The state of modern slasher movies is pretty saddening. In the 80's, 90's, and even early 2000's, these dominated the horror film market, giving viewers increasingly absurd and implausible situations to watch teenagers get hacked to bits over. That's an oversimplification, of course. There were dozens of genuinely good movies that took the formula and twisted it around in fun ways. "April Fool's Day," for example, or "Sleepaway Camp," "Scream," and maybe even every "Friday The 13th" after the sixth one. The point I'm making is, this is a genre in need of some love. All we get now are the same ghost stories, the same "found footage" flicks, ad nauseum. The only thing in recent years that's truly impressed me was the gleefully chaotic "Unfriended," and that wasn't even a "proper" slasher flick. So, with Supermassive Game's much-hyped "Until Dawn" presenting itself as a sort of interactive slasher movie, I got pretty giddy with excitement. But is it another "Night Trap," the deservedly ill-fated Sega CD "game"? Or is this finally the resurgence I've been waiting for?
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Available On: PlayStation 4
The answer is "sort of kind of," but don't let that sound like a knock against the quality of this riveting little thrill ride of a game. Because, up through the very last moment, "Until Dawn" delivers not only more scares, more twists, and more ridiculous gore than most modern horror films, but manages to hearken back to the PS2 glory days of survival horror while it's at it. It's the best of modern and classic horror films, while still managing to be a surprisingly proficient game in its own right. Oh, and did I mention that it's horrifying? Because it really is.
Truthfully, the set-up is perhaps the most benign and predictable out there, at least as far as these sorts of affairs go. Some teenagers go to a remote ski lodge one year after two of their friends bit the dust, trying to rekindle the flames of their friendship. Of course, most of them are also trying to get laid, because this is a horror joint and of course they are. Sadly, not one, but two masked maniacs are there to try and put a damper on their fun, to the tune of flamethrowers, "Saw"-style death chambers, and trained wolves. Also, ghosts, Also, ambiguously cannibalistic monsters. Also, ancient Native American spirits. Yep.
The thing about "Until Dawn" is that none of it makes any sense until about 3/4 of the way through the game, and believe it or not, that actually works to its advantage. Instead of being content to scare players with one consistent threat, there are numerous forces to contend with, and none of them feel like they have any connection with each other. What does a ghost have to do with a perverted man in a clown mask, or a flamethrowing maniac with malevolent mountain creatures? More than you might think, actually, and that's where the true strength of "Until Dawn"'s narrative comes to the forefront.
In 2012, "Cabin in the Woods" took every horror movie trope imaginable and mashed them together, then gave the most cop-out and ludicrous reason why they were all there. Of course, that's a great movie, but it went really far with the absurd comedy. "Until Dawn" does the polar opposite. It takes every horror trope imaginable, then gives a completely plausible and compelling reason why, exactly, all of them decided to converge on this particular night and assail this particular set of teens. The late-game twists aren't actually funny... at least, not intentionally. Everything feels very sincere and authentic in its attempts to weave a yarn, and that's something I admire. It's not cheap. It's not a satire. It's horror, through and through, until the very end.
That counts double for the gameplay as well, which is a glorious and satisfying return to older survival horror games. Cantered camera angles, slow controls, selective lighting... it's all here, recreated in loving detail by a developer who obviously cares about the genre. Even the best new horror titles either take a first-person view ("Alien: Isolation," "P.T.," ) or an over-the-shoulder view ("Dead Space," "The Evil Within,") when it comes to guiding the player. Not "Until Dawn." The camera is perpetually at a fixed angle, bringing to mind the vintage "Silent Hill" or "Resident Evil" titles. However, because this is 2015, the controls are more responsive, more smooth, when it comes to directing characters to their potential demise. It takes an aspect about older horror games that I positively adore, them modernizes it in a way that I had previously thought to be impossible.
But where the gameplay diverges a bit is in the combat. Namely, there isn't really any, outside of some context-sensitive events, which play out very much like a game helmed by David Cage. However, this is Cage gameplay in the hands of a developer who actually knows what they're doing, so the result is a game that doesn't feel like an interactive movie. In PS2-era survival horror games, confronting the threats at hand would lead into bouts of janky combat that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't. I have a soft spot for that gameplay, but it just doesn't hold up in this day and age. "Until Dawn" takes the survival horror mold, rips out the combat, and replaces it with quick-time event segments. Now, I really hate modern gaming's reliance on QTEs, as I usually feel like it's just an excuse for lazy game design, but in the case of this game, it actually works. They're not abused, and when they're used, it feels urgent and tense. And, most importantly, you usually see immediate consequences for failing them. Characters will lose items, get hurt, and sometimes straight-up die if you miss prompts. In most games, players will just see a slight riff on the same basic flow of events. In "Until Dawn," the central gimmick of "you control who lives and dies" ends up feeling like a fulfilled (and tense) promise as opposed to marketing hype-speak.
That could be said of this whole package. Everything about the way "Until Dawn" has been marketed made me think I'd despise it. "It's an interactive slasher movie," they said. "It has cutting edge visuals and well-known actors," they said. "It'll make you scream out loud," they said. I scoffed at all of this, but I was proven wrong. This game is a subversive and truly disturbing take on slasher films, and takes some totally out-of-left-field twists near the end that made me cackle at their absurdity. It has some truly gorgeous visuals, perhaps the best on the PS4, aided by a haunting and masterful art direction and some stellar performances from Panettiere, Rami Malek, and, most importantly, the inimitable Peter Stormare. And, all tied together with tense gameplay that blends old-school progression and new-school action, the result is a tense, terrifying experience that made me actually cover my eyes and scream out loud more times than I'd like to admit.
"Until Dawn" was something that I went in expecting to hate every hour it dragged on, but instead, I found myself hanging on every second, even through the ending credits. The scares feel very real and palpable. The threat of permanent death is around every corner. The plot keeps you guessing even after the game wraps up. Simply put, Supermassive has taken my favorite type of interactive horror experience and modernized it, crafting something that genuinely scares and feels like it has a lot of love put into it. Aided by a great deal of replay value, the whole package feels like the rare AAA, "cinematic" game that never loses sight of being a game, and the result of that is the scariest game that will probably come out this year, maybe even within a few years.
Slasher movies may be past their heyday, but if "Until Dawn" is any indication, enough people still care to keep doing novel, clever, and, most importantly, scary takes on them. Only, this time, we got a stellar horror game instead of another movie. And truth be told? I'll take it.
- A twisty and absurd story that shocks through the ending.
- Loads of replay value that's organized in a steamlined way.
- Tense gameplay that feels interactive and not passive.
- A great throwback to older titles with some fresh twists.
- Beautiful visuals that render an excellent art direction.
- The early hours are deceptively simple.
- Absurd late-game twists might not impress everyone.