Developed by Supermassive Games. Published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Available on PlayStation 4 (Reviewed). Copy provided by publisher.
Failing is the game's best aspect, in fact. It's what gives Until Dawn its bloody, horrific flavor. Screwing up now and then gets the characters killed, and you're stuck with your failures because the game doesn't stop to force you to try again or let you flip back to an earlier save to cheat another try. That element takes Until Dawn from being what's effectively a movie with quicktime events to a dynamic middle ground of storytelling: more than a horror movie you might catch on a Friday night, but still grounded in the tropes of that experience. When Until Dawn is hitting that stride, it's at its most exciting.
It's not a game without its idiosyncratic quirks, however, and not every aspect of its movie-with-game-elements premise is a winner. But taken together, it's a fun choose-your-own-horrific-death kind of experience that usually executes a branching, choice-based narrative in a well-planned way.
Until Dawn is a slasher flick in which a group of eight teenagers meet to hang out at their rich friends' cabin in the woods - which is actually more of a mammoth ski lodge. A year after two of their friends disappeared from the same cabin, they're hoping to work through the loss, until a murderous psycho shows up.
The narrative builds from there, spending time establishing its characters in the early going before threatening their lives in earnest, and dishing out no shortage of cheap, red herring jump scares along the way. This is a game that understands the B-level horror movie vibe its going for, and much of the time, it achieves it extremely well, helped significantly by a script written by film screenwriters and a crop of strong performances by recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek.
The primary focus of Until Dawn is on the way the plot branches based on player choices - and possibly more importantly, player screw-ups. As you control each character, you'll have moments to pick their responses in dialogue, or decide whether they do things like hide from danger or run from it, and so on. Choices with long-reaching implications get marked with a "Butterfly Effect" note, and are tracked on a special menu that notes what happened and what the eventual results of the choice.
The Butterfly Effect mechanic, which Until Dawn harps on pretty hard, is definitely its best element, although some design choices baked in weaken its effect. The game is good about planting choices in small moments that can bloom into big consequences, but it also calls out its branches pretty loudly, and that emphasis on choices has a tendency to lay bare those moments when you make a choice, only to realize it was not important or pivotal. Like most games of its ilk, Until Dawn has quite a few circumstances where no matter what you choose, events go down pretty much the same way.
Collectibles play heavily into how the choice system works out, in two different ways. First, there are "totems" that characters can find on the ground, which show really brief, hazy shots of particular upcoming scenes. The totems can show a character's upcoming (potential) death, or warn you about dangers, or even give you a little guidance about a future choice, provided you interpret what you see correctly. They're a weird addition, in fact - they give you a tiny bit of extra information about the blind corners that choices often are, which can help you make better ones during the game, but there are also a ton of totems and they aren't really that useful, if you even find them at all. And they weaken somewhat the idea that there are no "right" answers in Until Dawn by often kind of hinting at one.