8 Teenagers, 1 Ski Lodge – Until Dawn

*Please note now that Until Dawn is a story-driven game and I am about to spoil the hell out of it*

I have been meaning to cancel my PS+ subscription for several months now. Originally, I only signed up for it so that I could play Day of the Tentacle Remastered for free and get a deep, deep discount on TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan. Day after day in June, I kept telling myself to turn off the auto-renewal. And then July 1st came around and I got the email saying that Sony had charged my credit card for another month. Rats!

But this worked out nicely for me in the end, because one of July’s free PS+ games is Until Dawn. I had no idea what it was before seeing it in the PS+ menu, but the description sold it as a horror adventure game (which is 100% in my wheelhouse), so I decided that I might as well take advantage, as my $11 was already spent.

When I began playing the game, it immediately became clear what was going on: a bunch of sexy teens are for some reason caught in a secluded ski lodge and would be killed off one-by-one. Well, that’s maybe generalizing a little too hard. The game has plenty of surprises tucked away in its sleeve. Its gameplay, for instance. You wander around, waving your flashlight at things, occasionally stopping to look at a point of interest or pick up clues. Then spooky things happen, and you slowly unravel the greater mystery. Also you occasionally stop for brief interludes in which you are talked down to by an arrogant psychiatrist and asked to complete simple tasks that will vaguely influence things you see in the game. Sound familiar?

Yeah, Until Dawn seems like a very strong “homage” to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories at first. Eventually that influence drops away, but the similarities are undeniable. I also couldn’t help but feel like I was playing a modern take on Obscure at many points during the game, and sometimes I even felt flashes of The Evil Within. While Until Dawn is inspired heavily by other games (and teen slasher movies), I feel like it does them and itself justice by excelling in nearly all fields.

Note the gameplay: For the most part, you’re trudging straight ahead and taking short detours to grab collectibles. But there are a number of areas where you’re allowed to explore a little more freely. You’re always on a fairly linear path, because the game wants you to move along to the next story bit ASAP, but there’s enough allowance for exploration to keep you from feeling like you’re just plodding down a gussied-up tube. Not unlike good ol’ Final Fantasy XIII. You also have to deal with a number of QTE gauntlets whenever an “action” scene occurs. Blech. The real meat and potatoes of the game is the “butterfly effect” system, where everything you do will have some sort of repercussion later on. Maybe it’ll be something benign, or maybe a choice you made at the beginning of the game will get one of the sexy teens killed several chapters later. You never know! All you can do is follow your heart and hope for the best.

What struck me as odd is that on the pause screen, you get a breakdown of your current character’s personality traits and relationships with the other characters. These will fluctuate pretty much every time anything happens, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually mean anything. I mean, maybe they did? But the characters don’t seem to make any major choices that you aren’t in control of, so it’s hard to say for certain. From my point of view though, it seems like the developer just threw in a fancy graph system to obscure the game’s actual mechanics, or make it seem more complicated than it actually is. A bit duplicitous either way.

Since this is basically just an interactive horror movie, the focal point of the game is the story. And what a story it is! If you’ve ever seen Sorority Row or Scream or Sleepaway Camp or any number of similar slasher movies, you will probably figure out Until Dawn’s plot fairly quickly. During the prologue, our group of sexy teens pull a prank on their awkward friend Hannah, which sends her running into the frozen wilderness. Hannah’s twin sister Beth chases after her, and the two ultimately end up falling off a cliff to their deaths after being chased by something spooky. Fast forward to exactly one year in the future, where the twins’ brother Josh has invited all his sexy teen friends back to the ski lodge for a big weekend bash. As the night goes on however, the sexy teens find themselves stalked and terrorized by a masked psychopath. Oh noes!

Yeah, it’s Josh. Because he’s filthy rich and mentally unstable and blames his friends for the disappearance of his sisters.

But that’s only the halfway point in the game! It goes on to uncover a more sinister and supernatural threat, which would probably turn off many folks, but for me it was a “yay, monsters!” moment, because I love monsters. Wendigos, in this case. Not only that, but you get to explore and abandoned mine shaft and an abandoned sanatorium! Those are great places for horror video games! Plus there’s a whole backstory that you can slowly piece together about both the mine shaft and sanatorium, and it’s really impressive how much care they put into crafting not only the characters, but the world around them. Oh, and also the game takes place in Canada, so that’s cool. But it’s clearly not made by Canadians, because they still refer to toques as “beanies.”

Throughout the adventure, you are constantly flip-flopped between the eight sexy teens as they fight for their lives. Unlike most teens in slasher movies, these kids all get fairly fleshed-out personalities, and the bulk of them actually get complete character arcs. Most of them are kinda likable, too! The game focuses fairly heavily on Sam and Mike, who are the girl and boy hero-types of the group. You’ll spend the most time with Mike, as he goes on the biggest adventure of the bunch. Sam does a good job of being the everywoman that steps up to become the de-facto group leader and overall heroine of the story. She is also one of two single characters and seems perfectly content with her independence. Unfortunately, she also spends what felt like a very long time running around in nothing but a towel. Two steps forward, one step back.

Chris is the kind-of-nerdy one, and while he gets plenty of chances to be a hero, he is ultimately so beaten both physically and emotionally that he depends on the girls of the group to carry him to the end. Ashley, I don’t think really fits into any trope. By default, her “curious” trait is maxed out, so there’s that. Maybe that means she’s supposed to be the smart one? She is also the romantic match to Chris. If you play your cards right, they get together. If you play your cards wrong, she locks Chris outside to be killed by a wendigo. Yikes! It’s also worth noting that she jumps at every little thing and it is adorable. Plus her outfit is just so perfectly uuuunghhhh.

I’m sorry. That was so very unprofessional.

Matt and Emily make up the “C team” of characters that kind of get forgotten until the end of chapter four. Even I forgot that they existed for a while. Matt’s a jock I guess, although he doesn’t seem to have a lot of self-confidence. Emily is an awful harpy that wears $600 belts. They get a sub-plot about going up to a radio tower to call for help. Which, shockingly, is completely successful! But then the tower collapses into a ravine and they end up in the mine. In my game, Matt was killed at that point, tossed onto a butcher’s hook like the mindless slab of meat he is. Emily then went on by her lonesome on the second-biggest solo adventure in the game, and her brush with being eaten by a wendigo softened her up into a somewhat more likable person. Somewhat.

Lastly, we have Jessica, who is Mike’s girlfriend. She is a sex-crazed moron who was killed very early on because I opted to skip a bunch of QTE sequences. Sorry Jess, but you weren’t worth the trouble. I guess Josh is technically the last playable character, though you don’t get to spend very much time in his shoes. He does go from loopy guy who takes his pranking way too far to having a complete psychotic break once he realizes how badly he’s hurt his friends. Then he loses the last of his marbles once he’s captured by a wendigo and discovers that it’s a mutated, bestial version of one of his presumed-dead sisters. Poor Josh.

In the end, I think that I did alright. I managed to save six out of eight sexy teens, and in a game where every choice you make can have unexpected repercussions, that’s not half bad. Of course, I did some light spoiler-reading after rolling the credits, wherein I learned that it is possible to have everyone survive, and you can also end up killing them all. Personally, I was under the impression that Sam had plot invulnerability, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all!

The thing about Until Dawn that most surprised me is that it’s really friggin’ long. When I discovered that it was an interactive horror movie, I figured it would be an easy single-session affair. Instead, I spent nearly an entire Saturday on it, then ran out of time and had to put it down to finish the last couple chapters on Sunday morning. I thought that it would be a good candidate for easy trophies, but I struggled with the decision for a while. On one had, I’d have to play through at least two more times to earn both 100% endings (for survival and deaths), and I’m just not ready to give up two more weekends to this. Maybe if I were going to play with someone else watching, but not by my lonesome. I can see myself picking it up again months from now for a replay, but it would just be to enjoy the game again; trophy hunting might ruin it.

Here I am, almost 1800 words in, and I have barely even touched on Until Dawn’s flaws. Which it does have! But I think that they’re worth glossing over, because it’s really quite excellent overall. Plus I did mention the QTEs, which are easily the worst thing about the game. So that’s good enough for today! This is already a really long blog post, and I’d rather it be something that convinces people (Future Ryan) to play the game (again), than to be all nitpicky about it. If you really must know, the collectible Vision Totems seem pointless and the character models look so good that their sometimes wonky animations stand out all that much more. Also Sam’s face will occasionally throw on a big ol’ smile in the least appropriate times. It’s really weird and must be a bug of some kind.

What I want you to take away from this is that I very much enjoyed Until Dawn. Like, a lot! Like, it’s going to make my GOTY list, for sure. And I didn’t even think that I’d like it when I thought it was going to be a Silent Hill: Shattered Memories copycat. But then it turned out to be really great and unique after all. I’m not even upset that I’m going to have to pay for it when I do feel like it’s time for a replay (I’m definitely cancelling PS+ this month), because it’s absolutely worth a $20-spot and deserves a permanent place in my games library. Heck, there’s an Amazon tab opening itself in my browser right now…

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