Review: Until Dawn

Jesus hot sauce Christmas cake, I loved this game – and not just for its wonderful expletives.

Until Dawn

It took me an embarrassingly long time to get around to playing this. Back when the title was released in 2015, I was immediately taken with the concept, but I just didn’t have the required access to a PS4. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever get the chance to play this, and avoiding spoilers for over a year is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Let me tell you though, it was well worth the wait.

Spoiler Alert: This is an analytic review intended for audiences who have already completed Until Dawn. If you haven’t played/finished the game yet I would advise you to put off reading this as certain endings will be revealed.

Now that I’m staying with my boyfriend, I have all the console access I could ask for – but to say that we have a different taste in videogames would be an understatement. To encourage me to start using the PS4 more he invested in a couple of horror games – Until Dawn being among them.

I sat down with the intention of giving it a short test run to see how I liked it, and did my first entire playthrough in that one sitting. That’s how quickly I became invested. Within the week I had also completed my death run of the game, and picked up a couple of the decision based trophies that I didn’t get on my first two runs (The Skillful Wolfman, The Exorcism of Emily, and Ashley Snaps.)

Life and work prevented me from getting the rest of my trophy hunting done for awhile, and I decided to postpone reviewing the game until I had unlocked more extras and seen more of the endings. I wanted to have a better grasp of all that it had to offer before I started picking it a part. This past week I was finally able to obtain my Platinum in the game, which has given me the confidence needed to delve into what aspects I like and did not like.

One thing that I’ve found really interesting as I start analyzing my notes for this review is that a lot of the game’s biggest strengths are also its weaknesses. A prime example of this would be the game’s core concept, which was both what drew me in initially and ultimately let me down most.

Working off of the butterfly effect, the concept of having a video game where each decision that the player makes can determine who all will survive the night is intense – and I loved it from the second I first heard about this game. This great idea proved to be a double-edged sword however, because it promised more than it could deliver. While the game does have some ending-defining choices, the player’s actions for the majority of the gameplay don’t make much of a difference – and that was really disappointing to me. The contrast between the possible outcomes was just too subtle in comparison to the image that the game had built up for itself.

Take the prologue for instance.  Using the set-in-stone exposition that takes place a year before the main story  sets the stage with a very interesting tutorial and makes sense from a structural standpoint, but it starts the player out in an environment that’s contrary to the whole message of the game. Nothing you do in the prologue matters much at all. Aside from subtle differences to the cutscene where Hannah and Beth fall, the story isn’t impacted by what you do – and that’s just not how I would have liked to see this start. Of course it’s something a player wouldn’t notice on their first run of the game (I certainly didn’t) but it’s something that will quickly lead to disappointment in a second run.

I  actually think that could be said about the entire complaint – it doesn’t detract from the experience at all for that first, glorious, blind play-through.Going back through and replaying to round out my collectibles and witness different endings though, I was disappointed that there wasn’t the ending diversity I had been led to expect. Each play-through is nearly identical in structure, and even the deaths don’t affect the story much. You witness a lot of the same material repeatedly, and while there is some variety. it doesn’t live up to the expectations – or at least it didn’t in my case.

Looking back, there’s no practical way that it could have lived up to all that it claimed to be – something on that scale would have taken a much larger team, it would have easily tripled the size of the game file, and it would have taken much, much more time and money to develop. That wouldn’t have been realistic. Keeping their limitations in mind though, I might have been less disappointed if my hopes hadn’t been raised quite so high… so it might have been better if they had dialed back the importance of the butterfly effect in the earlier chapters. As it stands, the game isn’t much different from any other game with multiple endings.

That being said, I did like the continuity that the more structured narrative of Until Dawn offered. There’s nothing more frustrating than choosing to help a character, finding out he’s been the killer all along, not helping him on your next run, and finding out that in this world, he’s not the killer. This game won’t do that to you.

And, in the game’s defense, if they were going to have a structured, predetermined story, they picked the right one. There is so much going on in here it’s insane, and they covered their bases pretty well. There’s a little something in there for nearly every kind of horror fan. There’s the torture porn story where a masked maniac makes Chris choose who lives and who dies, there’s a psychological aspect with the therapist who might or might not be real, there are the paranormal aspects that Ashley appears to be experiencing, the crazed man that Mike thinks has abducted Jess, the creature feature angle with the introduction of the wendigos, the environmental terror of isolation during crisis, the atmospheric horror of being trapped underground, and the whole thing is done in the basic style of a classic slasher flick. They even managed to work in the tropes of an abandoned mental hospital, land being stolen, cultural traditions, a tragic accident with a lazy cover-up, a vengeance arc starting with a girl being humiliated as a “prank”, and a hermit who has dedicated his life to monster hunting. What more could you ask for?

On that note, I did like that the collectibles not only added to the story but that the characters were able to piece together more of the situation depending on what you as the player have been able to find. Little details like that can go a long way in making a game seem polished and enhancing the player’s experience.

Now, let’s move on to characters.

There are two things that I would have liked to have seen in regards to character, and one was more diversity. This wasn’t as bad as some games, certainly, but having more minority representation would have been really nice. The other would be a bigger in-game impact based off of the character stats. I spent a lot of time in my first run paying attention to who liked who and where my traits were at – but none of that information really made much of a difference. In my ideal version of the game, I think the dialogue options that you’re given would have been dependent on how you had played the character up to that point, and your current relationship status with whomever you’re interacting with. I feel like they tried to do this in a couple places, but it fell short. In lack of that, I think I would have just as soon not had that character status bars at all, because I didn’t feel like they added much to the experience.

What did impress me was how much my opinions of the characters changed not just from start to finish, but from playthrough to playthrough. Although the endings weren’t drastically different and the dialogue didn’t have the impact that I would have liked to see, I found that the decisions I made did effect how much I liked the characters each time I played. Even though I was the one calling the shots, those slight changes in character personalities made a huge difference in how I saw everyone.

Plus, there was a lot of room for character growth. Some of the characters develop in very surprising ways, such as Josh, while others just seem to be a lot more sympathetic after the time you spend with them, such as Mike. The only characters that I didn’t connect with at any point during any of my playthroughs were Jessica and Matt – and at least Jessica has one instance where she opens up, depending on the dialogue options you choose when she’s with Mike. These two are just not there for so many of the important, defining game moments that it was hard for me to really connect.

Something that I like to cover in every game review that I do is what I thought about the gameplay. To be honest, I didn’t think a single thing about the gameplay until I sat down to write this, and that’s pretty much just how I like it to be. It was very intuitive, it felt natural, the tutorial areas really help to ease you in, and even though though they used my two least favorite gameplay techniques (motion simulations and quick time events, if you were wondering) it was all so seamlessly incorporated that I didn’t even mind. I was so immersed in the environment that I barely felt like I was playing a game so much as living a story.

My favorite aspect of the gameplay came from the challenges where “Don’t Move” would pop up on the screen and I had to hold the controller perfectly still. Since these were instances where the character I was controlling also had to hold still, it linked my actions in the real world to their actions in game, and it helped me form a bond with them – not to mention adding tension to some of the most intense moments of the game. (And if I may do a tiny bit of bragging, I didn’t fail a single one of these in my entire time playing, unlike the quick time events.)

The only technical aspect that I didn’t enjoy was the chapter select. I understand that designing a chapter select for a game of this nature would be tricky…but I feel like the option they settled for was less than ideal.

Essentially how it works now is by only saving choices made in your first run – even if you’ve replayed the chapter since then. So if you want to make it to a different ending that requires a specific choice made in Chapter 4, you have to play from Chapter 4 all the way to the end in one run. I got around this by clearing my save date in between my death run and my survival run so that all the characters were alive in my chapter select, but it was still a pain to hunt down those last few collectibles and earn my platinum.

And yes, now that I have broached the subject, I would like to end my review with how much I loved the trophies for this game. They were done in a way that wasn’t excessive, didn’t require a lot of grinding or very specific requirements, but that just helped to highlight certain elements of the game – which if you ask me, is what trophies should do. Plus, many of them were nods to horror movies titles, such as “You Let The Wrong One In” and “Don’t Scare Jessica To Death.” Little stuff like that makes me smile.

So that’s my review for Until Dawn. I know I did a lot of complaining about certain aspects, and I do feel like there was a big gap between what they marketed this as and what it turned out to be, but it’s fantastic for what it is. It’s well-written, it’s surprising, atmospheric, and the graphics are gorgeous. This is actually one of my favorite games – possibly the best thing I have played on the PS4 and I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t recommend it to a fellow fan of horror games.

 

 

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