Supermassive Games aims for the cutting edge of horror and comes pretty close to making the jump.
Although the game mostly falls into the genre of survival horror, that term barely scratches the surface of Until Dawn, the latest game that's exclusive to Sony's PlayStation 4 console.
When developer Supermassive Games decided to start making Until Dawn, I wonder if the team was aware of just how big a challenge they were taking on. The plot premise is classic horror fodder: a group of teens in an isolated location being stalked by something in the woods.
The focus on exploration, mild puzzle solving and keeping any run-and-gun sections to the barest minimum isn't wildly different to some other survival horror games either.
But it's in the characters and the decision-making process, which Supermassive terms The Butterfly Effect, where Until Dawn really tries to innovate. It's also where it ends up gathering its comparisons, be they unfair or accurate, to games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.
So does Until Dawn blast a breath of fresh air into the increasingly stale survival horror genre? Sadly, it's not quite a yes or no answer.
The game kicks off with a pre-credits sequence that serves as both a mini gameplay tutorial and an introduction to the game's tone. In classic horror style, the teenage characters are played almost exclusively by actors in their mid-20s and depending on how much TV you watch, you'll recognise a few of them, or at the very least "Heroes'" Hayden Panettiere, 26, who plays Samantha.
This is greatly helped by the fact the facial motion-capture is excellent. While one or two expressions can look a little cartoonish or "uncanny valley", for the most part these are clearly identifiable actors playing fairly well realised characters. Well, at least as fair as the animation goes.
After the opening credits, which includes a hauntingly beautiful cover of "O Death" by Amy Van Roekel, we jump to one year later and everyone is back on the same mountain for a bittersweet reunion.
As each of the eight "teens" are introduced we get a snapshot of them including their name and three descriptive words, such as "adventurous", "loyal" or "smart". I think it's supposed to give you some guidance on how to play them, but it actually just comes across like a really ill-advised LinkedIn page.
As the game progresses through its chapters, you'll get a chance to play each character, some noticeably more than others. Note that you don't get to choose who to play and when. Instead the game just hands you control of different characters at certain times.
Bizarrely, pressing R1 when playing a character brings up that character's stat screen. Here you've got various bar charts ranking that character on six different traits such as charitable, honest and romantic. There's also a similar system ranking your "relationship status" with the other seven characters. These all alter based on your actions, but I couldn't see any way that these stats had any impact on the game other than a passing interest. However, you'll also find your current objective listed on this page, so that's handy.
In true horror style all eight teens split into different groups pretty much immediately, even before things start going wrong. It works in terms of the narrative and splitting up the groups allows for some tense cliffhanger moments as the game switches between characters, as well as ensuring that the action gets spread around the whole range of environments.
Again, too much in the way of specifics will end up spoiling the game, but suffice to say there's a lot of dank, dark corridors, creepy underground sections, decaying institutional hallways and a lot of snow. Which all look amazing, I should add. The outdoor environments in particular are incredible, with excellent use of lighting and sound: the squeaking of snow, birds in the distance, animals crashing through foliage. It all adds up to a very atmospheric feel.
While you're exploring, the left stick controls your movement while the right waves whatever light source you might be using, be it torch, lantern, smartphone or whatever. There's an element of randomness to this control. Your light beam sometimes wanders around a little erratically and it's not a big surprise to learn that, back in 2012 when the game was first being made for PS3, this was envisaged as the player waving around the PlayStation Move controller. Also, you can't run (unless you're in a running action sequence) but you can hold L1 to increase your walking speed by an almost imperceptible amount.
Items you can interact with will flash a white light to alert you and prompt you to hit X when you get close enough. Almost all of the time interacting with an item will involve the following: you hit X, the game moves to a closeup of your hand and the object. You then use R2 to pick it then the right stick to move it around. And that, quickly honestly, is your usual level of environmental control except in some rare occasions where you'll use the PS4 controller's central touchpad.
This how you'll locate the various clues littered around the game that will help you (possibly) solve the three different mysteries on offer. (Again, apologies for the vagueness, but too much info will be spoilerific.) It's also how you find the various totems.
These are small wooden carvings that come in five flavours: death, guidance, loss, danger and fortune. When you interact with them, show a short clip that can indicate something that might happen later in the game. These range from "quite helpful", to "mystifying", to "doesn't even happen because of a choice you've made" but like all gaming collectibles you'll find yourself scanning around for them pretty much constantly.
While this all starts off quite interesting, the repetitious nature of the interactions -- press X, hold R2, waggle right stick, rinse and repeat -- knocks a little gloss off. Still, there's something satisfying about locating all the objects and by hitting R1 you can jump in and read all the material you find, which is rather well put together across the three different mysteries.
Of course, Until Dawn is a horror game, so there's plenty of times when the name of the game is action. During action sequences, such as running or climbing, it's all about the "quicktime event", a phrase which either has you very intrigued or shuddering in vague dread, depending on how many Quantic Dream or God of War games you've played.
Triangle, circle or square icons appear on the screen with a ticking timer reminding you what the "quick" in quicktime is all about. In fairness to the game, these genuinely ratchet up the tension although sometimes it seems like missing them doesn't have an appreciative effect. In my second playthrough I deliberately missed one particular event that had seemed extremely important my first time through only discover that it had no knock-on effect to anything except one of my relationship statuses.
Any sequences involving one of the very few guns in Until Dawn are blessedly short and usually involve some high-octane action, breaking up the slower narrative elements without feeling like it's been awkwardly shoe-horned in. The mechanic is simple and there's a rather lengthy (and clunkily obvious) tutorial very early on to make sure you're across it.
The game makes much of its "Butterfly Effect" mechanic where any of the choices you make can, theoretically, have major consequences further on in the game. While some of these are rather obvious major decisions that need to be made, some are as a simple as a dialogue choice or an object that goes unfound. Developer Supermassive has said that this results in "hundreds" of possible endings. Apparently you can have all eight characters survive or none. In my first playthrough I managed to keep just two around long enough to see the end credits roll. I fared a little better second time around.
The game helpfully tells you when a Butterfly Effect occurs by having butterflies appear on the top left corner of the screen, and there's even a Butterfly Effect panel where you can check out some of the decisions you've made and their effects. Edward Lorenz is probably spinning in his grave.
Obviously the goal here is that if you were to compare your Until Dawn game with that of a friend, you might find wildly different experiences. It's similar to what, for example, Bioware did across the Mass Effect series, but with a greater level of granularity and a little more instantaneous in its effect. At the very least, you get to see to end result of your decisions within 10 hours, not three games later.
There are really two questions to ask when evaluating Until Dawn: does it work as a horror game and does it truly innovate in terms of its game mechanics?
It's undeniably scary, but much of that comes from jump scares or the anticipation of jump scares. Rare are the moments of creeping dread and those few have a diminishing rate of return. The sequences involving Peter Stormare's wonderful work as analyst Dr. Hill begin with an almost perfect level of subtle disquiet and quickly turn, at least to my taste, farcical.
The music and ambient sounds certainly help keep the heartrate pounding, and the game is at its best when your character is solo, walking through dim hallways or oppressively snow-laden forest paths, flinching at every sound.
Depending on how you like your horror, Until Dawn should keep you if not on the edge of your seat, at least sitting upright and moderately tense. It's more, say, "Hostel" and its jump scares than "The Orphanage's" creepy eeriness.
So what about the chorus line of characters and the so-called Butterfly Effect? Perhaps deliberately, there are a few characters so unlikeable you almost want to walk them off the side of cliff as soon as you take control. By giving us eight protagonists, Supermassive has made it tricky to feel too emotionally attached to any one of them. There was one character in particular who I found myself surprised to see later in the game, having basically forgotten that they existed at some point in the second half.
I tried to make some very different decisions in the second playthrough, but found that one character in particular suffered the exact same fate, while that of another appeared to hinge on a single quicktime event...which I failed both times. More butterfingers than butterfly, I guess.
But for all that, I genuinely enjoyed playing Until Dawn. I'm a loud-and-proud fan of both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, and when it was at its best Until Dawn felt like something Quantic Dream would love to have accomplished. At its worst, though, it was a poorly realised horror trying to be hardcore.
Like so many good scares, the less you know the more terrifying it can be and Until Dawn definitely loses some of that edge when the exposition starts to flow towards the end. This also affects the replay value, arguably something that the Butterfly Effect should provide in spades. Once you know the story, the jump scares still make you swear and spill your drink, but there's none of that "what the hell is going on?" sense of dread.
Sadly, a second play also drew my attention to some of the terrible dialogue, with characters spouting lines like "ugh, unfollow" and "A triple plus, would buy again" as well as a few, if not plot holes, at least plot wrinkles that I might not have ever noticed.
If you're after a 10-or-so-hour game that can occasionally bring the fear, offer some mystery and look great while doing it, Until Dawn is definitely worth a look. But if you're looking for the next generation in iterative gameplay then Until Dawn remains a glorious experiment that deserves strong praise, even though it falls just a little short.