What is it?
A horror in the mould of a teen-slasher film, Until Dawn stars eight teens who revisit their isolated mountain cabin a year after the unsolved disappearances of two of their friends (think David Cage or Telltale but, well, good). What starts as an exercise in rehabilitation descends into chaos as everything goes to hell by way of almost every genre trope in the book, a handful of twists and some genuine shocks. Your role is to guide each of the teenagers through the night, making the gruelling calls that ultimately decide which of the loveable mob make it through to dawn. And, unlike other examples of the interactive-story genre, your decisions actually impact the outcome with thousands of branches and dozens of possible endings lending significant replay value to Supermassive’s delightfully gory work. Sounds good.
Does it work?
Hell yes with bells on. Not only as a genuinely intimidating – often scary, sometimes terrifying – horror stuffed full of scares, atmosphere to die for and a cast of brilliantly written and acted characters (with bundles of telling nods to genre classics that nerds will appreciate to boot) but as an interactive story, too. This is a game of hundreds of choices and seemingly tiny decisions can have devastating implications further down the line. There’s an organic nature to the changing dynamic of the group that prevents the decisions from feeling artificial and obvious and means there’s no sense of your just being along for the ride. You’re in as much control as you can realistically expect and that augments the ever-present sense of peril and disappointment when events go awry.
The story runs beyond the eight-hour mark but doesn’t tire for a second, which is impressive because like any good horror the tension peaks and troughs and you spend much of your time wandering through the delicately crafted scenes. Not that that’s ever a problem though, because Supermassive’s fastidious attention to detail, frankly stunning motion capture and deft scene creation has resulted in a game full of sinister cabins, mines, forests and ramshackle buildings to explore from behind your sofa and genuine characters brought to life through the minute details more often forgotten in games – the way they rub their hands together outdoors, move agonisingly through freezing water or wince in pain. Though they begin life as caricatures, the teens quickly flex their human angles and you’ll come to appreciate their individual quirks, which works to heighten the distress when they’re inevitably killed.
Throughout, player input is restricted to movement, interacting with objects in the scene and making dialogue choices. Quicktime events are inevitable but rare and feed naturally into the nervier scenes and a slick feature that requires you hold the controller still during the most precarious scenes is probably the masterstroke here. Don’t forget to breathe.
Who will like it?
Horror genre fans with more than the slightest scrap of patience. It takes inspiration from films and games equally; its Resident Evil style fixed cameras combined with wink-nudge cinematography and clever sound design all working in lockstep to ratchet the tension and offer a healthy mix of jump scares, gross-out moments and psychological horror. There’s more than a shade of The Shining and The Descent about it too. In short, if you like horror you should like this.
The best survival horror experience since P.T. makes Supermassive’s unlikely game an essential for genre fans or anyone already groaning at the bleak familiarity permeating the end of year. Supermassive may share a stable with Quantic Dreams and Telltale, but Until Dawn is leagues above anything either of them have coughed up and is up there with the best the current generation has to offer.