Thursday, January 21, 2016

VGR Until Dawn

For the first time ever. Here's a review of a game that was "just" only released this August 2015.

This is probably the fasted game I reviewed on this very blog so far (compared to my usual retro reviews).

VGR: Until Dawn
From Supermassive Games/Sony Computer Entertainment 
Played on PS4
Also available on /

Type Interactive drama/adventure/survival horror/horror game
Year 2015

There's been a lot of progress in gaming over the years. Mostly graphics-wise. We've come pretty far from the old days when only a handful of pixels on the screen had to represent the shape of characters and objects in our imagination.. to basically photorealistic graphics able to represent anything you could ever imagine visually.

But while visuals evolved quite a lot over the years, I feel like we sort of fell into this routine. Most developers don't try as much creating new genres and now all games share a lot with one another. We established genres and gameplay styles, and a lot of the industry has grown stagnant. Much like movie blockbusters that repeat each summers, big budget games become serialized annual releases. And all games tend to be action games these days. Blame it on publishers that only invest in what is usually more popular. Genres can get refined, but new ideas rarely bloom new directions.

We're at a point in the gaming industry that is not unlike the 1980s as blockbuster films slowly invaded the medium right around huge mega-hits like Star Wars, Aliens, The Terminator, Rocky or even Lethal Weapon to a point. And just like with films, we have to look outside the continuous releases of big mainstream releases of action and shooter games to see some fun new ideas explored. In the horror genre..

Horror is nothing new to gaming, there's been horror titles since the beginning of video games. From the first mature-rated titles like Splatterhouse to the likes of Alone in the Dark. The first big successful horror games were survival horror games, taking roots in the adventure genre. Sadly over the years the formula derived into much more action-oriented games. I'm just glad to see them return back to more emphasis on exploration and story rather than shooting hordes of disposable enemies.

Recently, a new genre on its own found its way into horror games. Ditching action altogether, to a point. And finally experimenting with new ideas. It's a departure from the more traditional arcade-ysh survival horror games, since it's not as much based on limited controls and resources to cause the horror, but here the horror comes from within the story and the atmosphere alone. Independent survival horror games showed the way with big surprises like the Penumbra and the Amnesia series. In turn it has inspired a few bigger horror titles to try new things like with Sega's Alien: Isolation: Even Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, disappointed with too much focus on action in horror games, tried to bring the genre back to its roots with his 2014 game The Evil Within. 

Enough with the history lesson. 

Until Dawn is an interactive story/adventure game/horror game. Its mostly based around those recent indie horror games from the last few years, and taking a note from David Cage's recent modern cinematic games like the 2010 Heavy Rain, it's an immersive story that puts a big emphasis on choices. And branching dialogues and quick time events.
The game made a lot of noise back when it was released, and Sony only really allowed such a project to take such a big effort because it was a lot more creative than most of the launch titles for the PS4 and the Xbox One. It's only really at launch times that we get to see these kind of quirky new IPs and new ideas be allowed to be explored. (And those that end up selling or defining a new generation get to stick around with sequels.)

More surprising, is that the game was developed by a small UK game studio Supermassive Games who up until this point were better known for a few gimmick-y party games, which might or might nor surprise you depending where you stand, with their best work being some DLC for LittleBigPlanet and the HD port of Killzone.

Until Dawn falls in between your typical survival horror games and an adventure game. It's also feels very much like an interactive movie at times. And it's perhaps one of the most ambitious and best uses of a branching story in a game in recent times, unlike a few others similar titles out there the choices do have consequences.. on who lives, and who dies at the end!

The story begins in 2014, it follows a bunch of friends, 7 teenagers, as they went to this mountain cabin as a winter getaway at the Blackwood Pines Lodge. There's this positive energetic friendly girl named Sam, the macho guy of the group Mike, this dude with glasses Chris, a cutie named Ashley, this bratty gal named Emily, a bimbo named Jessica and the only black guy you'll see in the entire game Matt. They'll be staying at the lodge of Josh, Hannah and Beth's parents in Canada. Long story short, they pull a really dumb prank on Hannah, who flees into the forest at night. Beth tries to follow her. They have an accident... and both die, one way or another!

If any of that sounds familiar, it's because the game follows a lot of archetypes of the genre. And the story contains a lot of allusions to horror films. So, yeah, nothing new here.

A year later after the incident, Josh sets up a reunion back at the cabin, in memory of his lost sisters. They all accept Josh's request to help him deal through the loss.

From then on, the story will be switching from one character's point of view to another as you progress through the game. Each decision will have some consequences later down the line, so be careful what you do or decide to say! 

Also the story is intercut through the game with these mysterious therapy sessions very reminiscent of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, where the player gets to interact with a psy from a first person perspective. He will be asking the player a few questions which will directly influence some surprising twists in the story (also, very much like Shattered Memories).

The entire game itself is kind of in the same tone as the Josh Whedon's horror tribute that was Cabin in the Woods, full of staples of the horror genre. A celebration of the genre, full of thrills, horror and mystery, playing off the usual tropes of the genre. But also making a ton of direct references to various genres from gruesome body horror to recent torture porn, jump scare-heavy found footage films, but also B-movie slasher films, zombie films and even creature features

The story was well crafted enough by writers Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden. 

They were able to work into the plot of the game flesh-eating zombies, killer clowns and monsters!

While it can be said the plot's nothing new to the genre had it simply been an actual movie, it truly comes to form through the gaming medium. I said above games in general evolved a lot over the years, but the foundations can find their root in old school point & click adventure games. It also takes a lot of elements from classic survival horror games, but without the luggage of action games from the last few years.

Gameplay tries its best to make this the most cinematic movie-like experience, but it's clearly a new breed of "horror games".

The controls fall in between an adventure game (think the recent Telltale Games ones) and the more exploration-oriented survival horror games. There's no real focus on fighting nor solving puzzles. The main controls are very similar to survival horror games, with the same type of cinematic camera angles. You can interact with some of your surroundings. And that's it. If you miss or find something, that will directly influence the story taking place on screen. The controls are the story here.

Most of the game is spent exploring the various locations.

To retranslate action scenes, the team relied on QTEs (quick time events), the same ones popularized by Shenmue or the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games. I know they've been kinda overused in games nowadays, but I'm glad to see QTEs used smartly - which means you can fail most of them (which will either result in branching scenarios or death), and each button actually corresponding to a single purpose like grabbing, jumping or using (unlike tiresome "finish moves" in other games which also randomly rely on QTEs). Honestly those were some of the best QTEs I've seen in games, they actually made sense for once.

The big gimmick of this game is the "Butterfly Effect", which means most of your choices will cause later consequences. Finding a weapon earlier in the game will prevent someone else to find it later. As well as the ethical choices you have to make for yourself. It will make each playthrough feel unique and different enough that playing various scenarios will be slightly different each time. The game has a dozen of variation endings (the publisher said they made literally 100 endings, but let's be honest here, those will be only small minor variations aside from who's alive or dead).

The idea is to simply explore the story and keep track of clues and hints to alter the story - similar to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.

Anytime during the gameplay you can check on your current character's stats, his strengths and weaknesses and his relationships regarding the other protagonists.

Simply put, this is the best and first real proper attempt at a "game where you're the hero", what with its branching storyline. It's fun "directing" the tale and ending up deciding who lives and dies.

It's one of these really fun games to replay several times for that alone. It's basically impossible to see everything on a first rushed linear playthrough even if you try like me!

The game originally started life on the PS3. I'm glad thanks changed, because the project evolved a lot over the time. When the team began working on Until Dawn it was en even more gimmick-y game developed around Playstation Move controls!! In first person through the entire game! Imagine that! Thankfully moving it to a PS4 exclusive, Sony allowed the team to both get some extra time to polish their game - which clearly shows in the gorgeous graphics! - and it wasn't turned into a launch title for the system, but also a bigger budget for a more ambitious game.

Until Dawn would finally be released as one of the few good surprises of this new generation, to a huge critical acclaim. It also received its fair share of criticism - for a reason, the game is not without its flaws afterall. 

The game looks simply stunning, with great stunning modern photorealistic graphics. It really makes use of a modern game system. It also has a stunning art direction. Until Dawn just feels really inspired, like the people making the game really cared about it. But the story, the characters, the voice acting and the music all just feel as high production as well. 

Until Dawn features a pretty impressive cast as well. The developers decided to do something very unique and use the likeness of all of the actors for their own characters. For a game, it has a fairly good cast that got involved into the story directly through decent motion captured and well animated detailed characters (although I'll be the first to admit, it's not without a share amount of "uncanny valley"). The game stars the lovely Hayden Panettiere as Sam, Agents of SHIELD's own Brett Dalton as Mike, but also Noah Fleiss, Galadriel Stineman, Nichole Bloom, Meaghan Martin, Larry Fessenden, Peter Stormare as this enigmatic Dr. Hill and the fun Mr. Robot himself Rami Malek as Josh!

Until Dawn is fairly long and fun engaging interactive horror game.

In a way, I personally see it as a "next gen" modern reimagining of games like ObsCure - which also was a similar tribute to the horror genre. It even feels like a proper revamp of the idea from the LucasArts classic Maniac Mansion brought to form, going back to the roots of the genre on PC. I mean even the idea of playing several stereotypical teens in an interactive horror story where anyone could die seems to come straight from Maniac Mansion.

Once you know the game you can probably rush a playthrough pretty quickly - although that might still take around 7-8 hours I'd say.

Thankfully they didn't force too many PS4 gimmicks into the game, since it's a launch title. You can choose a more PS4 "gimmick" control scheme at the start or play the game regular-style. Sometimes the game will throw some odd random tasks to perform, like closing a door or something. Strangely there's one obligatory random motion control move inserted into the game even if you skip the waggle controls, but I found these "Don't Move!" sequences kind of hilarious (and I almost always ended up moving the controller when I could have just let it on the ground..). 

The game is pretty gory and bloody. It's clearly an R-Rated title for a mature audience only! There's body dismemberment, pretty brutal deaths. Which even made the game get censored in a few places, such as Japan!

On music we have a veteran modern game composer, Jason Graves, who is mostly known for his work on the Dead Space series as well as the Tomb Raider reboot series. For some reason, while I liked a few of the chase scenes, it probably was the weakest part of the game for me. The score just seems to lack a clear identity, it's kind of a mishmash of various horror tropes (like the game, so I guess it was a voluntary decision?).

Overall, Until Dawn was a great surprise last year. Released in the mist of various last gen re-releases, HD remasters and IP-established sequels.

It's a pretty fun game, specially if you're big into the horror genre, featuring a ton of allusions and references to the genre, a great cast of characters and a fairly interesting unique story. You rarely see indigenous American folklore used to set up a story these days. Specially in big budget projects like this game.

It's a great horror game, which I Highly Recommend! For once in these type of interactive movie-games, what you choose to say and do actually has an impact for a change.

It's to no surprise to anyone that this game received so many nominations and awards. It's such a fun project, done with a lot of style. I'm sure it's gonna boost up the notoriety of the little development team that made it.

While no proper sequel was confirmed so far - although it seems talk of a sequel are a possibility - the series will live on in a small spinoff title they're already making! An arcade shooter for Sony's new virtual reality system the PlayStation VR. It will be titled Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and appears to be a return to the original form of Until Dawn back when it was a project on the PS3!
I give it:
2.5 / 3 Necronomicons^!

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