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REVIEW: “Until Dawn” is the horror film you get to direct

Video game creators have chased the blurred line between movies and games for decades, and “Until Dawn” is the best hybrid yet. With solid performances from the...
until dawn
until dawn
  • PlayStation 4 / Rated M / $59.99 / released August 2015
  • OFFICIAL SITE: playstation.com
  • FINAL: You NEED this game. 5 out of 5 stars

Video game creators have chased the blurred line between movies and games for decades, and “Until Dawn” is the best hybrid yet. With solid performances from the cast and a script full of horror film staples, “Dawn” lets you live inside a movie while you’re watching it.

The story begins when eight teens return to a mountain cabin where, one year ago, a thoughtless prank sent two of their friends bolting into the woods, never to be seen again. While this year’s trip is intended to provide healing, the group quickly suspects that a deranged killer is stalking them.

Split into chapters that last roughly as long as a single episode of a television show, “Until Dawn” gives you control over the lead character in each scene. Although much of the dialogue happens as the script intends, you get to answer certain questions and nudge the characters in particular directions. Your selections will ripple out into the rest of the game, changing events, dialogue and relationships in “Dawn”’s version of the “butterfly effect.” If you choose to have Character A act hatefully toward Character B, for example, later on in the game B might not save A’s life.

“Until Dawn” is not just about changing the script. The game echoes numerous slow-rolling survival horror games by letting you walk around to explore areas and find clues. “Until Dawn” also makes great use of “quick time events,” where you must quickly press the correct button according to on-screen prompts to simulate a dangerous rock climb or a frightened dash from danger. These interactions keep you invested in the game, laying horror movie tension on top of your own skill and decisions.

While “Until Dawn” clearly borrows from slasher movie tropes, you’re allowed to gently push the characters away from the pure stereotypes of jock, nerd, survivor, etc. The writing is strong enough that you can turn one-note clichés into more complicated and believable characters, depending on how you point their conversations. Careful exploration will make the characters sound smarter, as the game splices in scenes where the teens react to clues you have found. “Until Dawn” lets you decide not only which characters live or die, but whether or not they figure out what’s happening to them.

The game looks amazing, utilizing fully digitized performances of a real-life cast that includes Hayden Panettiere (“Nashville,” “Heroes”), Brett Dalton (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot.”) While not quite up to the visual standards of a blockbuster feature film, the combined work of motion-captured actors and digital animators does a fantastic job of selling the story. Depending on how you play that story, none or all of the eight teens will survive the night.

The first time you play “Until Dawn,” you are not allowed to backtrack should you feel like you made a mistake. The story you’re telling is locked into place, which keeps up the illusion of “Until Dawn” being a movie. Once you have finished the story, which could take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours, only then will you get the freedom to replay chapters to try other narrative choices.

“Until Dawn” is a crossover between games and movies that should not be missed. The interactions are so basic that casual gamers can enjoy the scares without feeling intimidated by the over-complicated internal workings of video games. Hardcore gamers – particularly horror fans – will enjoy the game’s branching paths and focus on believability.

This review is based upon product supplied by the publisher. Image courtesy Sony Computer Entertainment America.