Imagine if someone took a stellar Telltale Games series like “The Walking Dead” and supercharged it with beautiful graphics, realistic gore and teen hormones. That’s what PS4 exclusive “Until Dawn” delivers, and it may be one of the most interesting things to happen to the video game medium in a long time.
“Until Dawn” is a playable horror TV miniseries. It blurs the lines between gaming and the more traditional movie/TV media in ways that similar predecessors like “Heavy Rain” just couldn’t match. The beautiful motion-captured graphics show a group of real, recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes,” “Nashville”) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) performing a series of scripted actions that you have near-total control over.
Supermassive Games spared no detail in recreating a painfully accurate stereotypical horror movie scenario: A bunch of teenagers head to the rich kid’s spooky cabin in the middle of the woods for a weekend of snowy, alcohol-fueled fun with no parents around. The actors playing these teens are even in their late 20s and early 30s – just like every horror movie ever made.
The characters are stupid; they investigate strange noises and wander in blizzards. One dude, Chris, carries a lighter past a dozen candles in the spooky, unfamiliar house without lighting any of them. He preferred walking in the dark.
The teens also are incredibly tough. Depending on your choices, your rag-tag group will endure broken limbs, maiming and the emotional scarring that only watching your friend die a horrible death in front of you can bring. And, for the most part, they all seem fine with it.
And that brings me to the player choice system in “Until Dawn.” The highly touted feature, dubbed “The Butterfly Effect,” allows us to do what we’ve always wanted – keep these stupid teenagers from doing dumb things. “I heard a strange noise in the woods, should I investigate it?” Heck no Hayden Panettiere, get your bubbly blonde self out of there.
A wonderful use of quick-time events allows players to will these miscreants into safety. You know how the screaming heroine always trips when she is being chased? In “Until Dawn,” your ability to quickly slam a random button when prompted could keep her upright and alive.
The real ingenuity of Supermassive’s “Butterfly Effect” lies in its unpredictability. Sometimes passing a quick-time event is detrimental. The game warns you early on that inaction can be the best action. The safe decisions, such as running instead of hiding under a bed, could possibly get you killed. It all depends.
“Until Dawn” also uses a great “Don’t Move” mechanic that forces players to remain as still as possible to avoid detection from bad guys. It is a quick and easy way to ratchet up the title’s intensity and add a distinct stamp on quick-time events, which are common across most story-driven games.
I loved that “Until Dawn” carefully catalogs the 50 or so choices you will make on behalf of the characters. Players can see exactly how one choice opened up an option that led to another choice and so on. It seems a little complicated and unnecessary at first, but by the end of the story I was checking my butterfly page regularly and lamenting the roads not traveled.
To be clear, this is probably the best decisions-really-matter mechanic I have ever seen. The dozens of impactful choices require more than just a casual glance – I had to strongly consider my options in the 10-second window given to me.
I clicked a few selections that got my characters killed. Characters that I had personally shepherded through dozens of near-death situations during a seven-hour campaign died very late into the story.
These critical choices impacted me. They upset me. I felt a sense of loss, followed by a sense of carrying on for the sake of the other characters and my will to solve the game’s surprisingly complex and twist-filled plot.
“Until Dawn” also allowed me to show my vindictive side. I made it my one-true mission to kill one character, who shall remain nameless, because Emily represents all that is wrong with the world. Another character reminded me of a few exes, so the choice between her and a rather amiable young dude caught in a bad situation was simple.
Although “Until Dawn” tops out at around nine hours per play through, the replayability factor is off the charts. One misstep could kill your favorite character, so you will definitely want to go again in hopes of achieving your perfect story. I wonder if it’s possible to keep everyone alive, so I will strive for an unblemished campaign.
This title was absolutely fantastic, but I did find a few flaws.
Supermassive wildly overdid the creepy music and sounds. I understand that old houses in the middle of the woods do make noises, but the constant string music and thumping gets old. Sometimes silence is the best suspense builder, and I think “Until Dawn” could stand to shut up a little.
I also noticed several scenes in which the audio did not match the characters’ mouth movements. These moments sucked me out of the intensely cinematic feel of “Until Dawn” and reminded me that I was still playing a video game – which was a bad thing in this case.
However, these are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. “Until Dawn” is a fantastic horror game that keeps players scared without frustrating them too much. It throws enough wrinkles into its seemingly conventional scary-movie plot to keep us all guessing from start to finish.
The title is worth a look – just tuck the kids into bed first.
Video game review
- Released Aug. 25 on PS4