Until Dawn is a sort of interactive cheesy horror movie game of sorts... I know that's a mouthful. It's also, for my money, the BEST interactive movie game to ever come out PERIOD, and one of the best spooky titles of 2015 in spite of a few interactive shortcomings, an abrupt ending, and some heavy reliance on jumpscares. So with that in mind grab a friend or two, some hot chocolate, a warm blanket, and prepare to last until dawn... or the end of this review, whichever.
The story is your standard 80s/90s horror movie fare: a group of teenagers are returning to an isolated vacation getaway EXACTLY ONE YEAR TO THE GOD DAMN DAY after a horrific and entirely avoidable tragedy to have lots of sex. But the sex never comes, no. Horror comes.
I can't really get into the details without spoiling much but it's essentially playing a film, very similar in design to Heavy Rain... except with less interactivity if you could believe that. You'll talk to your friends, grab glinting items that provide clues to multiple story strings, and find totems scattered throughout the world that provide hints as to what can happen (and what can be avoided). I'll expand on this in the gameplay section.
Hey, I didn't even keep you waiting that long! So as I said in the previous paragraph, gameplay is pretty simplistic... lots of QTE, lots of clicking on the shining object and manipulating it, and a brilliant “hold the controller still” mechanic introduced later in the game that leads to lots of tension (and aggravation).
The QTEs are appropriately varied, utilizing every button on the PS4 controller. And if you're too petrified with fear to explore you'll miss a LOT of narrative filling clues sprinkled throughout the (linear) world. This also means you'll skip a lot of totems. Until Dawn subscribes to the chaos theory, and by extension the butterfly effect. Now the butterfly effect states that seemingly insignificant actions (a butterfly flapping its wings for example) can have HUGE, unforseen repercussions (a big old hurricane down the line).
In addition there's a bit separate from the main story where you play an unnamed character in therapy with Peter Stormare in which you'll reveal to him all your fears and worries and whatnot. Again, can't really get into this without spoiling so you'll just have to see it for yourself!
I should also mention that all of these friends, these people you play, have relationships (obviously) and personality traits. Playing true to them (brave guy is brave, smart girl is smart) is usually wise in the long-term, and avoiding horror movie tropes (investigating anything by yourself) is wiser still. Always remember that the butterfly effect is at play, and everything you do will influence your experience in good ways... and bad.
Finally the “hold the controller still” mechanic is brilliant in concept, less so in delivery. During certain situations you'll find yourself hiding and, well, you get the picture: if you move you'll be found. A prompt will appear on the screen telling you to keep your hands steady. Too much motion and the PS4's controller's built-in gyroscope thingy will cause you to fail and deal with the consequences. Initially it's really cool and tension-buildy but by the late game the room for error is so paper thin, SO SENSITIVE, that most people will be really, really frustrated. I'd suggest putting the controller down on a flat surface for some of these unless you have an iron will (and iron hands).
Otherwise that's pretty much it for gameplay, and for some that just won't cut it. If you're in the market for an interactive movie/rollercoaster, I have no doubt Until Dawn will be right up your alley. Otherwise this just might not be the game for you.
The graphics in Until Dawn are some of the best I've ever seen, near hyper realistic. The air is still, particles floating lazily and illuminated only by the light of the full moon. Shadows streak menacingly across glossy wooden floors. Animals move and behave realistically and for 90% of the time the human characters look... humanish. Despite the strides in facial animation, however, there are many an instance of uncanny valley unintentional horror.
But overall, graphically this is truly a contender. It's unlikely you have a better looking game... not counting PC mind you.
Sound is critical, KEY to a good horror anything. And the sound design in Until Dawn is superbly executed. Wood creaks appropriately, snow crunches under heavy footfall, and trees rustle just out of sight. At the beginning of Until Dawn the sound design (voice acting in particular) is a little tinny sounding but improves drastically throughout the game. I kept my ears pricked the whole time and I'm sure you will too.
But is Until Dawn scary? Surely this is the most important aspect for any aspiring horror title? Fortunately for you it is! The atmosphere from beginning to end is so tense you could cut it with a maniacal murderer's tried and true blade. And it does often get cut by frequent jumpscares, which are a little overabundant (after the third or fourth animal scare it loses much of its bite).
I still found myself having to take breaks now and then, tapping out after a particularly harrowing chase or hide and seek session. For more hardened horror fanatics this will likely be a walk in the slightly spooky park.
If you like horror, if you like interactive movie-type games, you owe it to yourself to add Until Dawn to your library. Are there some problems? Sure, absolutely. The game ends abruptly and some characters are just underutilized, half-baked in their delivery and development. And there's some cheap, cheap, cheap “hold perfectly still” bits at the very end that will likely send some people into a tizzy (highly recommend just setting the controller down folks, at least near the bitter end). This is a blast to play, and one I recommend playing by yourself in the dark on the first go, followed up by a round with uninitiated and terrified friends.