REVIEW | Choose Your Own Horror
Many car trips and late nights with my reading lamp were spent reading the popular Choose Your Own Adventure book series as a kid. I loved both the agency it gave me to help effect the outcome of the story and the ability to go back and make new choices on a second run just to see what happens. With horror being my favorite genre therein, I enjoyed one about space vampires quite a bit, the first time I saw Until Dawn I knew it was tailor-made for me to enjoy. Though the branching paths are less drastic than I initially suspected, Until Dawn is the first interactive cinematic experience to really nail it on every front.
Games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls have gone down this road before and bravely experimented with creating games that are more like playable movies. While I enjoyed both of them quite a bit, I can attest that they never quite hit the bullseye. Hitting squarely in the middle of that proverbial dart board with Until Dawn, the question then becomes what it did right that the other games lacked. The answer, though not entirely uncomplicated, lies mainly with pacing.
It's hard to know how much control you need to hand over to the player in these games. The problem becomes either letting them do too much or way too little. Finally, in Until Dawn, they managed to keep the game interactive in a meaningful way while keeping it from feeling like it begins to drag. In the slower scenes, you spend most of your time investigating and learning new things, but there are simple visual cues to look for so you don't spend forever searching needlessly. Action scenes have you either shooting or completing quick-time events which, coupled with the knowledge that your character can die forever if you screw up, adds an appropriate amount of tension to the scene. The horror genre also lends itself extremely well to this type of gameplay to the point where it baffles me that this is the first time it has been used.
Until Dawn is a scary game. I'm actually not talking about the jump scares, which I'll get to in a moment, but the tension created by every decision you make potentially leading to a character's untimely demise. I can confirm, in my two play-throughs of this game, that there are some relatively innocuous choices you can make that will ultimately kill one of the characters. This ramps up the risk of making these choices and makes every decision a tough one. The rest of your death possibilities lie in the hands of the quick-time events and the other sections where you need to hold completely still.
The hold still mechanic is brilliant. Use the tilt controls of the controller to make sure you're not moving. I constantly finding myself unconsciously holding my breath while I was doing it as well. I will say that this feature was the one thing that broke a couple of times for me. I actually have it recorded a few times where I was holding still and then it automatically jumped to outside the bar. I suspect, but have been unable to confirm, that this is because I had my PlayStation Camera active during play and the light of my controller was being blocked by my laptop in front of me. I didn't actually lose any characters due to this, but it was still frustrating at the time.
Speaking of the uses for the PlayStation Camera, there is an amazing feature you can turn on for the game that you should know about. Every time the game has a major jump scare, if you have the PlayStation Camera set to active, it will record your reaction to the scare and you can play it back to watch again and again. This was especially fun when my wife, who was unwisely eating chicken wings while watching me play a horror game, dropped her wing in her lap during a jump scare. I still laugh every time I see that video.
The first time I was playing through the game, I speculated wildly about the extent to which the story branches. As mentioned before, I overestimated it a bit, thinking that perhaps you could face a different threat altogether depending on your choices. I was wrong about that fact, but every little choice you can open up something new that you would not have seen otherwise. This can range from entire sequences to bits of dialogue, but it definitely made the replay-value of the game high for me as I have already beaten the around 7 hour game twice and plan on going through at least once more. The visuals of the game are gorgeous as well and really help bring the foreboding atmosphere together. There are some occasional hiccups in the frame rate, but it's excusable considering how good the game looks.
- Permanent deaths increases scariness and thrills
- Really nails pacing
- Outstanding visuals
- PlayStation Camera feature is fun
- Holding still mechanic can glitch
- Occasional frame rate hiccups
- Branching paths less drastic than expected
I really wouldn't like to go into too much more detail about this Until Dawn, because you should really play it yourself. I highly recommend not looking at any guides beforehand if you want to do your own play-through. Be warned however that if you're not a fan of horror, then this may not be the game for you. Several of the character deaths are violent and scary, so make sure you and anyone else in the room is prepared. That being said, as a staunch horror fan myself, I'm thrilled that this game exists and it is one of the best things I've played all year. Maybe just put the chicken wings down before playing.
Final Score: 9.0 (out of ten)