The horror genre has had something of a TV renaissance lately — thanks to The Walking Dead and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and upcoming Scream Queens — but it’s been awhile since we’ve had a good blockbuster scary video game.
Resident Evil hasn’t been scary in a decade, and last year’s The Evil Within was more gory than frightening. We got a genuinely terrifying glimpse at the future of horror games when P.T. was released last year, teasing a Silent Hills collaboration between Metal Gear mastermind Hideo Kojima and horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro. And then, the most horrifying thing imaginable happened when the game was abruptly canceled after Kojima and publisher Konami had a falling out.
So there’s a big horror void to be filled, and Sony is attempting to drum up scares later this summer with Until Dawn. I first saw the game several years ago at a press event when it was a Playstation Move title for the PlayStation 3. Fortunately, the clunky motion-only controls were removed when development transitioned to PlayStation 4 (although you can still use the Dual Shock 4’s motion controls as an option). I had the chance to play the first four chapters of the game, which is set up like a TV show, with a “previously on” segment and episodic structure.
The game’s plot is typical B-movie horror: A year after the mysterious deaths of two friends, a group of eight hormonal co-eds returns to the same remote mountain retreat where their friends, you know, mysteriously died. What could possibly go wrong? The game’s big hook is that any of the characters can die, and each decision you make affects what happens next and ultimately who will survive.
It plays quite similarly to Sony’s own exclusive titles Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. You do some limited exploration with limited interactivity with the environments, then you make a decision that prompts a quick-time event, where you have to press a button in time in order to successfully complete an action. It’s a formula that Telltale Games has used to great effect with their Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands series. When you have limited interactivity, you have to rely heavily on great writing, and from what I’ve played of Until Dawn, it’s not really up to par.
For starters, the characters in the game are pretty reprehensible. I get that it’s a horror trope to have obnoxious characters who are then punished in a sense, but after listening to these characters snipe at each other for a few hours, I was reluctant to help them survive. Even the characters played by actors I like, such as Nashville’s Hayden Panettiere and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Brett Dalton, can’t do much to salvage the game’s corny dialogue. The actors’ faces are exquisitely modeled with painstaking attention to detail, but the uncanny valley strikes and suddenly you’re looking at creepy Madame Tussaud’s versions of Juliette Barnes and Grant Ward.
So aside from some of the dialog and creepy faces, is the game scary? If you’re startled by jump scares, it certainly can be. A cool feature is the game’s Cheap Shots, which uses the Playstation camera to record you screaming like an idiot at moments it thinks you might get scared, namely when something jumps out of nowhere and the music blares. Here’s the very first time it happened to me:
But by the fifth or sixth time it happened, this was my reaction. Notice how my cat Manny can’t even be bothered by the bird noises, and he loves birds:
Other than jump scares, Until Dawn didn’t really strike me as terribly tense or scary, and the pacing is pretty uneven, dragging in places and rushing at others. But I played through all four chapters available in the preview, because the idea of your choices affecting the outcome of the game is undeniably intriguing. Developer Supermassive Games says that every decision you make affects the outcome and promises dozens of different endings. So it might not be a particularly good game, or even all that scary, but I have to admit: I kinda want to see all the different ways these jerks die. Until Dawn launches Aug. 25 on PS4.