Fear. Its primal, its universal, and its entertaining as hell. Supermassive Games is hoping to tap into that vein next month with their interactive Slasher Until Dawn, its take on one of the most overplayed and clichéd horror sub-genres.
On the anniversary of the mysterious deaths of two of their friends, a group of attractive young people gather in an isolated mountain lodge to remember, reminisce, and get laid, but many will most likely be gutted like a fish. It’s nothing new for sure, and every character is an established cliché, but it’s a scenario ripe with pants-browning opportunities.
Until Dawn is an undeniably attractive game. Every character model is finely-detailed, and each is brought to life via exceptional facial and body animations. With believable locations, atmospheric lighting, and a very high level of polish, the game certainly cuts a very impressive figure.
This level of fidelity doesn’t always work in its favour though, and you will find yourself staring right down the uncanny valley many times throughout. Overall it takes very little away from the technical prowess on show, but does distract and detract from the experience a little too often.
The game itself is a chimeric amalgam of classic survival horror with fixed cameras, Heavy Rain world interaction, and Telltale Games’ choice-and-consequence mechanics. As a result, navigating the world can be frustrating, with shifting cameras and the need to reorient yourself when moving from location to location or even room to room.
While this is a hallmark of the survival horror genre, it really did not need to make a reappearance here. The addition of more ‘interactive’ elements requires some true controller gymnastics, and also hinders immersion as often as it deepens it. When examining a clue or item these complicated inputs are fantastic, but opening a drawer should never require a sequence of button presses and stick movements.
Mechanical clunk aside, Until Dawn comes in to its own with a compelling choice and consequence mechanic that underpins the entire experience. These choices and events known as ‘Butterfly Effects’ will change the outcome of not only the game as a whole, but the fates of each of the characters.
A conversation choice, or choosing not to take a certain action can have wide-ranging repercussions. The immediate outcomes are never shown when a Butterfly Effect is triggered, but each one will affect the relationships between individuals and the group as a whole, leading to shocking or even tragic outcomes. You can view each Butterfly Effect at any time, which allows for multiple subsequent replay possibilities.
Working in tandem with the Butterfly Effect are Totems – items found throughout the game. Picking a Totem will trigger a brief glimpse of a potential outcome of a choice yet to be made in the game. What that choice will be is not shown, and when it may be presented is left a mystery. All you know is that something you may do could lead to that briefly-glimpsed fate, and how you use this information is completely up to you.
The combination of the Butterfly Effect and Totems made my all-too-brief time with the game deeply-involving, despite the mechanical frustrations found elsewhere.
At a base level, Until Dawn is an effective horror game. While many of the scares are cheap, they are well-played and executed with aplomb. One very impressive (undocumented) feature is a real world advanced physics simulation that on no less than two occasions caused my controller to inexplicably fly across the room, and elicited an explosive vocal release of what can only be described as the high-pitched squeal of a terrified nine-year-old girl. Technology has certainly come a long way this console generation.
Thankfully, Supermassive Games has also included some evil/genius functionality to fully exploit this feature. ‘Cheap Shots’ use the Playstation camera to capture these moments of abject terror, and then upload them to share with your friends, loved ones, or complete strangers. Because who needs dignity in the age of the internet?
After four hours or so with Until Dawn I am left with two questions: can Supermassive Games take all the tropes they’ve embraced and either subvert them into something new and interesting, or will Until Dawn just be another cheap jump-scare cliché-fest? From what I’ve played it seems it could go either way. But to Supermassive’s credit I really want to find out.
While I’m not yet invested in any of the characters, I still want to see who dies, who lives, and who the killer is. All I know for sure is that I will get the bejeebus scared out of me in the process. So either way I’m hooked, and eagerly await the full release next month.