Finally got around to playing Until Dawn, and it truly is like “playing” a traditional horror movie in which teens do the typical stupid thing—they return to the house in the woods where they played an awful prank a year before and something awful happened as a result. Sigh.
The difference here is, you get to play every character and either make more dumb decisions that get them killed or, being the seasoned horror veteran that you are, make smart ones that will keep them alive. Live or die…make your choice.
And speaking of Saw, another cool thing about this game is that while the general plot devices borrow from decades of horror movies, many of the in-jokes, meta moments, and visual horror references are to recent horror films and independent horror rather than the usual classics. Of course that could have something to do with the fact that many of those references are to movies to which the makers of this game are connected. Anyway, on to the game.
Until Dawn really is as great as you’ve heard, provided you know not to expect the gameplay of most modern horror survival games. In fact, reflecting back on the experience now that I’ve completed it, I feel like I barely “played” the game in a traditional sense. This is no Resident Evil. Forget collecting bullets or herbs. There’s virtually no combat, and there’s no healing yourself. When you die, you die…because you have a whole bunch of other characters to see through to the end. And only much later in the game are there a few instance when you have a gun and can target and shoot threats, but even then the game doesn’t complicate combat with worries about equipping, reloading, switching weapons, blah, blah, blah.
See, this is mostly like a “chose your own adventure” game. For a majority of the game, when you are being chased by an unseen threat, you are prompted on screen to choose an action to take, such as “run” or “hide,” or “take the more dangerous shortcut” or “take the safer long way.” Which one you do determines the fate of your character. Also, you get choices in the way you respond to other characters at times, which can also affect the outcome of the game or your character’s fate (or that of another character!).
That’s going to leave a mark…on your finger, over there on the floor…
There are also simple actions like picking up and examining objects, opening doors, operating switches, and examining totems you find. These totems actually show you “visions” of a possible future event—essentially offering hints of what decision is best to make later in the game to keep a character alive. But that requires remembering what you saw in that vision and quickly deciphering what it means in the moment when that moment arrives.
The only other button pushing you’ll be doing is for…brace yourself…quick time events! I know, I know. I hate quick time events, too, but believe me, this game is filled with them, and they aren’t that bad. For starters, the QTEs only use the triangle, circle, and square buttons on the PS4 controller, so that narrows your focus considerably. Second, there isn’t always the added pressure of do or die. For instance, many times the QTE isjust a means of getting handholds to climb a low wall. While the button symbols do flash quickly on screen, if you screw up, you don’t die. You just have to start over.
Annoying yes, but generally these are short sequences, easily memorized, and only take a few tries. The odd thing is, they often come with choices that make one approach sound harder than the other, yet I’ve at times tried both approaches and the quick time events were equally as challenging. As for time sensitive QTEs, well, there are chase scenes in which you have to hit buttons to dodge obstacles that will slow you down, inevitably getting you killed if you’re not fast enough.
As for exploration, you can move the character you’re currently controlling pretty freely around an area you are in to explore nooks and crannies for hidden clues in the game. However, you are almost always on a set course, and often accompanied by another character (thank goodness, because this shit is scary and loaded with cruel jump scares!), so this is essentially a linear experience that always propels the story forward with no backtracking. There are only a few times when you explore locations that are pretty vast and reminiscent of games like Resident Evil, requiring you to find certain objects to open new areas before moving on. I must say that when I reached these sections of the game, they felt unwelcome! They made me feel quite vulnerable considering I was suddenly in an old school survival horror environment without the security of fricking guns and healing herbs. Plus, they seemed to slow down the momentum of the game drastically.
That’s because this is a cinematic experience. Events continuously unfold at a fast pace. You just keep playing, never having to repeat a section because you “died.” If you fuck up and a character dies, the body just stays where it is (unless the killer drags it off), and the game cuts to a new scene with another character. In fact, even if you don’t die, the game regularly leaves characters in the midst of cliffhangers to jump to a new scene with another character, so you truly do feel like you are watching a movie. And there’s no saving. The game saves continuously since everything you do rewrites the story and that updated information needs to be recorded, so you can quit at any time and it will pick up right where you left off next time you play. Heaven.
But here’s the catch. If you get someone killed you wanted to keep alive, or notice a sparkling object in the background just before triggering a cutscene…HISTORY. That’s it. No going back. No loading the last save because there are no saves. In fact, it’s quite possible to complete the game without finding every clue. And get this. If you don’t find every one, you don’t get the full backstory. Considering the game is pretty short and so engrossing you practically want to play through in one sitting, you could easily start all over to look for all the clues you missed and right all the wrongs you did the first time. Plus, BEFORE playing through again, you also have the option of replaying specific chapters. For instance, I replayed the last chapter immediately after finishing because I wanted to save a character that I unintentionally got killed the first time. In the process, I accidentally saved a character I didn’t even realize I could, plus I found a clue I missed the first time—a clue so fucking crucial to the story making sense it should have been the headline in a newspaper clipping the characters found pinned on the entrance to the killer’s lair at the end.
And finally, it should be noted that there is an option to play the game using motion controls. As described on the Playstation website: “simply move your DUALSHOCK 4 Wireless Controller to match the on-screen prompts.” Having barely survived the nightmare that was using the Wii controllers to play Cursed Mountain, I can tell you right now, the motion controls can yank my crank.
This visually stunning game looks so in part because the characters are rendered from and voiced by actual actors—including plenty of familiar faces. And since you are playing every single character and partially forming their identities by deciding how each one behaves, you will become very attached to some of them. Others you’ll want to push in front of a moving chainsaw. Great news is, you can!
Here are the celebrities counting on you to keep them alive so they can come back for the sequel:
PETER STORMARE – You get up and personal in the game with this character actor, who has appeared in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, 8MM, Bruiser, Constantine, 2001 Maniacs, Dylan Dog, Bad Milo, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and on, and on, and on.
HAYDEN PANETTIERE – Holy crap, Kirby lives. At least, you have the opportunity to keep her alive, as Hayden is pretty much the final girl if you play your QTEs right.
RAMI MALEK – Rami has been an Egyptian Pharaoh in the Night at the Museum films and is part of an Egyptian coven in the Twilight saga. He’s not Egyptian in Until Dawn.
MEAGHAN MARTIN – Meaghan was in the Camp Rock movies, Mean Girls 2, and the LGBTQ film Geography Club.
GALADRIEL STINEMAN – Aside from being Axl’s girlfriend on The Middle, Galadriel appeared in the horror film Junkyard Dog, the horror short Knock Knock, and in episodes of True Blood.
NICHOLE BLOOM – Nichole Bloom of TV shows Superstore and Shameless also appeared on a couple of episodes of Teen Wolf.
JORDAN FISHER – Jordan also appeared on a couple of episodes of Teen Wolf, adding to the pretty boy icing on the creature cake that makes that show so much fun.
BRETT DALTON – Finally, the reason I wrote this blog. Brett Dalton as Mike. Ah, Mike. The video game character that kept me up until dawn. The hot asshole who could charm the pants off any girl in the house if it weren’t for that damn killer.
And I had the option to make him a self-centered prick who saved himself or the studly hero. Why do you think I had to replay the final chapter? And…I did the unforgivable. I sacrificed Kirby. I DID! I sacrificed Kirby to make this beauty the final boy. And I’ll probably do it again…and again…and again…