The push for an interactive movie format is becoming more and more prevalent in modern gaming.
No developer has found more success than French developer Quantic Dream, releasing hit titles such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Supermassive Games, however, seeks to utilize the genre in its own way through a teen slasher film experience long in the making.
Until Dawn is in every way an homage to horror films like Scream, Saw, and many others. It finds its greatest strength by eagerly adopting the genre’s most popular clichés, cringeworthy moments of dialogue, and moments of real suspense. It is a rather ingenious approach as many of the rehashed and cheesy moments of writing would typically be cause for lambasting the title, but the story and the characters proudly wear it on their sleeves. Until Dawn is aware of the experience it is offering, and it damn well gives it to you. Well played, Supermassive. Well played.
The story revolves around a group of eight teenagers who return to a vacation lodge in the mountains one year after a tragedy befell them in the very same place. Sam (Hayden Panetierre), Josh (Rami Malek), Mike (Brett Dalton), Jessica (Meaghan Martin), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman), Emily (Nicole Bloom), Matt (Jordan Fisher), and Chris (Noah Fleiss) each share their unique perspectives with the player as they explore last year’s tragedy. In doing so, they are about to uncover the horrible mysteries that lie within the mountain.
The gameplay consists of guiding the various characters as they attempt to survive until dawn. Most of your time will be spent collecting the vast number of clues pertaining to events of the past as well as a killer who is on the loose. While the player maintains an overarching perspective of what’s happening, the characters themselves need practical sources of information in order to make smarter decisions. In addition to the clues are totems which offer a variety of visions which can predict impending death, unseen danger, or even positive outcomes. Having access to these hints as the player creates a thrilling separation from the character, as players will literally be able to see the killer on screen at times, but the cast will remain oblivious. It is up to the player to guide the teenagers in making the right decisions so that they can survive the dangers you can already discern.
Players will also need to make fast-paced decisions through the form of quick time events, which offer an extremely small window for success. Other choices have no time constraint, forcing the player to spend more time in consideration. Some of these decisions can appear harmless, but others will come back to haunt you, sometimes in fatal ways, through the game’s Butterfly Effect system. As you progress through the story, the Butterfly Effect menu will update to show how choices you made impacted events later on. The game offers a variety of tools as well as deceptive tricks that as a result never allow the player to take their choices lightly. If you’re not vigilant, the game can even trick you into a false sense of security, not realizing that you’ve made a terrible mistake before it is too late.
A final interesting feature is the game’s utilization of the Dualshock’s gyroscope. Various moments will require characters to hide from impending threats. In these moments, the game will prompt you to stay as still as humanly possible. The light bar sensor will appear on screen within a small white boundary to let you know how much you are moving the controller. The problem is that the feature is misleading. Not moving at all or laying the controller flat will usually end in failure. Rather than stay still, the mechanic acts as a mini game in which you must keep the light bar within the boundaries. It still serves as an interesting change of pace nonetheless.
Concerning visual aesthetic and sound, Supermassive Games and its cast deliver nothing short of superb performances. The actors’ likeness are imposed into the game through facial and motion captures giving the game a very natural feel and presentation. While the characters and the world around them benefit from exquisite attention to finer detail, the game suffers in terms of technical soundness. Many sections of the game seem to chug along, featuring a dipping frame rate, but not all. Many portions of the game run smooth and beautifully as intended. However, for each segment that runs well, the next unpolished section stands out all the more.
The actors in the game deliver excellent performances. It is necessary to highlight Peter Stormare’s performance as Dr. Hill in particular. Hill is a psychiatrist that appears in between chapters. He frequently breaks the fourth wall between himself and the player, asking him or her revealing questions about their fears and how they feel about certain characters. I constantly felt like this virtual person was somehow watching and judging my gameplay. Doubt and paranoia crept through making it tougher to make decisions. It added another layer of suspense and excitement to the experience as I was constantly doubting the merits of my choices. It was my goal to make sure every character survived, after all, and Dr. Hill made me feel like my goal-oriented way of playing as going to be the cast’s demise. In my playthrough, all characters but one survived. All eight characters can die or live, with any permutation of survivors in between.
Because of the various number of outcomes, players will find themselves wanting to dive right back into the game in effort to understand what went right or, more importantly, what went wrong. It is also highly unlikely that players will be able to collect all of the game’s clues and totems in one go. These materials shed light on the overarching plot, revealing an impressive amount of detail and depth to all that has happened. There is even a secret ending to be found if you collect every clue in a specific category. The game only lasts around eight to ten hours, but there is plenty of reason to go back and experience the journey again.
Until Dawn is a (Super)massive surprise hit for the PlayStation 4. Armed with stellar acting, true suspense, and a narrative that keeps you guessing, Supermassive Games smashes its way into the genre as the current reigning champion. Step aside, Quantic Dream. There’s a new developer in town.