Publisher Sony Developer Supermassive Games Format PS4 Release August 28
Horror’s a fine fit for a Heavy Rain- style game, and teen slasher horror seems to fit the mould even better. While Until Dawn was beaten to the whole jump-scares-and-QTEs thing by The Walking Dead, tension in Telltale’s game comes from the fear of a known quantity: shuffling undead that bite and kill indiscriminately. In Until Dawn, the fear stems from ignorance – you don’t know what’s out there, what it wants, or what form the attack will come in, if it comes at all. The fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.
It’s thoroughly effective, propping up the early game as a group of eight teens head up to a mountain-top estate to mark the one-year anniversary of a tragedy. That awful event plays out in the prologue: a cruel prank on Hannah, then the youngest of the group, sees her flee the cabin into the night. Neither she nor her sister Beth, who chases after her, are seen alive again.
By the group, anyway. We look on as both fall to their apparent doom, and even have a hand in it with the first of many major, fatal and, in retrospect, probably ill-advised decisions. As we hang over the edge of a cliff, a ledge in one hand and a sister in the other, we’re given a choice: let go of the handhold and fall together, or let your sister go and take the hand being offered by the creepy guy in the gas mask. Not every decision you’ll face is of this magnitude, or this clear-cut – someone dies after we opt to take a slow, safe route instead of a risky jump, for instance, and arrive on the scene too late to save them – but terrible choices are a common theme. You’re rarely granted the opportunity to keep everyone safe, and choices are born of emotion rather than logic, with characters saved or left to die based on which of them you like the most.
Or which you hate the least. The prologue sets you up to dislike those involved, and while you’ll naturally form a sort of bond with the ones you keep alive as events progress, early on there’s little to get attached to – the girls are catty and the boys are idiots, all pointless bickering and lame flirtation. Sam (played by Hayden Panettiere, AKA Heroes cheerleader Claire Bennet) is perhaps the sole exception. She’s the one dissenting voice in the opening prank and someone who manages to not get on your nerves by simply not being around for most of the opening section, slipping off for a bath and leaving you to be irritated by the rest of the group.
You’ll control them all over the course of the game, and while each of the ten chapters tends to focus on one or two of the group’s members, there are some smart moments where the character under your control suddenly switches. When a boy and girl go to explore a particularly spooky part of the house, one of them wimps out, and you suddenly find yourself taking the lead with their accomplice. A menu screen tracks each of the party’s fluctuating emotions and relationships with each other; it’s a rather contrived way of conveying the group’s shifting mental states, as is the way such changes are signalled by an impossible-to-miss text popup in the top corner of the screen. The changes themselves can be a little puzzling, too. When one of the girls makes a successful escape from a pursuer by zip-lining down the side of a mountain, it’s only fitting that her bravery increases, but why does she suddenly become less charitable as well?
There’s plenty more artifice in what is, for a game of this type, a remarkable number of menu screens. In addition to emotional changes, Until Dawn also tracks collectibles – clues to its multiple mysteries. Hunting them down gives you something else to do while waiting for the next jump scare or grisly death scene, but rarely yields more than a brief heads-up on a story event that’s going to happen whether you see it coming or not. You’ll also find totems around the place, and gazing into their mouths reveals a snippet of a scene that may or may not come to pass depending on the choices you make along the way. Even your decisions themselves are tracked, the big, story-swinging moments signalled by the outline of a butterfly and stored permanently in a submenu. It’s a design choice geared towards repeat playthroughs – Supermassive says the game has hundreds of potential endings – but on your first run it merely adds an unwelcome air of contrivance. There are no Telltale-style red herrings here, no pretending you’ve just made a significant choice that’s nothing of the sort. The instant you make a decision of consequence, you are told.
Despite that, there’s an awful lot to like. Yes, one of the group’s cattiness towards an ex’s new flame may rankle, but that still doesn’t meant you want to see their eyes gouged out. Each gruesome death brings a sharp pang of regret and leaves you wondering if, and how, it might have been avoided. You may never fully warm up to the beleaguered band of millennials at the heart of the story, but they’re certainly believable, their lines well written and finely delivered. The pacing – of tense, cautious exploration punctuated by jump scares, heart-in-mouth chases and grisly set-pieces – is well judged, and while events take a predictable left turn in the final act and the game’s brand of horror turns from slasher to splatter, it’s gripping stuff throughout.
It will take a certain kind of obsessive personality to see every possible ending, but a second playthrough does yield dramatically different results (not just when you reach the end of the game, but during it too), while still leaving scope for improvement in a third. Slasher horror is meant to be disposable, throwaway stuff, but Until Dawn both begs to be revisited and rewards those who choose to. This group of kids may not all deserve saving, but it’d take a cold heart indeed to not even want to give it another go.
Each gruesome death brings a sharp pang of regret and leaves you wondering if it might have been avoided