Platform: PlayStation 4
Most horror stuff these days is hard to watch, mainly because it's settled so much into the mundane, you can see twists coming from a mile away. "Oh, the brother was dead this whole time." "Of course the best friend killed them all, because he's a jerk." Blah blah. However, on occasion, you find something that stands out due to its creativity, like It Follows or The Babadook.
And the same applies to Until Dawn as well, a game from Supermassive Games that takes a familiar concept – eight friends in the woods being stalked by a mysterious figure – and turns it on its head thanks to interactivity. Thanks to choices made through a "butterfly effect," you find that each decision is crucial, whether it's ticking off the wrong person or making a poor choice out of a hiding place. Whether these eight people live or die is completely based on these decisions, and while the game takes a little while getting there, it pays off every time you make new decisions.
Welcome To Your Nightmare
The first thing you must understand about Until Dawn is that the characters in the game easily follow the usual horror movie tropes. You've got the best friend too shy to say anything about the girl he's got a crush on; the jock that can't help but be a jerk and still make a play for his former girlfriend (played by Brett Dalton of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – so you know his intentions); and the girl who thinks it's a good idea to take a bath in a pitch black cabin (played by Hayden Panettiere of Heroes and Nashville fame).
On top of this, the reason they gather in the first place – to celebrate the lives of twin sisters who disappeared in the same area a year ago, and were never found – sets up more trouble, and no one sees it coming. In fact, they go as far as to scare each other, despite the trauma that still lies underneath from what happened. If this was a screenplay, you'd groan and think it was the work of a Michael Bay production studio.
And yet, Supermassive Games cleverly makes this cheesiness work in favor of the gameplay. These early decisions set up some big consequences down the line, whether you make a certain friend uneasy with something you've done, or say the wrong thing that leads them to think something else. From there, the game picks up steam as you fight for survival through a series of quick-time sequences.
Though a couple of the QTE-based actions can be tiring (namely keeping the controller absolutely still even when you're shaking from a previously tense moment), the game as a whole plays fundamentally well, and rewards you for exploring and finding new clues to back stories, such as who the killer might be or what happened with the twins that lost their lives the year before. That's not to say you'll ultimately get a happy ending – I've lost my fair share of people over the course of the game, and it was hardly easy on me – but it definitely keeps things interesting, even with multiple playthroughs.
Hey There, Peter Stormare
One other benefit the game has over the usual schlocky material is its high production value. Supermassive Games made the most out of its motion capture studio, and even though some reactions look a little faker than others (intended, perhaps?), they still earn top marks.
Most of that is due to the excellent talent that's on board for the project. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Panettiere, and Dalton lead the cast, and everyone does a pretty good job all around getting into their characters. The killer is quite daunting as well, with a mask that matches up against the fears you highlight earlier in the game – just to add that extra amount of chills to the game.
What really stands out are sessions with the Analyst, a main character in the game suavely played by Peter Stormare (who you may recognize from countless films and TV shows like Fargo to The Blacklist). Even though they somewhat take the story out of exposition for a few minutes (why am I here, and who is Stormare talking to?), it eventually ties together with the story, like with the choices made above. Plus, Stormare plays his role so creepily and cool, you can't help but wonder what part he plays in all this.
The locale is fantastic as well, including a cabin that links up to a nearby remote mine, and other surrounding areas that simply ask, "Say, what the heck are you doing here anyway? At night?!" The weather effects are very cool, as it consistently snows, adding even more challenge if you find yourself in an outside skirmish. Of course, the violence can be a bit shocking at times, but that's horror material for you.
The sound design is really something as well, with plenty of creepy effects that really get your best nerve over the course of the game, as well as solid voicework – even if there is a chuckle or two from the occasionally bad line (They're just there).