At the Blackwood Pines Lodge, clichés paint the walls like so much blood and viscera. The prepared and the unwary alike risk debilitating injury from skewed tropes and reanimated plot devices, but know that there are mysteries and unexpected horrors haunting the shadows as well. Not everything is as it seems.
Until Dawn might just be the video game love letter that every B-movie loving horror fan has been waiting for. It artfully embraces and twists almost everything we have come to love about knife-wielding maniacs, isolated mountain cabins, Native American curses, and groups of teens splitting up to become convenient stab-attracting targets for a gore greedy audience.
The set-up is about a rote as they come, ticking Horror 101 checkboxes with machine-like efficiency. A group of eight attractive teens get together at an isolated mountain lodge, one year after the mysterious disappearance and suspected deaths of two of their friends – twin sisters who thanks to an ill-conceived prank disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. From here, the usual cat fights, flirtations, and conflicts unfold. But soon things take a serious turn for the worse, as the group separates and a masked maniac begins to hunt.
Thankfully, there is far more going on here than a simple pastiche of horror movie plot devices. The real joy of Until Dawn is in the discovery and dealing with the very permanent consequences of your choices and actions. Oh, there will be blood! As the story progresses, you will control each of the eight core characters. Your actions and how you interact with the friends will affect the disposition and relationships of various members of the group, and will also affect future events.
These ‘Butterfly Effects’ are at the core of the Until Dawn experience, and may be minor things like choosing to throw a snowball or ask about an old baseball bat. Every time you make one of these decisions, you will be alerted with an on screen prompt, but there’s no indication of when or how this choice will manifest.
Reinforcing this concept are Totems. Found throughout the game, Totems provide the tiniest of glimpses of a future event, choice, or outcome. This might be the death of a character, a glimpse of a potential danger, or a clue about a future action. They are helpful, but you’ll need to be observant in order to make full use of the clues they provide. As a game mechanic they’re interesting, as a tension builder they are sublime!
As you move through the game, you’ll begin to unravel the mystery of not only the psycho, but of what happened a year ago with the missing twins. You also discover a darker and far more horrific history of the mountain, thanks to clues scattered that fill in the backstory. While these are completely optional, they are well worth the time it takes to find them. They provide a depth to the experience, and can yield useful information.
The core game plays like many traditional third-person survival horror games in the early Resident Evil vein, with the horror viewed from a fixed camera position that changes for each scene. This does help to build tension and sets up some fantastic scares, but oft times is irritating just as it was back in the genre’s heyday.
However, the team at Supermassive Games have managed to take another much-maligned game mechanic and breathed new life into it. Quick Time Events in Until Dawn are fairly common, but unlike in other games, they not only provide a welcome change of pace, but they create real tension thanks to game-changing consequences.
Failing a QTE might result in the immediate death of your current character, or the death of another character later down the line. There are no redo’s, the consequences are severe, and you’ll have to deal with them. No one is safe. Anyone can die. Who, when, and if is entirely in your hands.
Until Dawn is gratuitously violent, horrific, and frightening. Too often those scares rely on essentially yelling “BOO!” when you’re not expecting it, but it’s almost always artfully done, and perfectly timed.
The stunning graphics, top-notch acting, and careful attention to detail all help to build a game world that is easy to get lost in. What starts as a typical slasher becomes something much darker and far scarier at the mid-point, and over the course of the game’s 10 ‘episodes’, you’ll find a story that embraces everything that horror fans adore about great B movies. In the wrong hands this could have spelled disaster, but cult horror legend Larry Fessenden has taken the old and well-trodden, and with it created something surprisingly unique and immensely entertaining.