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Until Dawn: an overly cynical review

Spoiler-free TL;DR: Decent narrative game with inconsistent controls that takes too long to get spooky then doesn't know what to do with itself. Best to be played without a guide or walkthrough for full enjoyment.

Before I get into it, there's a few things I should get out of the way:

I'm not a big fan of the horror genre, whether it's movies or games. Part of it is probably because I'm a bit of a wuss but I just don't find entertainment in getting scared. A lot of my experience in the genre consists of jump scares which I don't really hold in a high regard. This game happened to be in my backlog and had a low completion time so I decided to get it out of the way.

I'm also not a huge fan of "the-choices-you-make-change-the-outcome-of-the-story" sort of games. I've only really played some of the Telltale games (Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands) and Detroit: Become Human which I wasn't crazy about but didn't hate either.

Finally, I was using a trophy walkthrough for my first playthrough. I wanted to get all the collectibles on my first run and get as many trophies as I could. Some things accidentally got spoiled for me but nothing I couldn't really figure out on my own. This may have taken some of the "Wow!" factor out of my first playthrough though.

Alright, so what's the deal with this game? I'll try to explain.


The Story:

The game starts out as a typical B-list slasher flick. A group of supposedly high-school friends are alone at one of their parents' winter lodges for vacation. The group consists of your typical horror movie cast: the jock, the popular guy, the prep, the rich girl, etc. Well, the quiet girl in the group has a crush on the popular guy. So the group decides to play a prank on her by luring her up to a bedroom where the popular guy waits to "seduce" her. As she starts to undress, everyone in the group pops out, quiet girl gets embarrassed and runs out into the freezing cold. Her twin sister chases after her, and naturally, they get chased through the woods and fall to their death.

A year later, the twins' brother Josh who was also there originally, invites everyone back to the lodge to pay their respects to Beth and Hannah (the twins) and have a weekend of remembrance. As the group settles in, they proceed to split off into different directions. The popular kids, Mike and Jessica, are going to have a romantic night at the guest lodge; the jock and the rich girl, Matt and Emily have to go back the way they came because Matt forgot one of Emily's bags; the wannabe lovers Chris and Ashley join Josh in finding a Ouija board to talk to his dead sisters; and the smart and resilient Sam decides to take a nice bubble bath.

Josh gets upset at the Ouija seance because his "sisters are speaking to him from beyond the grave- OOOOHHHH" so he runs off and Chris and Ashley chase after him only to get knocked out by a psycho who has infiltrated the lodge and taken them hostage. As you progress as Chris, you find yourself at a mechanical device with a giant saw blade that either cuts Ashley or Josh in half depending on who you choose to save. As it turns out, Josh dies. More on that later.

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Matt and Emily eventually meet up with Chris and Ashley and see that they're not having a good time. After learning that Josh has been murdered by a psycho killer, they decide that it's time to leave. They head to the inoperable cable car they arrived in, then head off to a big radio tower to signal for help. While they're up there, someone comes along and snaps one of the tower's support cables which drops them into an abandoned mine from the 1950s. Emily's bag is never recovered. She probably forgot to pack it.

The popular kids eventually make it to the guest cabin for their sexy love session. However, things go south when the popular girl Jessica gets dragged through the window of the lodge by an evil ancient Algonquin spirit known as a Wendigo. She gets dragged through the forest and either lives or dies depending how good you (Mike) are at quick-time-events. Mike then chases a mysterious stranger through a different part of the abandoned mine which leads him to an insane asylum where our newfound stranger is holed up.

Sam's bath time is interrupted by the same psycho killer that murdered Josh. He covers the lodge in balloons which Sam finds odd since it's not her birthday. He chases her into the basement where she narrowly escapes into the sub-basement. Or something.

Chris and Ashley get worried about Sam as they begin to regain their composure a bit. They follow the same balloons into the basement of the house where they find some clues about how Beth and Hannah died. As it turns out, "quiet girl gets embarrassed and runs out into the freezing cold. Her twin sister chases after her, and naturally, they get chased through the woods and fall to their death." It was the group that killed them! Huh! Some doors open on their own and Chris and Ashley find themselves in an abandoned hotel that's been buried under the lodge for decades. And this thing is buried. Like, leagues below the lodge.

Chris and Ashley find themselves in a Jigsaw trap, Mike and Sam intervene at the last second, and the psycho killer was actually… Josh! Oh no! He actually set up this whole weekend to prank the group back after what they did to his sisters. He also forgot to take his meds which allowed him all the time in the world to set up all of these weird torture porn antics in a 60 year old hotel covered by a lodge in the Canadian mountainside. Also he actually didn't kill anyone. Except for potentially Mike or Emily, depending on how you played the game. He also faked his death which would have happened regardless of what you chose when playing as Chris.

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Long story short, turns out there is a real threat on the mountain: the Wendigos. There's actually a bunch of them and they're the result of a curse on the mountain that turns anyone who eats another human into these skeletal monsters. See, there was a huge cave-in on one of the mines back in the 50s, some of the miners ate each other and became supernatural monsters. Remember the stranger Mike was chasing from before? Turns out he was hunting the monsters. The night Beth and Hannah died, he was actually trying to help them, but his spooky outfit resulted in their death.

Well, quasi-death.

Beth died when she fell off the cliff. Hannah didn't. Police never found their bodies so Hannah was stuck in the mines for over a month. She became mad and ate her dead sister. The curse transferred to her and she became a Wendigo. By the end of the story, as long as you don't move your controller when the game tells you to, she accidentally helps you by killing the other Wendigos, allowing any surviving members of the group to escape and turn the lodge into a giant bonfire, monsters and all.

Jesus Christ.

The Gameplay:

You walk around each chapter at the speed of a snail, collecting items that tell tales of the past and totems that foretell fates of the future. You can hold down one of the bumpers to move like a slightly faster snail that maneuvers like a limousine. You interact with the world and the environment by pressing another button but ONLY WHEN THE GAME TELLS YOU TO. Like, I know I have to hold R2 to investigate something so please let me hold R2 BEFORE the prompt comes up. I'll give the game the benefit of the doubt there since "gameplay" is not its primary purpose. I just get frustrated when I have to interact with so many things with such an inconsistent mechanic.

All of the life-or-death situations were tied to either conversation decisions or quick-time-events, neither of which I'm a fan of. I know it's not an action game, but I still don't appreciate how some of the options to save someone actually meant sacrificing another character. The walkthrough I used kept everyone alive but if I made different decisions, they'd be dead. I also hate QTEs. They stressed me out more than the jump scares. Of which, admittedly, there were significantly less than I thought there would be.

And then there's my biggest issue: the audio levels. Holy shit. I tend to play games kind of loud since I like to hear what's going on and I don't have the best ears. I played this game at my normal level until the first couple of scary tension-building moments. Then the game cranked that shit up to 11. I thought, "Wow, that's annoying," instead of, "Wow that's scary." Even after I turned the audio levels down in the menu, the game was just about at a normal volume for me. Then I started a new playthrough to get any missing trophies and it's like the game completely forgot my audio settings. They were still adjusted the way I had them set but the game just decided to take the reins there. Don't know what that was about, but could have been my TV.

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I'll be honest, I didn't hate the game. It took me until halfway through to finally care about what happened to the characters though. The story never really drew me in because in order to gain any insight you kind of had to look for collectibles. Eventually, things would get explained to you no matter what, but you get the most out of it through some of the items you found lying around which I didn't care for. Like, you never would have known that the stranger Mike chased in the mine was actually hunting the Wendingos the night Beth and Hannah died that resulted in their (quasi-) deaths unless you collected all of the totems, and then watched the short movie they produced.

I also didn't really care how the game started out as some horror slasher flick that evolved into some supernatural fuckery. It just felt like it didn't know what it wanted to do with itself. Additionally, I didn't think there was a point where my choices were wasted or didn't matter. Again, I used a guide for my playthrough but there weren't that many times where I would have chosen something drastically different. I'll admit there were a lot of times where I wouldn't have thought to do nothing though.


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