Cinematic action-adventure games are becoming more and more popular, as games begin to further blur the lines between an interactive experience and a button mashing affair. Supermassive’s Until Dawn pushes these boundaries with its superb visuals, sound design, and straightforward quick time events. While the game loses a significant amount of originality in the last third, it is still a fun game that stands as an impressive benchmark for where interactive content can go from here on out.
Until Dawn is broken into three distinct segments, which reflect the evolution of the narrative. Firstly comes the set-up, which introduces a cast of ten college-aged men and women, such as Hayden Panettiere’s Sam and Brett Dalton’s Mike. One weekend up at a secluded mountain cabin, some of the group decide to prank one of their friends, causing her and her sister to plummet to their deaths. Fast-forward one year later and this same group of friends have gathered to help the sister’s brother honor their memory. The celebration is abruptly cut short as a mysterious individual begins to haunt and torture the young millennials’ night.
This introduction takes off at a brisk and straightforward pace, as Supermassive games introduces the controls as well as the impact of the butterfly effect system. It introduces the controls and importance of your decisions through the opening sequence in which Beth chases after her sister Hannah, the victim of the cruel prank. The developers understand that, mechanically, it’s an easy game to play. There are no complex button combinations or shooting mechanics to master, but I found it innovative, as well as refreshing, that I could miss button prompts and not have to see a “Game Over” screen.
Such simple controls allows Supermassive games, as well as the audience, to focus on Until Dawn’s writing, voice acting, sound design, and impressive graphics. While the set-up provides for a pleasantly blunt explanation of what awaits, the middle portion of the game features a plentiful number of well-placed scares. The middle third of the game is fantastic. I was always wary of my surroundings, as I was constantly on the lookout for the next jump scare that was surely around the corner. The ominous music and unsettling sounds further created a tense environment. The moments that center around the various characters were interesting, as I was always trying to think several steps ahead in order to properly control my story. Even the short chase sequences, which revolve around quick decision making, felt extremely suspenseful. It’s also a testament to Until Dawn’s downright spooky, but beautifully organized production design that I was still scared during my second and third playthroughs.
The writing and overall story loses a significant amount of originality during the last third of the game, which still features several interesting twists, depending on your previous decisions. The twist isn’t entirely lame, as it provides for several interesting survival scenarios and gameplay segments that still create several suspenseful and tense scenarios. I still enjoyed myself during the end of the game and the closing set pieces cleverly implement the current status of your characters, as well as all of the game’s QTE mechanics, but I wish Until Dawn’s story continued more along the lines of the slasher-horror film originally promised.
The butterfly effect system, in theory, is a unique and compelling way to tell a story. In practice, it is very effective in shaping distinct stories, while encouraging players to experience multiple playthroughs to see the various affects your actions have. The butterfly effect system takes into account the player’s actions and relationships with the various characters. It forced me to really think about my actions. Do I need to care about this character for later in the game? What can this item help me with down the line? Who gets the gun? Many games state over and over again that all of your actions come back to shape the various endings and outcomes the game provides. However, Supermassive Games’ butterfly effect system really does shape the world around your characters.
Moving on from the narrative portion of the game, Until Dawn looks great. The characters look distinct from each other and I was amazed how consistent Until Dawn graphically held up as the game progressed. There were very few hiccups here and there, and when they did occur, the instances were very minor; characters’ limbs would disappear for a brief second or I would be unable to pick up an object for a brief second. This game was originally in development for the PlayStation 3, but it felt and looked like a fully realized PS4 game. Several times I stopped to experiment with the responsive controls and admire my surroundings, as the game cleverly employs varying camera angles to allow for different points of view. One moment, you’re walking down a snowy pathway to a secluded cabin, staring at the backs of your controlled characters. The next moment, as you turn a corner, the camera view pans out as you seemingly take the perspective of the predator hunting his or her prey amongst the sleek white snowscape.
Collectibles also appear in the shape of totems and various clues. The totems show players events that may happen if certain decisions are made, such as a character falling down a mine shaft or the benefits of trekking down one specific path, making you think how your decisions can affect that certain path. Scattered around the world are also clues pertaining to several ongoing in-game mysteries. Old pictures, tools, and other commonplace objects act as clues regarding to the identity of the mystery man tormenting Sam and her friends. Players may also come across newspaper articles, decades old pictures, and the like as hints toward a sub-narrative revolving the mine shaft found beneath the cabin. Finally, artifacts such as glasses cases, more pictures, and carvings on the wall provide more insight into the final fate of Hannah and Beth. These sub-narratives helped add to the world of Until Dawn, and certain lines of dialogue and scenarios are not available unless the player collects certain items in the world. Some players may find this tedious, but it further immersed the player into the history of the game.
The characters themselves are cleverly designed, as players are encouraged to make whatever choice they want. I don’t think they are entirely unlikable, but the majority can feel hard to root for, depending on the choices you make. This isn’t a bad thing. Unlikable characters allows you to play through the butterfly effect system in different ways. For instance, my first playthrough depicted Emily as one incredibly mean, selfish, and stuck-up girlfriend, but she’s smart. Should I keep her alive, as her wits may open up future dialogue options down the line that may not be possible through other characters? Or is she expendable, leaving me fit to shut her up for the remainder of my playthrough? By making the characters feel expendable, this encourages me to use and explore the butterfly effect system across multiple playthroughs. In turn, by encouraging me to explore and exert my control over the game’s intricate decision making system, I felt more empowered and in control. Even when I was reacting to quick time events, I felt totally in control in shaping the world and story of Until Dawn, which is a great feeling all in itself.
Until Dawn is an all-around great game, as it features gorgeous visuals, a superb sound design, suspenseful action sequences, impactful decision making, and writing that is, for the most part, strong in both its uniqueness and many moments of homage to the horror genre. While the last third of the game does not match such a strong middle, it is still a game that delivers on its cinematic scope that is promised.
+ Gorgeous visuals and great sound design
+ Butterfly Effect system.
+ The middle of the game delivers some seriously heart wrenching jump scares.
– Last third of the game loses a lot of its originality
– Certain collectibles may not be for everyone
Despite a subpar final third, Until Dawn is still a tense, suspenseful homage to horror films that plays well, looks great, and provides a great, scary story.
Liam Crossey is the Executive Editor of Features for The Game Bolt. Follow him on Twitter for too many retweets.