Hands-on Preview: Until Dawn

The preview code we were shown consisted of roughly the first quarter of the game, with a introduction of all the major players in the game, a deep look at some of the gameplay mechanics and a hefty progress into the main story, which took us from the prologue that set up the plot until the first major ‘moral choice’. Until Dawn is set for release on the 25th of August exclusive to PS4.

Until Dawn had only really been a mere blip on my radar going into the final few months of the year; I’m still somewhat preoccupied with some of the titles released earlier this year (*coughs* The Witcher) and I have a Christmas list longer than Dudley Dursley would likely have. But having being able to experience the opening couple hours of the teenage survival horror game, I’m considering making a change to my already packed gaming schedule (and most probably, my expected uni grades).

We must begin with gameplay, which in games such as these is always a topic of debate. This is one of those interactive experiences, a reinvention of the point-and-click-adventure, filled with exploring, examining, quick-time events and decision making. The game boasts (literally boasts, even the character’s mention it) a ‘Butterfly effect’ decision making system where every action you do, regardless of how seemingly insignificant it may seem, can influence an event later in the game. Some effects are immediately obvious, and are evident in even the environment and contextual dialogue but obviously, we did not get an opportunity to see the full effects of our decisions within the demo. I suspect though that the real big decisions, the ‘moral dilemmas’, will be easy to spot. Nothing really new is introduced from this perspective but the controls are rather intuitive and don’t drastically hinder immersion. And that’s about all I have to say, if you’ve played any of Telltale’s games, you’ll know what the gameplay is all about. To Until Dawn’s credit, it does not pretend to be anything else, which in my opinion was the downfall of The Order 1886.SCREEN_DAWN_0001_2Story-wise, I have some concerns that if it doesn’t stray at all from a well-trodden path, the story could eventually become a little bland. The initial couple of hours were rather engaging and I was left wanting more. This is partially due to the episodic-like storytelling approach with a very HBO-title opening credit sequence and ‘previously on Until Dawn’ intros at the beginning of each chapter. However, I speculate that there may be some deviation from generic horror narrative structure, with many mysteries surrounding the characters, the setting, some of the supernatural occurrences and of course, that creepy, psychologist guy who you psycho-analyses you at the end of each chapter, appearing to cheekily craft your perfect nightmare.

Additionally, there are some moments of self-awareness and it comes close to breaking the fourth wall, which I always appreciate. For the moment though, it seems to fit a mould, down to the inclusion of environmental story-telling, which is frustratingly sub-par compared to the likes of BioShock or The Last of Us. I’d love to see the story overall take a dramatic twist or turn – like Cabin in the Woods did for those that have seen that film – but I appreciate it’s becoming increasingly harder to come up with anything terribly original. I sense that I could like Until Dawn’s story-telling, but I could only love it if it manages to do something a little different.

On to presentation, of which I too was a little mixed on. The game takes place, at least for the first couple of hours, around what looked to be a semi-abandoned ski resort and surrounding forested mountainside. Sadly, this means little environmental variation, moving from wooden building, to snowy forest, and back again. Every frame was dark, often with only two-thirds of the screen illuminated, which added to the invariability, rendering even a mine tunnel very similar to the interior of the lodge. In the later stages of the game, it’d like to see is progress elsewhere, or at least having something else filling the background other than snowy forested or wall-paneled backdrops.SCREEN_DAWN_0004_5Graphics wise, it’s up to scratch, no complaints there. The motion capture was spot-on most of the time, especially in the case of Peter Stormare’s character, in which case I felt it particularly contributed to the character. I should note however that I did notice a little sluggishness in the frame rate on a few occasions, but there was only a split second loading screen early in one of the later chapters of the demo. These are two minor complaints that I would hope would be fixed before release, but would be happy to look beyond anyhow. Sound, immensely important to the survival horror genre, is well designed and contributes to the suspense of the game. Some rockier tunes are complimentary and I appreciated the use of diegetic sound with one scene’s music coming from Jessica’s phone in-game. Pretty neat.

You can’t say this for every game out there, but I have to give credit to Until Dawn for not pretending to be anything it isn’t. It is openly and wholeheartedly mimicking a goofy teenage-horror flick, filled with conventional horror tropes, archetypal characters, somewhat predictable jump scares and of course, mounds of sexual innuendo and horniness. There’s seemingly lots of inspiration drawn from games such as Silent Hill and Alan Wake, but obviously films like The Evil Dead and Saw, making the games plot, style and characters feel very familiar.

This has both promising and concerning implications. If Until Dawn is able to lay the foundations of a typical, promiscuous, teenage horror romp, but edge it in an original direction, this is absolutely a game I could get behind. I want the record to state that I’ll be picking this up and remain hopeful, but I suspect it will not be so ambitious and show more potential then it delivers. However, you ought to add Supermassive Games along with Ready at Dawn to a list of promising new Sony devs to watch!

Until Dawn was originally conceived as a PS3 exclusive with emphasis on Move support, an idea that Supermassive Games thankfully decided to can. Now releasing for the PS4, Until Dawn instead utilizes a very heavy QTE and exploration focus, something akin to Heavy Rain mixed with Telltales’ Walking Dead. Until Dawn looks to capture the spirit of old school horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or Friday the 13th, mixing little nuances and details that those classic films had into the game. Unfortunately, Until Dawn carries it’s influences on it’s sleeves, picking up both the good and the very bad of horror films. With more genre bending and trope defying horror films like Cabin in the Woods and It Follows released, we’ve come to expect a bit more intelligence and edge to modern day horror media, but Until Dawn is firmly stuck in a 1980’s state of mind.

Which isn’t all too bad, since when do we ever get a horror game that’s this ‘movie-like’? Playing more of a cinematic experience akin to Heavy Rain, it helps that the cast is led by several professional actors. Peter Stormare is a very welcome addition as a mentally deranged psychologist, and Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Rami Malek (Short Term 12) lead the cast of teenagers stranded in the mountains. If there’s a downside, it’s that there’s no real main character. While this is fantastic in setting up a ‘anyone can die’ scenario, it’s hard to really bond with any one character too much as not enough development is given, and not enough time is spent with episodes jumping between character perspectives quite quickly.SCREEN_DAWN_0005_10For yes, it’s another classic ‘promiscuous teenagers stuck in isolation whilst being picked off one by one by a psychotic and not quite human force’. A group of friends gather on the anniversary of the mysterious deaths of their twin friends. Little do they know that some exterior force has an ulterior motive for them.
On the plus side, the snowscape setting that Supermassive provides us with is actually a welcome addition, as we don’t usually get to see horror films utilise cold environments. While our playthrough was sizeable, I’d love to see more unique elements like frostbite or cabin fever to come into play as these characters get more and more desperate. The game is framed as something like a TV mini-series (As Ewan has already eloquently pointed out), with ‘previously on’ videos to backend each episode, and a quite memorable theme that’s akin to something out of True Detective season 1.

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Until Dawn does have a Native American influence to it which I found quite refreshing, but I hope that it doesn’t rely on old cliches and instead opts to explore some of the rich cultural heritage that the indigenous are known for.SCREEN_DAWN_0001_2On a presentation note I noticed severe framerate drops especially with scene transitions; these were brief but they dropped to single digits at times which was definitely a concern. The facial animations and lip sync were impressive, but I found some severe uncanny valley with the facial animations comparing to game environments and other animations.

The lighting effect is probably the most impressive thing from Until Dawn presentation wise. The mood is immediately set with some dark, foreboding lighting that really is reminiscent of older horror films, this time for the better. In a neat gameplay twist, some objects (which can be inspected) aren’t actually readable in the wrong angle, one note had to require picking up and inspecting in a different location in order to let the light shine on it, which I found to be quite a neat trick.

With all the comparisons to Heavy Rain it probably will not surprise you to know that Until Dawn is very very heavy on QTE’s. This is a good thing, as I find QTE’s either should not exist in a game entirely or form the crux of the gameplay. QTE’s litter the high octane action events, which usually boil down to chasing someone or being chased. QTE’s are easy enough, but in one of many choices, you can sometimes opt to take the ‘fast’ way, which results in tougher QTE’s but a higher chance of success to reaching your goal, or the ‘safe’ way, which results in easy QTE’s but higher risk of getting caught. It’s just one of the many, many choices that Until Dawn gives you.SCREEN_DAWN_0002_8The biggest selling point will undoubtedly be the immense amount of choices you make. In what’s called the ‘Butterfly Effect System’, SMG have created a labyrinth of choices that will effect the entire game (supposedly). We saw a lot of these butterfly effects in action in only a couple of hours of gameplay, but whether this will alter the entire ending as a whole is a mystery. I quite like the idea of having different endings and different killers and different suspects, but I can see the game pulling a Heavy Rain or Walking Dead (S1) and having one definitive ending with choices only changing things in between.

Obviously there will be a ‘good ending’ and a ‘bad ending’, with certain decisions leading to the saving of certain characters and exploring the environment leading to optional clues that will solve the mystery, but right now it looks like the game will have a set in stone main reveal of the murderer, which seems a bit disappointing.

In one of the more refreshing segments in Until Dawn, episodes are broken up by sessions with a psychologist, played by the ever welcome Peter Stormare. Not only is Stormare’s acting both unsettling and freakishly delightful, but these sessions alter the actual game. By forcing you to pick between your biggest fears and phobias in these sessions (rats or spiders? Gore or terror?) the game then utilises your choices in game. You can choose what’s chasing you (a killer clown or a scarecrow?) and possibly even change whether or not the killer is human or supernatural. It’s a gameplay mechanic I haven’t seen in a game since Silent Hills: Shattered Memories and I do have to applaud the unique way that Until Dawn uses it.

Until Dawn didn’t quite dispense of all the Move support. A lot of emphasis is given to the trackpad, and one of the more clever mechanics requires holding the controller as still as possible in order to pass certain events. While this can be easily bypassed by simply putting the controller on a flat surface, I find the game works best when you’re hiding from the killer, requiring you to hold the controller as still as possible in order to not get caught.SCREEN_DAWN_0000_6Unfortunately, a lot of scares are quite cliched. The false jumpscare, one of the worst cliches of horror films are in abundance here. On the plus side, this ties into the often hilarious ‘scare cam’ that has the PS4 camera record certain scripted jumpscare moments, then allowing you to watch and share your reactions online. I thought this was a hilarious and very refreshing addition to the game and almost makes the jumpscare bits a little more forgiving.

It’s unfortunate that not enough horror moments were in the actual exploration parts of the game. Where games like Eternal Darkness really messed with the players, I would have loved to see a bit more trickery and illusion whilst exploring the setting. It would have broken the tedium of walking, talking and exploring a bit to have the game play a scare on the players, but it seems the biggest scares are limited to scripted events unfortunately.

Overall Until Dawn looks like either a sleeper hit or a miss. The concept is interesting, the lighting and acting are top notch, the psychology and the scare cam moments are definite wins. But the cliched dialogue, the weak scares and the overall tedium of exploring and uninspired QTE’s seem to drag the experience down. I can’t wait to see how my choices effect the game as a whole, and Until Dawn is a definitely unique entry into gaming, but whether it’ll be a successful one is up for debate.