It’s easy to get wrapped up in a horror movie when the characters are making bad decisions. They run upstairs when they should run outside, they go to check on a noise when you know they shouldn’t. It’s an endless cycle of poor planning. With Until Dawn, you’re in the middle of a horror movie, and you’re the one making the decisions, and everything you do effects how the game will play out for the rest of your time playing.
The demo I played began explaining the controls, which are simple enough. Walk with the L stick, inspect objects with R2, and make your decisions with the right stick. To speed things along, events were simulated up until that point, events that included the group of teenagers arriving at their cabin in the woods, finding a severed pig head on a spike with a sign reading “Welcome Back” (perhaps a sly nod to the game’s replayability?), and then running into two of our blood-soaked friends going on and on about a killer.
After that, the two characters I was playing as, Mike and Emily, found themselves cornered on a cliff by a pack of wild elk. It’s hard to tell if they were just normal elk or supernatural elk, they did have green eyes after all and were trying to force me over the edge, which perhaps is where some of the smart planning of Until Dawn comes in – everything is part of the scare experience. Though I tried to walk through the crowd of deer, one of the more rambunctious ones forced me over the side where my decision making began. Should I jump up or climb left? I jumped up, where I was immediately prompted to press another button to grab the ledge. It’s quick too, you have maybe a second to press whichever button flashes on screen. Mess up and you’re gonna fall to your doom.
Once I managed to get back up the cliff, we walked over to a hillside towards a park ranger tower. The gameplay at this moment feels a lot like the original Resident Evil games, shifting camera angles and slow moving protagonists, plus items of interest get a nice glitter to them in the distance. After being startled by a motion sensor light, we ascended the tower’s multiple levels and the cold wind continued to snap across our faces. Once we got to the top, we found the power to be out, despite the motion sensor light working at the bottom. I walked around and flipped a breaker switch and began to call for help. Naturally, the receiver on the other end couldn’t understand my pleading screams. Following three attempts to explain what was going on, he finally understood, which is when the killer began banging on the door.
Honestly, in that moment, I didn’t know what to do. It’s also indicative of maybe the major problem with Until Dawn, though it hinges on player choice and participation, you still don’t have total control over your character’s movements and actions at all times, only when prompted. The killer eventually got wise and decided to just force us out, by snapping the support cables of the tower which made us fall into a nearby mine. Down in the mine, Emily was pretty frantic, and though my attempts at saving her failed I wasn’t ready to give up. In lieu of trying to reach for her arm again, I jumped to a nearby clearing, but that was a bad decision. The tower tumbled after my own shift and fell even further down into the mine. Emily definitely didn’t make it.
Until Dawn is not for everyone, but it is for me. The game is a living horror movie. It’s an extended version of a slasher, warts and all. I can’t tell if it was a conscious choice to have hamfisted overacting and corny dialogue or if it was just a product of making this type of scenario, but it’s definitely cheesy at times. Visually Until Dawn has its moments, though some environments look better than others. It’s a fun little game that certainly had me on the edge of my seat. Hopefully it can sustain that tension for the entire play through and not go stale.