In a horrific world of death and uncertainty, astute decisions are vital for survival. Wild animals should be handled with care, doors and windows should be approached with suspicion, and above all, close friends and despised enemies alike should be treated with the same level of scepticism. This is the world of Until Dawn, a domain in which player choice matters throughout a grand celebration of the horror genre. Clichés can be found in almost every part of this dark and blood-soaked tale, but they are embraced wholeheartedly as a key element in Until Dawn’s fantastically interactively dramatic. The teens getting slashed are immature, annoying, and are constantly trapping themselves within ridiculous situations; but, as a result, their story is a wholly authentic affair, riddled with enjoyable twists, atmospheric dread and an armful of satisfyingly gory deaths.
On the one-year anniversary of the Blackwood Pines tragedy, in which Hannah and Beth Washington were reported missing after a tumble over a rocky cliffside, a group of their friends decide to revisit the area in order to recreate their former festivities. Along the way, some messy misadventures occur, severely dampening their night of frolic and fornication, with a sinister edge that emphasises horror to paramount levels. A veritable amount of tropes, including supernatural hauntings, an ominous creature in the woods, a masked serial killer and even a ramshackle sanatorium, have been included to please fans of the genre. While these allusions could have been treated haphazardly with only minor references included, they are instead continually present, and are positioned throughout the story successfully through careful contextualisation within the narrative.
The plot progresses with a pace that is satisfying, as it mashes together a respectable balance of quiet exploration with moments of frantic running and terror. Despite the story waning in interest towards the half-way point, it picks up with an even more intriguing horror ingredient in its latter sections. I won’t spoil the twist here, but it involves a wholly original aspect of North American folklore; its inclusion was unexpected, and it was tied into the rest of Until Dawn’s spooky happenings realistically and without convolution.
Of course, an homage to slasher movies would not be complete without a horde of ridiculous and insanely immature teenagers. The kids on show here are brash, spoilt, innuendo-fuelled idiots that have very little initiative when it comes to survival. They are constantly separating themselves in the woods, despite having a number of masked killers on their tail; they are always wanting to investigate the unexpected; they are always venturing into dangerous locations alone. Luckily, as the player, you have control over which annoying adolescent lives or dies through a slew of decisions or actions. Even the slightest choice may lead to a character’s death, meaning that these selections are not without consequence. For example, although a slower and more methodical path through the woods may save Mike from some dangerous missteps, it can lead to the death of Jessica, simply because he did not reach her on time. I was also astounded later in the story to find out that Chris had met his end because of a decidedly minor instance a few chapters before.
Although the teens can be an irritating lot, they become more likeable as the story progresses, mostly due the sympathy evoked through their startled gasps of shock and dread. Josh, Mike and the rest of the gang may be loathsome at times, but they radiate an aura of immature innocence that does not deserve the fate of bloody mutilation; you begin to care about them, despite their follies, for fear of watching their young lives literally get torn apart. As well as this, causing a character to die unnecessarily at a certain point can risk a loss of compelling story content, driving you to keep each and every one alive until the end. Subsequently, you must then choose your actions carefully because of the Butterfly Effect death system in place, which increases the tension and interaction with the story, and leads to a far more immersive player experience as a result.
Frantically running from masked killers and making hazardous jumps along cliff faces has never been so pressured. Although the button prompts necessary to complete these actions have been kept relatively simple, with none of the complicated “three hands required” nonsense from Heavy Rain, the window of opportunity to react is minute. This may lead to some careless deaths because of a stumble or mistimed jump, but it creates a sense of realistic urgency, which in turn produces feelings of dread, once again capturing a purely authentic horror experience. Furthermore, Until Dawn has been able to make use of the DualShock 4 in one of the most harrowing and thoughtful ways I have ever seen. Utilising the controller’s built-in gyroscope, you must hold it steady at certain points in order to remain hidden from the game’s murderous villain. This may seem simple enough, but in these moments my breaths had never felt so leaden, and I was actually prompted to stop breathing for an instant so as to not get caught. The immersive, and potentially dangerous, nature of this mechanic further solidifies Until Dawn’s presentation as one of deep captivation and frightening excitement.
Gameplay also requires some careful exploration through outstandingly creepy, yet beautiful, environments. These range from broken-down insane asylums to cavernous and rotting mine shafts, with each one carefully designed using a thoroughly horror-driven aesthetic: walls and ceilings are torn and stained, buildings feel cold and unused; rust, rubble and darkness can be found in every corner. The forest scenes, although idyllically-depicted with fantastic lighting and realistic snow effects, are just as desolate. Every aspect of Until Dawn’s ruinous scenery, and even its cosy indoor cabin retreat, is tinged with an unsettling spirit of isolation and anxiety.
Detailed items, throughout various locations, can be picked up and inspected to gain some contextual information on the scene in question. Most of these come in the form of collectibles that delve deeper into the disappearance of Hannah and Beth, while also exploring the presence of a mystery man seen around the resort grounds. While they do impart some useful and intriguing minutiae upon the player, there are other collectibles that just come off as unnecessary. Various Native American totems can also be discovered, which are intended to aid in steering character destiny by revealing future events. These did little to help in any way, and in certain instances actually spoiled some deaths and other content that would have otherwise been better to experience during play. Seeing a character on fire made me instantly wary of anything flame-related, ruining the possible surprise of this later event.
Despite the annoyance of these troublesome collectibles, and a somewhat so-so second act, Until Dawn is an entirely original, horror experience. Its Butterfly Effect system of choice is supremely consequential, its immersive depth is unparalleled by any other interactive drama, and the tension encapsulated through its split-second button prompts had me holding my breath in awed anticipation. It is an impressively authentic horror experience that will have you playing over and over again until Matt finally survives until dawn with his face firmly fixed to his skull.
An intensely immersive horror experience that will have you frantically rushing to prevent the decapitation of eight horny teenagers.