Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: Until Dawn (2015)

Until Dawn (2015)

Rated M for Mature - Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language
Available exclusively for PlayStation 4
Price: $60

Thanks to Scream and its ilk, everybody thinks they know how to survive a horror movie. Having sex is a no-no, and so is doing drugs or getting drunk. Saying "I'll be right back" is a death sentence, as is splitting off from your group so you can investigate a strange noise. And anybody who messes with a Ouija board is just asking for it. Well, the good folks at Supermassive Games decided to create the ultimate test of just how well most of us would do if we were in the shoes of those horny, nubile teens who we curse at for making all the wrong decisions. The name of the test is Until Dawn, an interactive horror movie where you're put into the shoes of a group of young people on a weekend getaway, the sort where things start going to hell very fast. Your decisions decide who lives and who dies, so if you get somebody killed in a really obvious trap, it's your own damn fault. And if reviews from both game critics and people who bought the game at retail are any indication, it's that most of us probably wouldn't last the night if we got thrown into a real horror movie. Even I, someone who knows his horror, lost two of my eight characters on my first playthrough, and almost lost two others before common sense kicked me in the nuts and told me "don't do that shit!" Until Dawn is a love letter to decades' worth of cheesy, B-grade horror movies, and it's obvious in the amount of care that went into the presentation and gameplay alike, with a tight and crazy script that accounts for almost every possibility, an excellent voice cast to bring it to life, and most importantly, gameplay that takes the modern adventure game style of Life is Strange and the output of Telltale Games and gives it a much bigger budget. This is a must-own for anyone with a PlayStation 4, and for horror fans who don't own the console yet... well, between this game and the updated rerelease of The Last of Us, you might wanna start considering investing in one.

The plot begins like a million slasher movies: a group of college-age friends gather together at the Blackwood Pines lodge in the snowy Canadian Rockies for their annual winter vacation. During this year's retreat, some of them, led by the handsome asshole jock Mike, plot to pull a prank on their friend Hannah, who has a crush on Mike. Hannah is humiliated and flees the house in tears, followed by her twin sister Beth, who runs out to look for her... and neither is seen again, the two of them having fallen off a cliff and died when someone -- or something -- began chasing them. A year later, and the remaining eight friends are returning to the mountain lodge, this time with a sense of melancholy in the air as they seek to commemorate their missing friends. Of course, there's still the question of what happened to Hannah and Beth, as well as the more pressing issue of the fact that a psycho seems to be stalking the grounds. Someone with a connection to both Hannah and Beth and the long-buried history of the mountain is knocking people off one by one, and in an isolated lodge with no electricity and no road access, the kids must band together and fight to survive... until dawn.

It's cheesy as hell on the surface, and it's more than willing to acknowledge it, but what sets Until Dawn apart from any number of lesser "meta" horror films is that it takes the important parts seriously. There are jokes aplenty here at first, but when shit gets real, it gets real. The developers had every intention of making a game that was actually scary, learning from both horror movies and other horror games in both how to do it right and how to avoid doing it wrong. Music, darkness, and uncertainty are all employed to build a remarkable sense of tension, one thick enough that, in my first playthrough, I stopped playing at least once in order to regain my bearings. The cameras are fixed, a nod to both the movies that inspired the story here and to the survival horror genre's roots, and this game's more deliberate adventure game pacing means that, unlike in many games that depend heavily on combat, they do far more to immerse than frustrate. The camera guides you towards the right path, but also lets you find various nooks and crannies where things might be hiding. You see what the game wants you to see, and react accordingly.

And what you do see looks amazing. Production values are outstanding, with beautiful graphics and a top-notch voice cast assembled from TV and film. The cold winter setting alone means that this game feels distinct from so many other slasher stories, and it goes a long way in selling the isolation. In all too many movies, the characters could easily drive away and escape the killer -- and if their cars mysteriously don't work, as is all too often the case, they could still run off towards the nearest road and flag down help. Here, however, you feel like you're trapped for the night at an isolated mountain lodge. There's no way you're just gonna run off into the woods here, not with the elements alone out to get you (to say nothing of everything else that's out to get you). The acting is also a cut or ten above the standard for cheesy horror movies. While the performance of the actress playing the twins Beth and Hannah in the opening didn't ring true for me, she's out of the picture after the prologue, and the rest of the cast is stellar. It's a mix of unknowns and familiar TV actors like Hayden Panettiere, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Brett Dalton, and Disney Channel starlet Meaghan Martin, as well as Peter Stormare in an intriguing role as a psychiatrist who interviews the player between each chapter. I'm not gonna say anything about what his character is about, except that it went in precisely the opposite direction of what I initially feared the plot was gonna turn out to be. He was a standout in the cast, along with Panettiere as Sam (the closest the game has to a traditional "final girl" role) and Rami Malek as Josh, a man who seems like a horny frat-bro on the surface but turns out to have a lot more layers than that underneath.

If this were a movie, then solid acting, scares, and production values would be enough for me to recommend this. However, this is a game, and therefore, it has to be judged according to how much I enjoyed playing it. To that end, it gets another firm thumbs-up. There are plenty of quick-time events that you have to clear to determine whether you keep moving smoothly or slip up, and this game is not afraid to provide harsh consequences for failure. In this game, though, your actions are secondary to your decisions, which means that the gameplay comes very much intertwined with the writing and the story. It revolves heavily around exploration, encouraging you to search every nook and cranny of the environment in order to learn more about what's happening, and what you find in doing so builds a tangled web that slowly makes itself clear as the game goes on. The story and characters start out arch and cliche, but they are thoroughly developed over the course of the game, making me grow to love and, in some cases, hate them. Without spoiling anything, about halfway through you get hit with a curveball that makes you call into question everything you've witnessed up until then, at which point the game immediately ratchets up the stakes. The script by indie horror filmmakers Larry Fessenden (who also voices an important side character) and Graham Reznick does a great job of setting the drama, building a coherent and involving storyline, and establishing a cast of interesting, well-rounded characters, which is is important in a game where the characters' relationships play a major role in how the story progresses.

This brings me to the game's main selling point: the "butterfly system". This is what I was talking about in the intro: a storyline that branches off into various paths depending on your decisions with certain characters and how everybody else reacts to them as a result. While the main plot largely moves in a single direction, all manner of subplots may emerge along the way depending on what you do, while others may be abruptly closed off by the sudden death of a character involved. With dozens of decision points throughout the game, interacting with each other in countless ways, no two playthroughs will be the same. It's far more in-depth than the black-and-white "moral choices" offered by so many similar games -- there are many times when you won't know the outcome of a decision until long after you've made it, and what may seem like the right choice at first can very well come back to bite you in the ass later on. Most importantly, a solidly-written script means that the choices ring true. There are some decisions you can make that are straight out of a handbook for how to get killed in a horror movie, and they will end exactly as you'd expect them to (if the arguments I've seen online over one such... mishap are any indication, it appears that some of us really overestimate our horror savvy), but the more subtle, longer-lasting decisions too followed the same basic rules. When events later in the game were impacted by what I'd done earlier on, it felt logical, not like the writers were pulling twists out of their asses. The fact that you can't go back on what you do also makes the decisions feel that much more impactful -- if you lose a character you liked because of something you did an hour ago, you have to keep on trucking without that person, only able to select a chapter to go back to once you beat the entire game. And while the genre-shift the game undergoes about halfway through (going from a fairly grounded slasher story into something more over-the-top) is already proving fairly divisive, I thought that that sudden "shit just got real" moment was one of the best parts of the game, especially given how much it had been hinted at since the very beginning.

Score: 5 out of 5

If you have a PS4, then buy this game right now. Its gameplay is radically different from just about everything out there while still leaving the player with plenty of agency (arguably more than most games), I loved the story and how it was put together, and it's just scary as hell. This is without a doubt one of the best horror games of the year.

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