The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Announced in 2012 as a Move-based PS3 game, Until Dawn has
undergone a number of delays and design changes during its prolonged
development. Normally, such production woes are a bad omen for the fate of a
game, but Until Dawn doesn't just limp to release like a bloodied survivor; it
emerges as an excellently penned teen horror tale that sets a new standard for
the adventure genre.
Like Telltale's myriad series, Until Dawn is more story than
game. You control a rotating cast of eight endangered teens trying to survive an
ill-fated night at a secluded mountain lodge. There are no puzzles or inventory
management in this adventure – gameplay is comprised entirely of exploring eerie
locales, timing your way through action sequences, and making an endless series
of choices that shape the story. However, thanks to topnotch production values,
Supermassive has polished the formula to a triple-A sheen. Outstanding visuals,
commendable performances from a cast of professional actors, and a mood-setting
dynamic score all bring the characters and environments to life.
But Supermassive's improvements aren't just superficial;
Until Dawn redefines the importance of player choice in story-driven adventure
games. Gone are the closed-loop decisions showing you the immediate
repercussions of your choice before funneling you back onto the main path with everyone
else. Instead, your decisions in Until Dawn continue to reverberate, impacting
later events in complex and unforeseen ways; alienate a friend with your
dialogue choices or actions, for instance, and they may not be there to save
you hours down the road.
Numerous feedback techniques highlight the importance of
your decisions (including the Butterfly Effect menu that tracks various choices
and their consequences), but none are more effective than the swift
decapitation of your character, or any number of equally brutal death sequences.
It's not just smoke and mirrors; while certain characters prove more resilient
than others, every member of the main cast is capable of living or dying based
on how you play, and you can't go back and fix mistakes – the story continually
auto-saves, pushing towards its climatic finale without the chance for checkpoints
or retries. Who lives to see it depends entirely on you.
Your choices wouldn't be particularly meaningful without a
compelling story, but Supermassive excels here as well. Until Dawn lovingly
serves up a multitude of successful horror film locales and motifs, while still
adding a few fun and novel twists to its three-pronged mystery of who is
tormenting our stranded gang and the surrounding area of Blackwood Pines. The
journey is riddled with jump scares throughout; some are well-designed and
expertly paced, while others are of the cheap haunted-house variety, but they equally
had me cringing and uttering obscenities. Later environments like a dilapidated
mine and deserted sanatorium build genuine tension with their creepy
The cast of dumb teens is also rooted in horror clichés
(expect a good helping of groan-worthy sexual innuendos and catty arguments),
but the characters evolve during the game based on how you play them and offer
up chances for redemption (or revenge). Certain character traits are more baked-in
than others (Mike is always going to be a bit of a jerk no matter how noble you
play him) and a few dialogue exchanges feel disjointed, but overall the story
flows remarkably well.
Until Dawn's narrative is augmented by collectibles that
actually matter. Curious players will uncover dozens of clues hidden in the
environments providing insight into the underlying mysteries and the
motivations of key characters. You also find totems that offer tantalizing
glimpses of what may happen to your protagonists, such as Death totems that
foretell a character's demise or Fortune totems that can guide you towards a
beneficial situation. These visions are so quick that I only figured out some
of them in hindsight, but they are engrossing nonetheless and help reinforce
the variety of possible outcomes. By including meaningful collectibles, Until
Dawn also does a nice job of getting you to make the same kind of risky decisions
that foolish teens do in horror films – my curiosity got the better of me on
more than one occasion, and would've had the audience yelling at the screen if
it was a movie.
Until Dawn's mysteries lead you through three-fourths of the
adventure – the home stretch is all about trying to keep your remaining
characters alive. Thankfully, Supermassive implements the best use of
quick-time events I've seen in a game to create nerve-racking action sequences.
I normally loathe quick-time events, but Supermassive eschews pointless button
mashing for timed presses, precision aiming, and on-the-spot decision making,
all of which keep you rooted in the moment. Don't Move prompts are also an
interesting addition, tasking you with holding the controller as still as possible
to hide from stalking predators. Like the branching choices, these sequences
work because your fear of death is genuine; watching a character that you've
played as for hours die because you flubbed an escape sequence is brutal. Death
isn't quite as ever-present as it may seem on a first playthrough, but there's
enough danger to constantly keep you on your toes.
The beginning of Until Dawn boasts that the decisions you
make during the game will craft a unique and personal story. By the time the
credits rolled, I was a believer. Sure, every player follows the same narrative
skeleton, and a few of the more "expendable" characters aren't instrumental to
the ending (I'd also kill for a way to fast-forward scenes on subsequent
playthroughs). However, the script kept me entertained and feeling like my
decisions mattered throughout my 10-hour playthrough. Thanks to some good
twists, a few fake-outs, and limitless jump scares, Until Dawn would make a
solid horror film. As a piece of interactive fiction, however, it's a
remarkable experience that horror fans shouldn't miss.
Email the author Jeff Marchiafava, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.