As graphics have advanced over the years, and the audience for gaming has broadened, game developers have tried making games more and more cinematic. Sometimes you get clunky, poorly written messes, like Beyond: Two Souls, and other times you get something unique and engaging, like Until Dawn.
Until Dawn does nothing to hide the fact that it puts story before anything else. Gamers looking for impressive visuals, a fun storyline, and silly characters will find much to love about Until Dawn. Casting several recognizable actors from television and film helps to solidify the game’s attempts at recreating a classic 90’s teen-slasher film, with more choose-your-own adventure type of gameplay options.
Little should be said of the Until Dawn’s plot beyond its basic premise: following the mysterious death of two friends at an isolated cabin in the woods, a group of friends reunites at the same cabin a year later, as some sort of creepy therapy session. It’s as silly as it sounds – why would you revisit the site of your friends’ mysterious disappearance just a year later when the crime is still unsolved? – but it doesn’t matter. Until Dawn refuses to take itself too seriously.
It plays into all the tropes we’re familiar with in the genre, but gives the player agency in deciding just how closely they’re going to stick to said tropes. The player has complete control over when a character dies or lives, so if you want to see the sex-crazed girl and token black guy survive until the very end, it’s entirely possible. Should the game’s biggest stars die first? Why not!
These decisions aren’t as black and white as “kill person X now?” Instead, you’re given many decisions to make throughout the game. Sometimes they’re as simple as “Go left” versus “Go right,” but other times they’re more complicated. Should you investigate a sound to the left? Or follow the footsteps to the right? A lot of times, the safer bet is actually more dangerous.
This is exactly what makes Until Dawn so intriguing from the get go. The decisions are shrouded in mystery, and when you think you’re doing the right thing to keep this kid alive, you’re actually doing the wrong thing. Maybe hiding as Mike worked earlier, but will it work for Jessica? Or is she better off running? You’re often tasked with making these decisions quickly, or face some alternative choice. Sometimes even giving way to fate, and not making a decision, is the best option. Until Dawn makes choices feel like they matter more than any game I’ve ever played, even if they don’t.
Where the game falters, though, is when a character dies following a simple mistake on your part. Since the game has no Game Over screens, you’re forced to live with that mistake. And while this can certainly amp up the tension, it isn’t always the most interesting from a story perspective. Having a character unexpectedly fall off a cliff because you hit the circle button instead of square isn’t exactly cinematic. Unfortunately, most of the deaths I faced in my single play through felt unnecessary and quick, even the ones that came in the climax of the story.
The actual “gameplay” beyond making choices is limited to a few options. Anytime action ramps up, expect ample amounts of quick-time events. Sometimes it involves holding the controller as still as possible (though I’m pretty confident there are times when it’s going to sense movement no matter what), and other times you’re actually using an aiming reticle. All of these moments are completely done by choice. Don’t want to shoot the bird to impress the girl? Don’t shoot the bird! Don’t think holding perfectly still is the best move? Wiggle that controller! It’s this level of player agency that keeps the gameplay interesting, even when it isn’t.
Until Dawn is all about story and makes no bones about it. Coming into this game and expecting to have a certain level of control over your character will leave you disappointed, but there are enough opportunities for you to make decisions or screw up that the game will feel fresh from beginning to end.