I haven’t done one of these in a while, but then again it’s been a while since I’ve played a video game with enough comparable elements to review it as I would a film. UNTIL DAWN is an absolute treat for horror fans. Who wouldn’t want the chance to influence the shape of a horror story as they take part in it?
The characters are all horror stock archetypes to an extent – the prom queen, the jock, the bitch – but all have a little something extra about them, and the decisions they make (and there are many multiple paths) all feel right for the characters. The motion-captured performances coming from among others HEROES’ Hayden Panettiere and bad guy extraordinaire Peter Stormare are pretty solid, and ever-so-slightly-uncanny eyes aside, the technology for realising convincing humans in video games is getting there. I don’t really think we needed their personalities to be summed up with three adjectives pinned to the screen when they are first introduced since we, ya’know, spend a lot of time with them to discover how they behave for ourselves, but it’s a minor misstep.
Even if you’re well-versed in horror enough to spot the many many references to specific examples of the genre, you should still be drawn in. There are nods to everything from SAW to HALLOWEEN and EVIL DEAD, but they’re not explicit steals, and a lot of these recognisable moments have been cleverly tweaked. The main story – following the aftermath of a tragic accident in a mountainside holiday lodge in Canada – borrows from tropes of teen slasher and asylum horror and later supernatural and folkloric horror as well, making for an entertaining scare concoction.
You can play Until Dawn in a meta and self-aware fashion to an extent, but the game does understandably make the characters go down certain paths as we wouldn’t have a plot without characters making stupid horror movie character decisions. So basically you’ve got the choice of making stupid horror movie character decisions or really stupid horror movie character decisions. It’s not always obvious which is which and you often have to choose fast. I was kicking myself after making my favourite character survive until the final act only to lose them after making them do something no sane person would do in their situation on my first playthrough. Second time round I managed to cut the death toll from five to three, so I must be doing something right!
There’s also plenty of SCOOBY DOO-style sleuthing and improbable (yet entertaining) dialogue to go with it. We don’t quite get “jinkies” but we do get a “holy cannoli” in response to a shocking revelation. It’s probably not advisable to dwell on the dialogue too much, but the characters are fit for purpose.
I can certainly see myself playing through the game (which amounts to seven or eight hours) again to get a few more of these guys through their waking nightmare. I can also see co-writers Larry Fessenden (who also stars) and Graham Reznick (who also worked in the sound department) do more of these. Whether they will continue this particular tale and make use of however many characters survived your actions (as they did with MASS EFFECT) or just apply similar mechanics to different horror sub-genres remains to be seen. I’d whole-heartedly recommend you experience Until Dawn yourself and see how much it compels and scares you. SSP