There hasn’t been a video game in recent memory that has left me as conflicted as Until Dawn has.
And just like my opinion, developer Supermassive Games’ maiden horror voyage on PlayStation 4 is in a constant state of flux; teetering back and forth between delivering on its lofty promise of being one of the most accomplished experiences on a current-generation system and falling flat on its face despite its protracted and well-documented development cycle.
Standing in line for Until Dawn on Sony’s floor at E3, I caught fleeting, and ultimately disconcerting, glimpses of what lay ahead by what the person in front of me was playing; incredibly lifelike facial animations, frighteningly claustrophobic environments, a distinct, foreboding atmosphere – all punctuated with cumbersome quick-time events and arbitrary choices that served only to revoke the solid foundation that had been laid before it. A series of high notes that begged for more exposition; for more gameplay.
In typical ‘teen slasher’ fashion, the 25-minute section of the game I finally played – taking place a mere five hours before dawn – revolved about the amorous relationship of Matt and Emily – just two of the game’s bulging roster of eight characters. Upon witnessing a slightly intimate moment between Emily and that of another character, Mike, Matt’s now-distrust of his girlfriend subsequently plays an intrinsic part in how your decision-making works out during the section. Naturally that’s not the only dilemma to contend with as an enigmatic maniac wrecks havoc on the snow-trodden environment, closing in on each of the characters at every turn. Employing a mechanism not too dissimilar to that of the Walking Dead’s ‘’He/she will remember that’’, the aptly-named ‘Butterfly Effect’ shifts the game’s narrative depending on how you play the game. Despite its proclamation, however, my differing choices all seemed to lead towards the same climax, which could perhaps be due to the demo’s limitations and not being able to play out the story fully to see its effect.
Until Dawn’s graphical proficiency is, at times, staggering. From the on-point facial animation and emotive response to the immaculately crafted and distinctly brooding world that’s been constructed, developer Supermassive Games has pulled out all the stops to ensure that its maiden PS4 title has the visual prowess necessary to engage fans of narrative-driven adventures. It’s simply steeping from head-to-toe with the sort of unsettling atmospheric tone found housed only in some of more revered horror titles in gaming antiquity. But while Until Dawn can do little wrong in the visual and atmosphere-moulding department, its gameplay – or lack thereof – is a little more open to interrogation. An exact mix of erroneous button prompts and quick-time events – in amidst of some competent old-school walking mechanics – that feel as though they stifle and cheapen all the work that’s gone before them, Until Dawn’s core gameplay choice is at best a misused mechanic that seems to have the opposite impact to what it anticipates. While the game is ostensibly an interactive narrative-driven adventure, the employment of moment-to-moment control prompts – the likes of which worked well for Beyond: Two Souls amongst others – just doesn’t feel completely home here. Maybe it’s because their use oftentimes manages to disjoint and breakup the experience, or perhaps it’s due to some innate wish for complete control in these sort of horror games. It’s hard to pin down.
It speaks volumes for what the game actually does right when I’m actively disgruntled at the fact that another quick-time event has reared its head. The carefully constructed atmosphere, fixed camera angles, (reminiscent of classic Resident Evil) and plodding pace/movement are all aspects that could shine much more brightly if given the chance with more actual gameplay time rather than being interrupted at every juncture by an arbitrary cutscene. Of course, the sense of urgency inherent with the fact that Until Dawn takes place entirely over the course of one night could potentially derail an attempt to flesh out the experience more but we’ve seen the likes of Resident Evil 2 achieve that with a level of finesse that cemented its legacy of one of the best video games of the late 1990s. Potential hyperbole aside, it’s important to remember that a 25-minute segment was all that was available on Sony’s floor at E3 but even then my colleague Kyle Prahl echoed the same trepidation with the distinct lack of exploratory gameplay when he previewed a different section of the game at PlayStation Experience last December.
That being said, Until Dawn’s reliance – if you so choose – on motion control that actually feels intuitive when you’re faced with sections of obstruction is commendable at the very least. And certainly the minute-to-minute feel to the game’s decision-making may be welcomed by a whole host of gamers who found the likes of Heavy Rain to be a refreshing experience. Unlike Quantic Dream’s frankly excellent interactive journey, however, Until Dawn revolves around having a sort of B-movie teen slasher vibe – a genre traditionally satiated with clichés, cheesy set pieces and an overall lack of finesse. Whether its premise can prove to be as engaging as Heavy Rain’s obtuse murder mystery is a matter worth taking into consideration, especially when the game’s success seemingly hinges on how its story is delivered. Even so, this is the Guildford-based developer’s first real attempt at an interactive story-driven adventure so without seeing the whole picture it’s nigh-impossible to comment definitively on how well the narrative will play out.
It all leaves my opinion on Until Dawn at a decidedly awkward juncture, ultimately unsure of both its potential and indeed execution. The hallmarks of an effective horror experience – claustrophobic environments, stunning graphical luster, foreboding atmosphere, and sharp, lingering score – are all here in abundance, but whether or not the incessant inclusion of quick-time events and button prompts will cohesively shape the narrative or render it useless and ineffective is the main concern that can be leveled at Supermassive Games’ title ahead of its August 25 release. There’s an awful lot to be positive about and only time will tell if Sony has another smash hit on its hands for the patently barren second half of the year. We’ll have to wait and see.
What’s your opinion on Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn ahead of its August release? Let us know in the comments section below and don’t forget to stay tuned to PSU for more E3-related coverage during the week.