I had an experience with Until Dawn that I rarely have with any game - that is I binge played it. Over a 3 day / 2 night period, I played through the games story in 4 x 3 (or so) bursts of the game. It is rare that I play a game like this, not least because I tend to want to do something else after an hour or so, but mainly because I enjoy games in relatively short doses.
Bearing that in mind, it became clear to me after 15 mins of Until Dawn I was, so to speak, all in until I completed it. Before I comment on what I liked and did'nt like, there is a useful bit of context. I played this around new year when I was back in London on my own and when my house was empty, that is my housemates and girlfriend were all away. 5 days alone, in the depth of winter - the perfect time to play a horror game I thought.
1. Storytelling at its B-Movie Finest
The plot in UD really is ludicrous, but to get hung up on that would be to miss the point. The fun in the game is'nt in the specifics of the plot, rather it is in how your decisions play the plot out. Instead of watching a daft movie, you're part playing in one, part directing it. The characters all have their quirks, but you get to shape how they react to the situations that range from quirky to life threatening. Sometimes getting one character to be a dick to another character is fun "just-cos", but other times you'll find yourself weighing your decision - balancing the questions of :
- what would this person do if they were faced with this situation
- what would I do if it was me in this situation
- what do I want to do to achieve a certain outcome in the game
Or, to put it another way, the game engages you on several different levels through its effective storytelling, even if the story it is actually telling is'nt particularly original or clichéd.
The reason that I have opened with this point as being the main one that I loved is because it really is the backbone to all the other great (and bad) bits of the game, however, the way the game tellls the story is also crucial...
2. Patience, voice acting and actual decision making = a game that you become invested in
The other components, ideas and gameplay mechanics that the game uses are all supported by the wonderfully engaging engaging way the game tells its story. How does it do this? Well, specifically...
i. Excellent Voice Acting : all of the characters are well acted and really believable and even when the script is slightly crappy, they still really sell it
ii. Decisions that actually matter : Where other games (The Walking Dead - I am looking at you) give you the illusion that the decisions you make matter in terms of the key points of the game, UD really does put the players decision making to the forefront. Small decisions have bigger repercussions later in the game, big decisions mean that the relationship or experience you have with certain characters can change dramatically very early on. I quickly realised that I was playing a game that had not just enormous replay value but also one where I could see both in the short, medium and long term that my decisions mattered. This was particularly interesting where I made a decision that had a (shocking) unintended consequence which I then realised would have other effects on what that character could and could not do later in the game.
iii. Engaging and patient gameplay : Even the bits of the game where you are essentially just walking forward are interesting and engaging. They're often used to visually develop the world, build tension and even give insight and add believability to the Characters. This is helped by both the excellent voice acting (again) and the superb graphics, however, it is more than that. The game seems to "get" that good horror is'nt all about the gore or jump scares, it is as much about the build up and patient character development so that when the horrific things happen, they mean something. The game, even the bits that are a little slower, are very well paced and there is always an underlying tension even though the game is very linear in the order in which you play through the main events.
UD really goes at lengths to get the feel of it right. It is as if they developers thought "we know this is a B-Movie horror game, but we're going to make it the best damned B-Movie Horror game we bloody well can". Even the bits that I didn't like so much, I easily forgave the game for because it got so much right.
As for what I did'nt like so much...
1. Some of the decisions are made for you
Obviously, you have a lot of choices in the game, but as this is a game these choices are in a framework and sometimes some of the biggest choices are made for you. For example, early on in the game, two characters elect to go wandering off on their own and then you influence how this wandering off plays out. Fine. However, when something happens to them, it is very simple - I'd play the game by demanding all the characters stay together, but this literally is'nt an option. So the game invents other reasons for them to separate. It's not a big issue, but there were a few moments like this where I was reminded that though I could take these characters on a path, that path had already been laid out for me by the developers.
2. Some of the shocks are really unforgiving
I was actually going to put this in a a positive for the game, but bumped it to a negative because this will really drive some players mad I think. I actually quite like it, even though it did piss me off a bit. I was aiming for a particular type of play through and I had certain characters I really wanted to survive. At one point I was faced with a choice and the route that I took led to instant death for the character, despite it feeling like a relatively safe situation. There was no QTE to offer me the chance to escape, no "are you sure" moment, just I made this choice and t that character was no more. It is a strength, but it upset me as I was pissed that a) my game ending was going to change and b) I lost one of my favourite characters. What was good about this is that it also taught me about myself - leading a character off to explore something on their own is ALWAYS a bad idea, but when faced with the option in a horror game I just thought "oh...go on then.... I'll be all right...".. They were'nt and they died brutally.
3. The plot slightly messes things up
The plot is a B-Movie style horror flick, so don't expect too much by way of shocking revelations. For the most part, this is absolutely fine, but there are a few moments of eye-rolling where a well worn cliché is trotted out or a character makes another ludicrous conclusion. They are few and far between and by no means damaging to the games over all story, but I've heard the "beware the insane asylum" trope so many times now that I just fail to believe that anyone would go wandering around an abandoned one at the top of an isolated hill without being heavily armed.
Until Dawn is a bona fide great game, easily one of the most engaging and fun games I've played on the PS4 and PS3 too. The annoyances with it are made pretty obvious pretty early on and they are incredibly easy to forgive given that the game gets so much else right. I'd strongly encourage anyone who enjoys a good daft yarn, interactive fiction, horror games, decision based gameplay or even just "something a bit different" to play it. It would also be fun to be played as a couple too - it is very much like watching a movie where you influence the decisions and characters and a lot of fun can be had with it.