old Resident Evil game. But while this does give the game a cinematic feel, it also makes getting around feel a bit awkward. But only a bit; it’s more of a minor annoyance than a serious problem.
While Until Dawn‘s movement controls aren’t ideal, they are sometimes reasonable. Take that aforementioned chase scene. While you do have to hit a button to avoid tripping, your character’s running is done automatically, with no help from you. Which is not only necessary for the story — since giving you control at that moment would mean you could opt not to give chase — but it’s also, I suspect, because the good people at Supermassive remember how hard it was to run in Resident Evil.
It also helps that much of the action in Until Dawn isn’t actually action, it’s choice. Throughout the game, you use the right thumbstick to make a series of binary decisions: Do you move it the right to be rude to someone, or do you move it left to be nice? Do you take the safe but longer path, or do you take the possibly dangerous shortcut? There are even times when you have to pick one before the clock runs out, which really means you have to pick one of third choices.
Working in concert, Until Dawn‘s controls do a good job of making you feel like you’re in control of a character in a movie. Sure, there are times when you have to do a combination of moves when a simple button press would suffice, and the games does devolve in an awkward shooter a couple times, but those moments are more exceptions than the rule.
Giving you all this control over the characters does more than just make this like an electronic Chose Your Own Adventure novel, though. Throughout the game, you actually play as all eight of the aforementioned twenty-somethings, but you have no control over who you’re playing as and when you might switch to another. Those binary thumbstick choices also don’t just move the plot along, they reveal aspects of the character you’re playing at that moment, as well as impact their relationship to other characters. And much like in such RPGs as The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and the Mass Effect games, these choices don’t just change how those characters react to you, they can have an impact on what happens later in the game.
So much so, in fact, that the Supermassive kids have said that you’ll have to play Until Dawn multiple times to get the full story. Which is a nice idea, in theory, but doesn’t pan out in practice. Not only do you actually get more than enough of Until Dawn‘s story the first time through, but the story also isn’t all that original or engaging. In fact, if Until Dawn was just a movie, it would be dismissed by horror fans as being derivate.
Until Dawn is also not that scary. While there are times when things jump out at you, many of them are so telegraphed that no self-respecting horror fan will be frightened. Which is a real problem since the only people who’ll really appreciate this game are ones who’ve seen enough horror movies to know when something is obviously about to jump out at them.
Further keeping Until Dawn from a real fright-fest you’ll want to play more than once is how it often undermines its own scary vibe. This is especially true of the chapter breaks, during which the game switches its attention from the kids at the lodge to a psychiatrist talking to an unseen patient, one we control, and the game gives us a rather unnecessary recap of the action.
This not only breaks the tension by being a break in the action, but it further ruins the mood by having the good doctor talk about how the patient (i.e., us) is “playing the game.” Obviously, he’s not talking about us playing Until Dawn, but it doesn’t matter because anytime someone in a game talks about “playing a game” or “this is not a game,” it’s reminds you that you’re playing a game, which not only takes you out of the experience, but dissipates any tension that may have been building.
Though, on the plus side, Until Dawn does avoid some of the horror movie genres dumber tropes, including pointless nudity, a killer who spouts a catchphrase, and cutting the tension of a really tense scene with an insultingly dumb joke.
In the end, Until Dawn is as engaging as such like-minded games as Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain, but ends up doing a better job of recreating the cinematic experience in video game form. It’s just too bad the cinematic experience it’s recreated isn’t a better one.