Video Game First Impressions: Until Dawn (PS4, 2015)

Years in development, the latest project from Supermassive Games may be very well prove their defining hit. Developed exclusively for Playstation 4, Until Dawn shuffles into the same category of interactive cinema games like Heavy Rain with a rich, textured narrative that is well thought out, driven by character dynamics, and terrifyingly immersive. What’s more is that this looks to be the first major game in history to successfully adapt from the ever-popular slasher film genre.

It does seem strange that direct influence from classic slasher-horror hasn’t really found it’s way into a major video game yet, seeing as the popular genre of survival-horror seems pretty much made for that very purpose. Until Dawn will finally give us that morbid, thrilling aesthetic, creating it’s very own slasher flick, set in a remote location, centered around a group of eight slightly naive youths.

Our group of characters are each given ample time to establish distinctive personalities, traits which change significantly with every decision you make, and play into the Butterfly Effect mechanic that the game relies upon. Variables seem to be of abundance here, and the replay value will undoubtedly benefit from that.

Purposefully riddled with tropes and some really effective black humour, the long demo I played – the first hour or so of the game – established Until Dawn’s atmosphere quite quickly. Things are dark, maybe a bit too dark, and there’s an eerie sense of dread in almost every move. The game smartly takes it’s time building up the dynamics between different characters, and this requires a bit of patience, even more so than the aforementioned Heavy Rain.

It’s obvious that this patience will be rewarded further into the game though, as almost every dialogue or path decision I made – mostly choosing between just two options – was obviously computed by indicators on the top screen. Having a relatively large group of characters makes this Butterfly Effect mechanic all the more terrifying since you seem to be deciding the fate of each characters with every move, as you switch between their perspectives.

Between scenes you have some mysterious sessions with a character who seems like an out-of-practice psychiatrist. It’s here you get to make more comprehensive choices – which characters you do or don’t like or what your biggest fear is, for example – and the way this determines your ‘sessions’ is quite fun to watch. These are obviously significant moments in the game where your choices lead to even more variables down the line.

Controls are fluid and help the story flow. You first have the motion-based gestures which help you decide – flick the controller towards one option and press X. Then you have the push or pull motion that begins by walking up to and interacting with a glowing object. One such type of object is the Totem, a major part of the game. Totems are scattered throughout the maps and, when picked up, show cryptic flashes of potential outcomes. Though there’s no clear way on how to avoid these outcomes, the possibility of knowing what the scope of your decisions are adds a nice tension to each choice.

There are also simple quick time events throughout the game, which is to be expected. To keep things at least a little bit fresh, you often get to choose the ‘hard’ QTE – less time to press the corresponding button – or the ‘easy’ route. I never chose the ‘easy’ route for the QTEs but I assume you just have more time to press each button.

Of course, none of the fluid mechanics in this game would be impressive if the story and the design weren’t up to scratch. Until Dawn looks and plays beautifully, and as mentioned above, there’s an eerie sense of dread in almost every step. Characters, while often annoying, are entertaining and distinctive enough, mostly drawing on familiar horror archetypes. Samantha (Hayden Panettiere) seems to be the game’s central character, although the developers have emphasised that anyone can die, at anytime, so luckily she isn’t the only one that appears to be at least somewhat likeable.

The first hour-or-so of the game is paced well, with jump scares that are both genuinely surprising and straight-up hilarious. Tension between these characters slowly becomes more apparent with every piece of dialogue, and in a nice move, every choice you make in these scenes has a direct effect on the various traits and dynamics of each character and relationship. At any time during gameplay you can bring up a screen which details the different traits in a character and how each have been affected by your decisions so far. These ‘totals’ will undoubtedly play into the various happenings as the game slowly brings it’s killer into action.

The design of the lodge, what seems like the main setting of Until Dawn, is particularly impressive. It’s a vast and heavily detailed home with an appropriate sense of claustrophobia, despite the enormity. Outside in the snow is even creepier, with very dark spots and narrow paths. The frantic energy of the more stake-heavy scenes, of which they were admittedly few (due to me only having played the first hour-or-so), benefits from the dark and moody map design, although there seems to be very little player input during the more exciting sequences.

As a game which pushes moral quandaries and a sense of responsibility onto the player, Until Dawn is looking like a fun, worthwhile, and well designed experience that hopefully sticks true to what I saw in the demo. It’s rumoured that it will have hundreds of potential endings which makes sense given that we have come a long way since the days of Heavy Rain, when the promise of ‘more than 20 endings’ seemed like the most impressive thing in gaming history.

I for one will definitely be checking out Until Dawn when it hits stores. It has a story that you actually want to see unfold completely, and it seems to be better than most slasher flicks that actually hit cinemas nowadays.

Until Dawn will be released in Australian stores on Wednesday 26th August 2015. It will be a PS4 exclusive.