The Guilty Pleasures of Until Dawn
What happens if a B-movie becomes a triple-A game? PS4's tense slasher has the answer...
There's a risk of being too snobbish when evaluating Until Dawn, and there's a risk of not being snobbish enough.
As its creators at Supermassive Games proudly explain, this is an interactive slasher film inspired by the likes of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, inheriting all of the foibles and peculiarities of a movie genre that has fallen out of favour in recent years. The elitist in you will roll eyes at its clichéd, kleptomaniacal approach to horror scenarios: the synthetic American girl wearing full make-up in the bath, refusing to leave the front door when legitimately spooked, suddenly chased by an derivative Voorhees-Jigsaw hybrid.
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Yet the pragmatist in you will enjoy these things. Until Dawn deftly forges the signature of '80s and '90s slasher flicks, from its basic-yet-effective jump scares to its knowingly corny dialogue and cast of attractive caricatures. Ultimately, your experience will be dependent on whether you dread or welcome the chance to have one last spin with this dormant genre.
Until Dawn applies the same gameplay approach as Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain; players relinquish control as their digital actors play out scenes, with command prompts punctuating their performances. Hide under the bed or jump out the window? Throw a vase at the unnamed monster or make a break for the door?
To help build the tension, commands are made via the DualShock 4's motion sensors. Players will need to direct their controller so that a reticule hovers over the choice they want to take. To add pressure, each moment of choice has a countdown timer. This set-up, while hardly original, does a fantastic job of emulating that horror-trope of panicky, fumbled attempts to unlock a door.
Until Dawn's bark appears to be worse than its bite.
Bad choices--and unsuccessful QTEs--won't be severely penalised, however. Tom Heaton, the design director at developer Supermassive Games, explains to GameSpot that "it's rare that you'll be presented with a choice that will automatically lead to your death. What happens instead is, wrong decisions you make will send you down harder, more treacherous paths."
Therein lies one reservation of this thrill-ride. While being chased down by the unnamed villain certainly raises the pulse, during the latest demo play it became apparent that the game protects and forgives its players. Its bark appears to be worse than its bite.
In keeping with the sentiment of his inspirations, Heaton doesn't want Until Dawn to offer relentless horror. He explains: "You can't keep someone terrified for long. If you push someone into a really tense state, after a while they just stop being scared. We have to be careful how we tone down scares and gradually build them up again."
Whether the game will demonstrate this gradual build-up of tension remains to be seen, but one idea that will surely help is how, once any of the eight characters die, they are permanently removed from the game. Heaton adds that "decision you make will impact chapters later on. Your choices can affect things such as what the psycho has in his hand when chasing you."
The likes of Hideo Kojima and David Cage are often scrutinised for how frequently their games stray too far into the sphere of film. Considering that Until Dawn is built on the foundations of a meticulously choreographed slasher flick, it's still unclear how its audience will feel once the credits roll.
Until Dawn is expected to ship exclusively on PS4 at some stage in 2015.
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