Un­til Dawn

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PS4

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

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