Republished on Wednesday, 28th June 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July 2017's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Until Dawn is much better than you may be expecting. The teen horror title – which was originally intended as a PlayStation Move exclusive – has not exactly enjoyed the smoothest path to market, but Sony clearly saw enough potential in the project to keep it alive for this long, and Supermassive Games has delivered. This schlocky spook-fest may not appeal to everyone, but fans of The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain will feel right at home here – and may even find themselves shocked by how successfully it achieves its aims.
You play as a band of boorish adolescents, gathering at a hilltop lodge in chilly British Columbia. The get together marks the anniversary of a tragedy that occurred 12 months prior – and needless to say, there are more catastrophes around the corner. The story's been written by Hollywood hotshots Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, and it really does show; the plot remains silly from start to finish, but it never takes its tongue out of the side of its cheek, and while it draws from movie tropes quite liberally, it subverts them just enough to eschew pure parody.
Not that this is immediately obvious, as the escapade opens like any other slasher. The ensemble of pert posteriors and inflated egos that comprise the cast are intentionally obnoxious, and you'll be calling for their comeuppance right from the word go. But while we wouldn't go as far as to say that the characters become likeable, there's a decent amount of development that goes on here – an advantage of the developer's decision to work with established writers rather than keep the scripting in-house.
In fact the writing is surprisingly good – in a cringe-worthy kind of way. The title throws red herrings out at every opportunity, and these help to keep proceedings interesting over the course of the campaign's eight or so hour running time. More importantly, the twists are multilayered, and, unlike a Quantic Dream game, aren't subject to the same enormous leaps of logic. It's still ridiculous at points, but there's method in its madness, and it offers a much more complex tale than you may be anticipating. Considering the branching paths, this is something of an achievement.
Of course, cause and effect is at the very core of the game, and is one of its major selling points. With the gameplay very much built from Telltale's blueprints, it also happens to be its most interesting aspect. But while you won't be adapting the story in its entirety, this is smartly implemented. A seemingly minor decision resulting in a cut on a protagonist's head can come back to haunt you hours later, while the mortality of the main characters is a very real concern; our initial playthrough ended with a single survivor, and after two complete runs we're still not entirely sure how to keep everyone alive.
Titles like Beyond: Two Souls cheated in this department, but Supermassive Games has clearly worked hard to make sure that you feel some impact from your actions – and these aren't always obvious right away. Our second playthrough unearthed entire cut-scenes, dialogue decisions, and even complete gameplay sequences that we weren't even aware existed on our first attempt, and while you can see the seams if you really search for them, there's definitely more consequence here than in most comparable games. It's on a par with Heavy Rain at least.
Unfortunately, while it shares positives with the legendary PlayStation 3 adventure, it also possesses some of its more negative attributes. The acting – provided by household names like Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek – is good, but the developer's opted to shoot the performances individually, while the body capture has been implemented after the fact. Consequentially, the facial animations don't always pair properly, leading to some L.A. Noire-esque uncanny valley. Moreover, you never quite get that camaraderie between the stars that was so impressive in The Last of Us.
It's still a handsome looking game, though – and we're not just talking about the cheerleader physiques and bulging biceps. Built using Guerrilla Games' underutilised Killzone: Shadow Fall technology, the title has atmosphere in spades, as you traverse sub-zero vistas and grungy underground caves. The performance isn't perfect – framerate judders are prevalent throughout – but given the generally glacial gameplay style, these aren't a great problem. The same can be said for the character movement, which can be woolly and imprecise in places.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect is just how much mileage the developer gets out of its fixed camera angles. There are some really great depth of field effects which bring objects in both the foreground and background into focus, and the developer is able to lead your eye without taking away control. This is important, particularly when it comes to the plentiful jump scares, as you'll frequently find yourself walking into these unwittingly. The game will even capture short clips of these moments – Cheap Shots – using the PlayStation Camera if you want it to.
Of course, it is worth stressing that this is not a Silent Hills-esque psychological experience – although the inclusion of a shrink played by Peter Stormare does adapt the experience ever so subtly depending on your fears. But while it doesn't ever get under your skin, the string-driven score and moody lighting helps to create an unsettling atmosphere, which will have you on edge enough to ensure that the aforementioned jump scares do their job. Many of these are cheaper than those old YouTube shock videos, so brace yourself because they come thick and fast.
Naturally, these aren't as successful second time around, but the game does have decent replay value. In addition to wanting to see all of the ways that the story splits, there are a surprising number of clues and items that you'll collect along the way – each of which is fully modelled, and has a purpose in the overarching plot. In fact, Totems even give you a glimpse into the future, so that you can be on your guard, and collecting all of these unlocks an additional cut-scene which gives a little more insight into the narrative. The handful of 'Making Of' videos are merely the icing on the cake.
When you're investigating the abovementioned collectibles, you can choose to use motion controls or the analogue stick. In fact, the DualShock 4 is used to its fullest potential here, with the touchpad employed to turn pages, and the gyroscope offered as an optional torch control. We actually preferred the gestures over the more traditional alternative, but neither solution is foolproof, and it maybe feels like the studio should have picked one or the other and polished it up a bit more, rather than attempting to accommodate both styles at once.
Until Dawn is a pleasant surprise, and something that fans of interactive stories will really appreciate. As a schlocky horror it's a success, but its fiction actually goes beyond simple slasher – even if it remains intentionally silly throughout. The sometimes sloppy controls will irritate, while the performance capture could have been better, but neither of these issues are nightmarish enough to pull you out of the popcorn flick plot, which is buoyed by the impressive, if not gigantically impactful, butterfly effect. A ridiculous romp is what was promised, then, and this one will keep occupied all night long.