When I played and previewed Until Dawn last month, I emerged hooked and hoping that the final game would live up to its initial promise. The good news is, it definitely does.
The story might sound familiar: eight friends converge on a remote mountainous resort on the anniversary of two of their friends’ death. In games as in movies, it is how masterfully the tale is told that makes The Cabin in the Woods setup work or fall flat. In Until Dawn, it does the former.
To its credit, the game is more mystery/thriller than gross out horror, although you can absolutely expect a plethora of good scares and some brutal moments. However, comparing it to movies for a moment, what really makes the game scary is its pacing. It doesn’t flood you with gore like The Saw franchise or The Evil Within, nor does it take things to levels of absurdity as The Final Destination. Until Dawn preys on your imagination (What was that sound? Is there a genuine danger or just another prank?) before shocking you just as you least expect it.
In some ways I found it slightly reminiscent of Alien: Isolation, as your foe is often unseen and yet definitely nearby. When they are going to pounce and how is an unknown, although you know it’s going to happen.
"Will you stop about the crazed killer on the loose already?We've got more important things to discuss- like who is going to get me my caramel macchiato expresso from Starbucks."
Live and don’t let die
In most horror of this ilk, all too often all the friends are killed, each in more gruesome or macabre fashion, making for a predictable ending. Until Dawn instead offers a different hook – it is possible for all of the game’s characters to survive, depending on how you play. This makes for much more of an investment in the game’s events, especially as you can, to an extent, shape the personality of your characters such that you don’t want to see them meet their demise. In turn, this makes you really consider the choices you make, even as you have to make them quickly.
Another part of the reason Until Dawn is so affecting is because your characters are clearly pretty vulnerable. They aren’t armed to the teeth, they don’t have any kind of arsenal at all actually. Rather, they are just a bunch of college kids, with all the bravado and insecurities of post adolescence/young adulthood. The game makes it clear from the outset that the ninth participant in their reunion is danger. Unlike the group’s pranks on one another, which serve as red herrings and ensure your heartrate is given a good jolt when you least expect it, this unwelcome guest’s ‘tricks’ are deadly serious, and not funny at all.
"When I said I fantasized about being someone's half brother, this is not what I meant."
Chill out while you tense up
The cold, snowy mountainous terrain is beautifully rendered, and its chilling foreboding presence is enhanced by the cabin’s isolation. Then, of course, the group are still coming to terms with the tragedy from a prank gone terribly wrong one year earlier. To this mix add a nearby sanitarium, some Native American lore and the grand idea to play a little with the spirit world via an Ouija board and you have all the ingredients for a game that sucks you in and reminds you of a few primal fears.
Granted, there are many choices to be made, but cozying up in front of the fireplace and keeping warm until the sun rises is not one of your options. Driving exploration is the need to find totems and clues to a few mysteries. The former take the form of owl carvings, which reveal flashes of a brief montage. These are different colours, and offer clues to events yet to come, relating to potential loss, death, good fortune or just general guidance. Indeed, I found that exploration, whether in the main cabin itself or in the snow swept hills was well worth it, particularly as some clues and totems require a bit more diligent searching.
The clues tended to be snippets of information, such as a framed photo, a note hidden in a book, an old newspaper clipping. There are three mysteries to solve, and as you gather the clues to each, a bigger picture teases until finally emerging. I found this non linear way of telling a sub story very compelling, motivating me to explore the world far more so than just racking up a list of collectibles.
"What do you mean, a sequel isn't a given?"
Until Dawn’s most engaging dynamic, though, belongs to its Butterfly Effect system. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept is a theory in which the smallest actions can affect a myriad of consequences that are unfathomable in the present moment, with the flapping of a butterfly’s wing contributing to a major tornado cited as the most common example.
In the game though, small choices that you make as you play through each of the characters have far ranging consequences that are not apparent right away. This makes the game feel considerably more personalised. It also works well as a lure, drawing one into the story, into the characters and thus into the game more completely, especially if you are playing to see whether you can successfully keep all of the eight characters alive until dawn. As you make significant choices, the impact of one choice on another character or part of the story is slowly unveiled; as though Until Dawn was performing a seductive strip tease.
As already noted in the preview, the graphics and voice acting are still top notch. Hayden Panettiere’s (Heroes, Nashville) Sam is endearing in a girl next door kind of way, but it’s Peter Stormare’s (Prison Break, The Big Lebowski, Arrow) psychiatrist who really stood out for me. Creepy and unnerving, the time spent in his sessions were some of the most unsettling parts of the game, even as it was distinct locale change from the snow swept mountains.
In the final analysis
All in all, Until Dawn did for me what few horror these days manage to accomplish – it once again found me sitting on the edge of my seat, and at unexpected times, jumping out of it, loving every minute. I do not know the far reaching ramifications of choosing to play this game, but given the choice to do so again, I would definitely make the same one. Until Dawn takes a horror trope down to death and puts an engaging and innovative spin on the friends in a cabin stalked by a killer premise. Deliciously scary, terrifically immersive and unrelentingly gripping, it's a game that had me on the edge of my seat and eager to continue playing it. Until Dawn is highly recommended.