Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Review: Until Dawn (PS4)

Until Dawn is that rarest of games: under-hyped, under-promised, and over-delivered. Here are the following checkmarks against it:

  • It belongs in the long reviled point-and-click adventure story, which telltale games has refined into a money-grabbing art-form, such that you can get one of those games in whatever popular media storyline at a very low cost ($10 at most) and get a shallow, unchallenging experience that's over in about 10 hours or so. Sony had the gall to ask $60 for Until Dawn. Over the holidays it got discounted to $20, but that's still twice the price of the typical game of this genre.
  • It's a teen-slasher horror movie, which is as full of cliches as you can imagine. Known for stereotyped characters, gore-fests, and stupidity, you can't get dumber than this. I haven't bothered watching any of those movies in years, and couldn't get excited about watching another one of these.
  • It's got QTE (Quick-Time Events) up the wazoo. That game mechanic is rightly reviled, and in most linear narrative games, simply just force a reload.
Well, if you own a PS4, you need to put this game on your "buy" or "rent" list. It's worth every minute of its 9-10 hour run-time, and it defiantly won me over despite my skepticism.

First of all, the game and story is anything but shallow. Just like Heavy Rain, it's a multi-branching storyline with multiple characters, where even if one character dies the game continues and the story changes as a result. The game therefore does away with save/restore features. As a result, all the decisions you make are binding, and many have ramifications much further on down. For instance, your decision might affect the relationship between the two characters, which could in turn lead to a character's death much later on. The game illustrates this through a "butterfly effect" screen, which shows the cause and effect between those decisions.

The cast is huge, and the game switches between multiple viewpoints, giving you multiple player characters. It does the trick of cutting away from a scene during high tension to switch you to another perspective elsewhere, which gives the game a very cinematic experience. What's great, however, is that since you're driving a character, you do get a chance to change the characters, making them vengeful or forgiving and playing them however you like. The characters also do develop during the course of the game, which is unusual.

What's really outstanding, however is the plot. You are given clues as you go along and you can deduce what's going to happen from the plot. But even if you don't succeed in guessing, as the game progresses and plot points are revealed, the clues are updated so you're clued-in, even if you failed to put the pieces together or find all the clues. At the very least, I enjoyed the plot and didn't find it very cliched.

The QTEs are fair, as was surprisingly the rest of the game. In places where I got characters killed I can look back and see that I was provided appropriate clues and just failed to acted on them. In any case, at the end of the game you're allowed to go back and replay sections of it to see if you can change the outcome. But even if you don't, you'll feel that you had a great experience. In particular, the twitch portions of the game frequently give you a chance to recover even if you made a mistake, and so just serve to ratchet up the tension rather than just giving you dumb hoops to leap through.

Technically, the game is outstanding, with great lighting, cinematography, and voice acting (though a few characters were over-acted).

This is what interactive fiction should be like, and even if you dislike the genre (which I did), you should give this a play. Needless to say, the game comes highly recommended.

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