Let it be known that I haven’t actually finished the game yet. However, I am on the last chapter and know more than enough to write a review on the game(I also already know how it ends. The fact that it has multiple endings, each of which is more or less a slight variation on the others means I can safely write this review without having completed the game.). And I can also recommend this early that you give the game a try should the opportunity arise.
Normally I would start with a tangent about the story, but in the case of this game I kind of feel like that wouldn’t be the way to go because this game is more about how the game plays than the actual narrative of the game. If I had to equate this game to a pre-existing one, it’d be Quantic Dream’s most recent titles Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, and also Telltale Games The Walking Dead. It’s a very cinematic experience with many QTE sequences. The part that truly separates these experiences however is Until Dawn’s branching narrative referred to as “The Butterfly Effect.” For those not in the know, the butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. In the case of Until Dawn, things that seem insignificant at the time could turn out to be major later on. The game makes a note whenever you do something that changes the flow of the story, saying that the “Butterfly Effect has been updated.” This tells you that something you just did is now set in stone and will probably come back to bite you later... or help you depending on the context. As the story progresses of course the impacts of these effects trigger and no new ones are put into motion. The developers were very clever with the save system for the game because you can’t save scum in Until Dawn. You can’t manually save and you can’t reload the last autosave. Your only options are to continue the game or start over from the beginning. This means that you have to live with the consequences of your actions. This is the first time I’ve been forced to play through a choice-driven narrative the way it was intended to be experienced because I am entirely guilty of reloading a previous save to undo a terrible decision. And you know what? I actually felt tense, I felt anxious, it’s great.
The butterfly effect goes perfectly with the narrative of the game because its a horror game, specifically a horror game inspired by 80's slasher flicks. The potential for people to die is everywhere and your decisions will ultimately decide who lives and who dies. The nature of the game tells you how the story will go, basically meaning that nothing is really a spoiler and the story that plays out is almost always unique to the player. I could sit here and tell you how my story has gone, but I won’t out of respect for people who might still consider it a spoiler.
However, I do have a complaint with this game, two actually. The first is that the walking can be kind of... wonky. I’ll tell the character to move forward, but instead they’ll walk to the right, so I have to fight with the controls to get it to do what I want. Thank god I don’t have to control the character during chase scenes. That would go terribly. However, the second complaint is a deadly one unfortunately. Despite the fact that the game gives you the option to choose between traditional controls and motion controls at the start of the game, one motion control is maintained even under the traditional control settings. This of course, is the movement of the Dualshock 4 controller itself. This comes up during various scenes where the game requires the character to hold still for some reason or another. You have to keep the lightbar in the center of a white outline. If it passes through the outline, you fail. Sometimes it lets you retry endlessly, however, later on you won’t get the luxury of surviving that mishap. It’s not a bad feature, it’s just that the controller is really sensitive. Not only that, but the game registers where the controller is before it even starts, meaning that if the controller is tilted the wrong way when that portion starts, it will automatically fail because the controllers position will automatically update the second you even so much as twitch. It’s really finnicky.
That being said, I have nothing but praise for the butterfly effect system and overally narrative. I mean, the narrative does have some hiccups, especially in the latter portion, but the presentation is great and I really hope other developers pick up this system because it works. Heavy Rain would probably have benefited from this a lot.
My Story(Spoilers I guess.)
So now we get to the fun part where I can tell you all about my misadventures throughout the narrative of Until Dawn. Fun fun.
- First things first, Jessica died right away. Got her out of her clothes, then she got pulled through the window, I tripped while trying to cross a log, and she died as a result. The game even showed me why she died. It was that single moment when I slipped that gave that little bastard enough time to rip her jaw off. I felt such despair.
- I picked Josh at the sawblades. I thought “Hey, these two are in love, so I should save Ashley.” So there was some reasoning behind my decision. Does that make me a terrible person? FYI I had no idea that Josh doesn’t actually die and that if you pick Ashley it just switches over to Josh anyway, making it one of the few moments in the game that is actually scripted and only gives you the illusion of choice. Though it does serve to show Ashley where your priorities are. Sadly, that didn’t count for much becaaaauuussseeee.....
- Chris was decapitated by the Wendigo because Ashley refused to let him into the lodge. Why? Because I chose to shoot her in another scene. I don’t know why I did, I guess I just felt like I ultimately had to make a choice and quite frankly Ashley was getting on my nerves. She also said that she didn’t care if she was the one to die so long as Chris lived so I figured “I guess it’s fine then.” Except, when they both survived because the rounds were blanks. And depending on how many stories you’ve read or seen, what typically seemed like a good idea at the time flips on its head because the person that would have died now has to time to reflect on the fact that you were actually willing to kill them... so there’s your best example of the butterfly effect coming back to bite me in the a**.
- Matt died. Poor, poor Matt. I actually kind of liked him. He was a calm, reasonable guy. And I had even more respect for him because he put up with Emily’s self-centered BS the whole time. I didn’t want to save her, but I felt like I had to get her out alive for some reason. Little did I know that you can’t actually save her and if you try to save her twice, Matt dies unless he has the flare gun because if he doesn’t have the flare gun, the Wendigo impales him on a hook. But guess who DID survive?
- I seriously, seriously HATE Emily. I actually wanted her to die. But guess what? This game hates me. Because she has lived up until this point in my story. I’m not going to purposefully get her killed, but this is just ridiculous.
So my current survivors are Mike, Sam, Ashley, and Emily. Not sure who will survive to see the credits roll, but I imagine Emily will be dead.
Calling this game beautiful is an understatement. It’s absolutely gorgeous. These are the kinds of graphics you can achieve with more linear experiences and the sacrifice of frame rate on the PlayStation 4. That being said, it does have a few visual hiccups. The animations, despite having been motion captured, can still be janky at times. Like, something looks really off about how the characters are moving. And while the hair looks great in some shots, at other times it looks horrible under direct light, and how the hair moves makes it very apparent that there aren’t separate strands, it’s just a bunch of stuck together strips that move unconvincingly. Unfortunately the power of the current systems isn’t enough to actually render AND animate thousands of strands of hair.
Until Dawn is a horror game, so naturally the game has sounds specifically tailored to create a very tense atmosphere where even the smallest sound can put you on edge. It didn’t always manage to scare me with its jump scares, but it definitely kept me wondering whether or not there was something waiting for me around the next corner.
The soundtrack is also pretty decent. For the most part it just sits in the background and does its thing, but music, when used correctly, can enhance the atmosphere of the game and it does that here.
The Story Within a Story
Peppered throughout the game in between each chapter are “therapy sessions.” You play as an unnamed character that you assume is you undergoing a psych evaluation. The psychiatrist, Dr. Hill, asks you questions and wants you to answer them honestly. Most of them are about what you fear and some of them are about who you do and do not like. He asks you how you feel. The answers you give him will actually alter the story of the game to minor degrees. For instance, if you answer that you’re scared of crows, crows will show up more often in the game trying to scare you. Your actions during the chapters themselves will influence how he reacts to you during your sessions. If you tell him one thing and then do the opposite in practice, he will noticeably be angry because you weren’t honest with him.
That being said, only a few of your responses actually have any impact. A lot of them don’t do anything. It’s merely meant to screw with your head. And the eventual truth of these sessions probably won’t come as much of a surprise.
Until Dawn is a great game that definitely deserves at least one playthrough. It has its hiccups like any game, but this is the game that has put Supermassive Games on the map. I imagine it’ll be hard for them to top this, but when they do try, and I expect their next game within the next year or two, I seriously hope they continue to use the butterfly effect system because it worked wonders here and only needs a little more refinement to make it perfect. An even stronger narrative would definitely help with that.