Review: Until Dawn (PS4)

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Title: Until Dawn
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (38.9 GB)
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Supermassive Games
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Until Dawn is exclusive to PlayStation 4.
The PlayStation 4 disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Golden Minecart Award Winner 2015
– Best Survival/Horror (PS4)

Editor’s Note:
Portions of this review also appear in our preview coverage of Until Dawn.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 437 of the podcast.

I will endeavour to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. Until Dawn is a unique experience. The situations you encounter and how you deal with them should be approached with no previous knowledge of events the first time through.

Gameplay:
The older gamers out there will remember when CD technology came to the gaming world in the early 90’s. This brought about the advent of full motion video games and with them, the promise of interactive experiences like never before. New game studios popped up overnight, Hollywood got involved, and a slew of (mostly terrible) games were released.

A number of factors conspired against those early games including shoddy writing, bad acting, and a technology that wasn’t really able to handle what was being asked of it. Now, twenty-five years later, Supermassive Games is harnessing the power of the PlayStation 4 to make good on that original promise of cinematic interactivity.

Since the first time I got my hand on it at the original PlayStation Experience in December 2014, I’ve been intrigued by the premise and even the audacity of Supermassive in their attempt to resurrect such a specific type of game fraught with controversy.

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Until Dawn can trace its roots right back to the most infamous of the early full motion video games, Night Trap. What I mean is that Night Trap was a game in which a group of teenage girls spent the night in a creepy house and it was the player’s job to keep them from being killed by vampires. While Until Dawn may not have any vampires, it does have a group of young people alone in a cabin being hunted by a crazed killer.

… Enable PlayStation Camera …
Before starting the game for the first time I recommend going into the Menu and under Settings select the box to “Enable PlayStation Camera”, if you have one of course. This enables the Cheap Shots feature in which the camera will record short video clips at key moments in the game. It’s worth it to get your initial reactions to some of the scarier parts of the proceedings. I forgot to do this during my playthrough unfortunately so I’ll do it the second time around but it really won’t be the same. The clips are fun to watch and I can’t wait to see them pop up on YouTube after the full game launches.

The beginning of the game drops you into a party that’s winding down in a remote cabin with a group of friends fresh out of High School. There are a lot of characters involved and the section is pretty short so you probably won’t be able to pick up on all the relationships and nuances in your limited time with them. Playing through a second time (after completing the game) clears things up a lot.

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This section also serves as a tutorial of sorts, teaching you how to move, interact with objects, and choose different paths that may affect your experience and your current character’s fate. You’ll see some action and some choices to get you comfortable with the controls and then the first section ends.

Players have the choice of traditional controls with analog sticks and button presses or motion controls and minimal buttons. Both work fine and it’s really personal preference. I’d recommend trying both during the Prologue and first chapter to really get a feel for them. Since you can jump right into the menu and switch at any time, it’s worth giving both a go when you start. I played almost entirely with the motion controls as it felt more immersive that way.

… an interactive novel and an old graphical adventure …
In the various builds of the game shown at the PlayStation Experience and E3, when starting the demo, the player was asked a series of questions with two possible choices. The answers appear to affect a few things during gameplay but it’s still a little unclear just how much influence is involved. In the full game, the questions are still there but they’re presented at the beginning of each chapter and in a much different manner, one that’s best experienced without knowing about beforehand.

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The game then skips forward a year to another reunion of our characters at the same cabin. It’s actually owned by the parents of one of the characters and apparently people had fought to keep them from building there in the first place. I won’t get into too much detail but the game follows some standard suspense/thriller tropes, so much of it may feel familiar.

… a lot of exposition but it’s critical …
As a game, Until Dawn plays out as a mix between an interactive novel and an old graphical adventure but with much, much better graphics obviously. The action sequences will often require a quick button press. The icon for the corresponding button will pop up on the screen and you’ll need to hit it before a timer runs out. The nice touch with this is that as you get closer to the end of that timer, a noise will come out of the speaker on the DualShock 4 urging you to hit it quickly.

You’ll often have choices between going the slower, safer route or the quicker more dangerous route. The difference is usually in the amount of time you have to hit those buttons so if your reaction time is lacking keep that in mind.

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At other times you’ll be exploring your surroundings, opening cabinets and doors, using weapons, examining objects, and more. For the most part I found the motion controls to be a bit more engaging, making me feel more connected to the story, but it’s really going to come down to what feels right for you.

You’ll sit through a lot of exposition but it’s critical to your progress. Knowing how the characters feel about each other and how they may react to different situations is key to keeping them alive… if that’s what your goal is.

… decisions made can have bigger ramifications down the line …
We’ve been told that it is possible to keep all eight characters alive through the end of the game but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do it on your first playthrough. I can tell you that I lost three of them my first time around. One was my poor reaction timing at a critical moment. With the second, I was pretty sure my choice would lead to the character’s death but I decided to chance it and see. Yup, they died. The third drove me nuts because of how very late in the game it happened. Frustrating to say the least.

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Key moments in the game are highlighted just after the fact as “Butterfly Effect” moments, where decisions made can have bigger ramifications down the line. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one wrong choice will doom a character but it’ll certainly change their relationships with other characters and sometimes make it a lot harder to change their fate.

Speaking of fate, among the many collectibles littered throughout the game, many of which will help you piece together an enlightening back story, you’ll find totems which will help you glimpse the future. Depending on the color, they can herald Death, Guidance, Loss, Danger, or Fortune. The brief, two-second flash you’ll see is a possible future event and depending on the choices you make it may or may not come to pass. It’s an interesting way to give the player a warning or even some advice, sometimes long in advance of an event.

… if a character dies, they’re dead …
Playing through the game will also unlock a series of bonus videos, one per chapter. These range from the writers discussing their approach to the story, to how the motion capture was done, to the music, and more. This is another section I’d strongly advise against checking out until you’ve fully completed the story. The do a pretty good job of unlocking content in an order that avoids spoilers but it’s better to just wait. Trust me.

The Butterfly Effect also has its own place in the menu and as you play you’ll be able to see how each choice affected another and another deeper into the game. I like that this was added, giving players a chance to analyze what they did and what they could do differently next time. The nice thing is that since it’s tucked away in a menu you won’t see it unless you look for it. This allows players to figure things out on their own for each playthrough of the game if they want.

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The key is that the game is set up like an 80’s horror movie so if a character dies, they’re dead. There’s no going back to an earlier save to revive them. The game is constantly autosaving so the only way to see them again is to start an entirely new playthrough. It raises the stakes for every choice you make during the game and makes replayability a must.

One nice addition is that at the end of the game you’re given access to all the individual chapters from that playthrough. You can then dive into individual chapters in an attempt to save any characters who may have died, or you can just make entirely different choices and see how the story is affected from that point. It’s a nice touch but keep in mind there are still no save slots so one game at a time is all you’ll have access to.

… malleable to a certain extent …
I actually used this after completing the game for the first time, when three of my characters died, to go back and save them. The hardest one was the first with my poor reaction timing. It took several tries but I was finally able to keep the character alive and it was interesting to see how the subsequent scenes changed with the addition of that specific character.

Camera angles are used with precision and artistry. You may not notice it at first but as you get deeper into the game, the real cinematography comes through in the choices made for setting different scenes. It really make it feel like you’re playing a role within a movie and it adds so much to the experience.

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The cast is packed with an excellent group of actors and each brings their own character to life with a strong performance. We all know Hayden Panettiere is involved but I was surprised when I easily recognized some of the other actors. I’ll let you figure them out on your own though. For people who can’t wait, here’s the full cast at IMDb.com.

The gameplay will definitely not be to everyone’s liking. If you’re not up for a lot of dialogue and watching scenes play out between exploration and moments of intense action with quick-time-events mixed in, then this game definitely isn’t for you. While the overarching story is pretty much set in stone, how it plays out is malleable to a certain extent and things will obviously change if characters die.

… lasting repercussions in other sections …
Herein lies the rub. Major sections of the game are set. They will always happen in a more or less linear fashion (from what I could tell). That alone may be enough for some people to dislike the game or even some reviewers to dump on the game, but it’s a minor quibble at best. Anything more and the story could have easily devolved into an incoherent mess of fractured plotlines.

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It’s the choices you make during these major sections that will then have lasting repercussions in other sections of the game. Believe me, when I went back into specific chapters to try to save the three characters I’d lost in my first playthrough I decided to see how much I could mess with things.

Saving the three characters while making other, smaller, choices differently in those chapters had repercussions. While some were so minor as to not even be worth mentioning, a few made a bigger impact on later events. It was still nothing to change the overall story, but enough that during my third time through the game, a character’s death came out of nowhere and caught me completely off guard. I started yelling at the TV and then laughing because I was floored by it. It was entirely unexpected.

… enough to take you out of the moment …
Visuals:
This is where things get interesting. There were a few, brief sections of the game in the woods that I honestly thought looked nearly photorealistic. Then there was one (and only one) spot where everything looked cel-shaded. It honestly threw me off and when you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The lighting and the overall detail in the scenes can look downright gorgeous at times but you’ll still get the occasional clunker.

The faces of the characters are wonderfully detailed with some of them, you know who, looking pretty much identical to the actor portraying them. Interestingly, the developers took some liberties with the lesser known actors by tweaking the character models a bit. That alone doesn’t really impact the game in any way, but some other things related to the actors and the motion capture do.

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Odd reactions or head movements crop up every now and then. Not a lot, but enough to take you out of the moment. You’ll also get some odd movements when characters get hung up on a wall or pieces of the background if you’re trying to cut a corner too close.

What really threw me off was at least two to three times in the game where the character’s actions completely belied the situation they were in. One character is involved in a frantic life or death chase which was told beautifully in cutscenes and QTE events. Then you hit a point where you take over all movement of the character and… all sense of urgency is gone even though the chase continues. This is because you have two speeds when in control of the characters: walk and every so slightly faster walk.

… it’s the music that really shines …
Something similar happens after a terrifying sequence where your character should very well be traumatized but when you take over full control it’s as if nothing just happened. To be fair these instances are few and far between, but they were memorable enough to me anyway to warrant a mention here.

What I’m getting at, if you haven’t already noticed, is that even though it’s a bit of a mixed bag, the good far outweighs the bad so keep that in mind.

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Audio:
While the delivery of the dialogue is well above par as expected, it’s the music that really shines here. This game wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without this score, it’s that important and it’s that good.

Composer Jason Graves did a tremendous job in putting together a set of music that really ties the whole game together. It’s always there lurking in the background, and Barney Pratt, the audio director for the game, really helped bring it to life. It really feels like another character in the game and as you play, you’ll really start to understand what I’m talking about.

… raised the bar in terms of performance …
The ambient sounds are critical in bringing any game to life but they become even more so in horror games. Think about it, the wrong choice in sound design can lead to unintentionally hilarious consequences, ruining the experience. Everything in Until Dawn serves only to accentuate the story and add to the atmosphere.

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Online/Multiplayer:
The only online component in this single-player game is a switch in the Settings section of the Menu to “Show Global Stats”. Enabling this will display global statistics for the various choices in the game, allowing you to see what the community as a whole is doing.

I strongly recommend that you do not turn this on for your first playthrough. Seeing the percentages pop up alongside the choices as you play will have you second-guessing yourself and throw off the purpose of the game, which is to get your honest reactions and choices as you go.

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Conclusion:
It’s going to be interesting to see how this game fares with the critics after all the build up. I can only score it based on my experiences and expectations. As a work of interactive fiction, Until Dawn has certainly raised the bar in terms of performance.

While I was initially thrown by so much of the major story points being the same each time through, I understand that Supermassive Games had to draw the line somewhere. If they hadn’t, it could have easily devolved into a chaotic mess trying to keep track of eight characters and all the different choices they made.

Playing through multiple times does pull back the curtain a bit. You begin to see places where your choice doesn’t matter at all, which was a surprise to me actually. My reaction to that was then tossed aside when, during my third playthrough, a minor choice lead directly to a very unexpected and shocking death. That right there made me appreciate the game even more.

What’s really important is how it works as a whole and it’s here that Until Dawn exceeds expectations. It feels like a bit of a throwback in terms of story, but the fact that you can make choices that play against the character archetypes makes for a much more compelling game.

I’m really excited to watch people stream it and see how their personal choices affect the story and the collective fates of their characters. Plus it’ll be fun to see their reactions to the scarier parts of the game the first time they play.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

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