I missed the early 90’s survival horror trend due to the simple fact that I wasn’t born at the time. My first introduction to horror was through Resident Evil 4 and it spawned a lifelong love of horror games for me. Ever since then I have been waiting for horror games to return to their spotlight in the video games circle but they seem to have faded off into obscurity for the time being, relegated to small indie projects and the occasional remake here and there. Amnesia the Dark Descent and the recent revival on indie PC horror gave me hope but we still haven’t really seen any big AAA horror games. Then the trailers for Until Dawn rolled around and I was at once filled with both joy and disappointment. We were finally getting a AAA current gen horror release! However it was going to be a “Narrative-Driven Choice” game. Possibly my least favorite genre of games for multitudinous reasons that I will delve into later. Now before we go any further I do want to say that I am going to be analyzing the performances of the actors and writing heavily because the game is heavily narrative based. It also has aspiration’s of being “cinematic” so I believe we need to start holding games that ascribe that tag upon themselves to the narrative and performance standards of a film.

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The game opens in a remote cabin high up in the Blackwood Mountains of Alberta, Canada where a group of 9 teenagers are celebrating some sort of occasion. They decide to play a prank on one of their friends, Hannah, by having the guy she has a crush on leave her a note saying to meet him in one of the cabin’s rooms. They then precede to all hide in the room and film the occasion and then pop out revealing it to be a prank. Upon this discovery she is understandably overcome with embarrassment and runs out of the cabin whilst her friends try to follow after her and calm her down. Her sister gives chase and they end up at a cliff edge where some unknown force attacks them sending them off the precipice to their apparent doom. Now amongst my group of friends we are giant dicks to each other quite regularly. It’s sort of an endearment thing I guess. Even amongst us though this prank would have been seen as going much to far for something that really isn’t all that funny. I fail to see how getting a friend to undress in front of everyone under the guise of it being some sexual encounter with the guy she has a crush on only to reveal that everyone is watching and filming the whole thing is funny. It feels more like something a group of friends would do to someone they have a grudge against outside said group of friends. Setting this up as a pivotal point in the game and using this scene as a demonstration of how these characters treat their own friends sets them up as extremely unlikable, borderline evil, people which makes it very hard to sympathize with them in the terrible situations they are forced into later in the game.

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Already I have several problems with the game at this point. The first problem is one that I have with many of these “Teen Horror” plots in that they were written, almost certainly, by people in their 30’s, 40’s and possibly 50’s who base their knowledge of how teenagers act on vague, often pessimistic, memories of their high school or college days. In fact upon research Until Dawn was written by a 34 year old and 52 year old man. Let me key you in to something. Teenagers do not say “hashtag” out loud and if they do upon rare occasion it is uttered it is in complete irony or to a chorus of groaning and ridicule by their peers. As a 20 year old who was in fact a teenager only a few short weeks ago I think it’s fair to consider myself something of an expert on the subject. At one point in the game two teenage girls get into something of a “catfight” where one character says something to the effect of “You’ll only be able to get a job on your back” AND I QUOTE “4.0 Honor Roll, bitch”. Let me key you in to another shocking revelation. Teenage girls do not talk like this. In fact in all of my teenage years I never actually witnessed a “catfight” because that isn’t really how teenage girls do things. They are much more passive aggressive and wholly willing to act nice to each others faces and as soon as the other one turns their back, start talking shit. This could have been an interesting way to do things in the game as well as the pause screen shows several meters for each of the characters reflecting how they feel about you. Gauging how each character feels about each other, despite outward appearances, through these meters would have been an interesting reflection of navigating teen relationships. Furthermore amongst my group of friends we are giant dicks to each other quite often. It’s sort of an endearment thing I guess. Even amongst us though this prank would have been seen as going much to far for something that really isn’t all that funny.

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After that scene plays out we are introduced to “The Analyst” who I have problems with as well. He’s supposed to be a stand-in for the games developers who interviews you between chapters. In these interviews he will ask you questions that seem to be intended to change the game to create a more personal experience for you.

The problem is that the developers can only do so much with this. For instance there is a sequence where he hands you a notebook that has a picture of something typically considered “scary” on either side. However none of these things are scary to me so I just kept picking crows. This caused the game to repeatedly shove crows in my face in an attempt to scare me and it really fell flat.

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The game also has an extreme overreliance on jump scares. I am a firm believer that jump scares aren’t the terrible, creatively bankrupt things many people make them out to be but, they should be used sparingly and still take skill to execute. Until Dawn is proof positive of this theory as the only scares it seems to have (save maybe a few minor ones here and there) are jump scares. Even worse not a single one of them made me jump. They are also entirely non-sensical more often than not. For instance at the beginning of the game a character opens a bathroom cabinet to retrieve some batteries or something and a wolverine jumps out of the cabinet at the camera. First off, how did the wolverine get into the cabin in the first place? Second off why was it just chilling in a bathroom cabinet of all places? The entire game just reeks of laziness and little to no conscious thought or effort being put into it.

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The big question to ask with these games is “do the choices actually affect the game in a meaningful way” and the answer is not really. This is probably the seventh or eighth game I’ve heard touted as “the first game where your choices actually matter” but I’m not really sure where people got that impression. I played through the game a full 3 times and the only thing that is affected by your choices is which characters are dead and which ones aren’t. The choices that lead to characters dying aren’t branched out through multiple choices throughout the entire game either. In all but one case it amounts to “choose if this character dies right now”.

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It’s not all bad though. The technology used to create Until Dawn is excellent. Facial capture is on par with Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire and will probably be used as the standard for excellent facial capture moving forward. The lighting in the game is on point as well and it’s front and center in the games visual style. Beyond walking around your only other method of input is to use the right stick to aim some kind of light around. My favorite moment was one that came towards the end of the game where Mike grabs a torch and a sawed-off shotgun and walks through an abandoned asylum. Just watching a character walk around with a shotgun in one hand and a torch in the other as the camera angles cut around the room and the flames cause shadows to dance and flicker around the walls gave me a glimpse of what a modern AAA survival horror game could be. It was beautiful. Unfortunately though this game is not a survival horror game and I never got to use the shotgun outside of quicktime events in cutscenes.

 

Until Dawn
Overall Until Dawn is sloppily written and poorly thought out. It's gameplay is borderline non-existent and boring. Even worse for a Horror game it didn't manage to scare me a single time. It is beautiful though, If nothing else.
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My goal is to make reviews that are more informative than the average IGN trite, but with a sense of humor. Check out my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJqrTyFNAX5EoKv4wM5QooQ