Thursday, 15 October 2015

Until Dawn - Review

Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS4

Until Dawn has a really clever trick; make a predictable genre unpredictable. How does it do that? Simple, let you decide who lives and who dies.

The slasher genre is easily the most well-worn, overdone type of horror movie imaginable. In fact, I’d argue it’s now the fact that it is now so predictable that makes it weirdly enjoyable. Scream works because you understand the clich├ęs. Cabin in the Woods works because you’ve seen this sort of movie thousands of times before.

You’d think it would be hard for Until Dawn to mine something new out of a sub-genre that’s already gone so meta it practically demolishes the fourth wall, but, surprisingly, it manages to handle itself rather well. Fitting in the mould of a modern Telltale-style, point-and-click adventure game, Until Dawn has you jumping across eight young twenty-somethings as they meet up in an isolated house up in the mountains, to, as one character puts it, “party like porn stars.” 

The game’s major gimmick, of course, being that any of the eight characters can die. This isn’t the first time that a game has messed around with sticking characters in perma-death. Heavy Rain attempted it five years ago and failed spectacularly, with you having to be tremendously bad to get people killed, and throwing ridiculous QTE after ridiculous QTE at you while the plot spiralled out of control.

Until Dawn instead focuses on the ramifications of your choices, ramming the concept down your throat with the “Butterfly Effect” mechanic, which is a fancy way of saying “your actions will have consequences”. Snoop at another character’s phone and said character might not trust you as much, use a flare gun now and you won’t be able to use it to save yourself later. It’s an obvious, simple idea that Telltale have been weaving into their games for a while now, and Until Dawn pulls it off pretty damn well. 

What’s interesting is, by having you play as multiple characters, you’re put into a dilemma about how to act amongst the others. This isn’t like playing as Lee or Clementine in The Walking Dead, where you always had a clear angle you were viewing events from. Here, the focus is always shifting with each scene. Do you have the nerd try and be heroic, is the pretty prom queen actually the smart one? Is the final girl really the final girl? There’s an interesting element of playing the game versus roleplaying going on when you first get to grips with the characters and it’s interesting to watch how different players first acclimatise to this.

Each person comes with their own little stat screen, detailing how charitable, honest and brave they are. It’s a very “gamey” menu screen in an otherwise cinematic video game, and occasionally has a whiff of being there just to give the illusion that you’re still playing a video game, and not simply an interactive movie. Granted, it is interesting to see your characters’ personalities change over the course of the game but, by the end, it has very little tangible impact.

Until Dawn doesn’t so much get you to play the game as much as it does get you to play director. Dipping in and out of each character and having them make choices that may or not kill them in the long run. Tweaking the story and trying to bend it as far as it will go is undoubtedly one of the most fun elements.

The other aspect that Until Dawn nails down, is the actual story. It's a smart game, with a pair of smart writers. They know you've watched Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream and Cabin in the Woods. You're waiting for a twist and they damn well deliver on it. 

And it’s this, as much as the “who’s going to make it” aspect, that keeps things going. Simply put, Until Dawn is a fun story, and one that understands the horror genre. The cast is great, with some recognisable faces here and there, (Peter Stormare shows up as a shrink). It’s a game that makes the cast surprisingly likable in a genre that regularly treats them as little more than cannon fodder ready to be slaughtered.

Even the collectibles work as another element to play on the choices/consequences mechanic. Native American totems can be found dotted around the environments, because…you guessed it, the entire place the characters are staying at used to be a burial ground for the tribe there.

These totems give you glimpses of potential futures; obscure shots of characters getting shot, burnt or falling off a cliff. What’s great though is that they just fuel the guessing game even more. They’re frustratingly ambiguous, but in a good way. In effect, they force you to play detective even more, making you scan each environment meticulously for any element that might get your character killed. Of course, that’s assuming you want that character to survive…

Naturally, Until Dawn suffers from all the usual problems that afflict this particular style of video game. For starters, the first play through is great but future ones become more disappointing. Once you see the puppet strings; the different cause-and-effect events that alter the game’s story, you start to realize that things are much more linear than they might first appear. The Butterly Effect mechanic does a good job of disguising this to start with, but, even with eight characters that can all potentially die, this is still very much a game on rails.

Until Dawn isn’t about to win over sceptics. If you find this particular style of game to be nothing more than a glorified movie; an embarrassing attempt to relive the ‘90s FMV adventure game days, then this isn’t going to change your mind. Until Dawn starts out with a simple plan and sticks to it.

It’s a game that solves the problems that David Cage falls for with each game he releases. It’s not pretentious, and, despite starring eight horny twenty-somethings, it’s not that stupid either. By not reaching for anything too grand, by not trying to “redefine video games” Until Dawn simply does something much better and much more important.

It ends up being a pretty decent bloody game. 


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