Long time readers will know that horror and I don’t really get along. As a genre I don’t find it particularly engaging although there have been several examples which have managed to break through my disdain. Still even those few examples haven’t been enough to change my base dislike of nearly everything that bears the horror tag. Indeed that’s the reason why I deliberately avoided Until Dawn for as long as I did and it was only after thumbing through numerous reviews of it did I change my mind. Whilst Until Dawn might not be the title that finally gets me to see the merits of the horror genre it is an exquisitely built game in its own right, one deserving of all the attention it has received.
It was just like any other winter getaway when eight close friends went to one of their parent’s mountain lodges for a weekend of partying. They were to spend the week revelling like all teenagers do, indulging in things that their parents would likely disapprove of. However their night quickly turns sinister as they are reminded of the tragic past that brought them here that seems to haunt them at every corner. Your decisions will guide them through this night and determine who makes it to the end and who meets their untimely demise at the horrors of the mountain.
Until Dawn makes good use of the grunt of the PlayStation4, bringing graphics that are far beyond anything that the previous generation of consoles was capable of. Whilst most of the time the graphics are hidden behind the dark horror movie aesthetic There are still numerous moments that allow you to appreciate the level of work that’s gone into crafting the visual aspects of the game. There are a few rough edges though with performance taking a dive regularly, especially in outdoor scenes or action heavy sequences. The game isn’t unplayable because of it however you can definitely tell that the priority was aesthetic over optimization, meaning a constant 30fps experience isn’t guaranteed. Considering this is Supermassive Game’s first PlayStation4 title I’m willing to give them a little leeway however I’d expect future titles to not make the same mistake.
In terms of game play Until Dawn is in the same league as other interactive fiction titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. For the most part you’ll be wandering around the mostly linear environment, looking at various objects and interacting with other characters to further the story. Until Dawn’s flagship feature is the “Butterfly Effect” system which chronicles most of your decisions which will have an impact on the story down the line. There’s also collectibles called Totems which when found show you a glimpse of a possible future event, allowing you to get some insight into how they might unfold. Finally for all the action parts of Until Dawn you’ll be using a pretty standard quick time events system. All in all at a mechanical level Until Dawn is pretty much what you’d expect when it comes to an interactive fiction game.
The walking around and looking at things part is mostly well done (with some issues I’ll discuss later) with interactive objects that are in your character’s field of view being highlighted by a small white glowing orb. This typically means that as long as you do a full 360 of a room you’re likely to find everything in it which is good as I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to try and figure out sometimes in games like this. Until Dawn does reward exploration, meaning that if you think you’re going down a non-obvious section chances are you’ll find something juicy at the end of it. Thankfully the walking speed can be sped up some as well, meaning you’re not going to double your play time just because you wanted to explore a little bit.
Whenever you perform an action or make a certain dialogue choice the screen will explode in a cascade of butterflies, indicating that your choice will impact on future events. This is a more extravagant version Telltale’s “X will remember that” feature with the added benefit that you can go back and review your choices at any point. Unlike most other games though, where decisions that will have major impacts on the story will usually be showcased as such, Until Dawn rarely makes such a distinction. If I’m honest I found that to be a little frustrating as it was hard to tell when what seemed like a minor decision actually had major consequences. In reality though that’s much closer to a real world experience so I can definitely appreciate it for that reason.
The quick time event system works as you’d expect it to, giving you a limited amount of time to respond by pressing the right button or moving the control stick in the right way. It’s broken up every so often by having you make decisions, like taking a safe route vs a quicker one or hiding vs running, which can have similar butterfly effect impacts as dialogue choices do. The one interesting differentiator that Until Dawn has is the “DON’T MOVE” sections which can actually be something of a challenge when your heart is racing and your hands are shaking the controls. So nothing revolutionary here, not that you’d really be expecting that from games in this genre.
Whilst Until Dawn does show an incredible amount of polish in most regards there’s still some rough edges in a few key areas. The collision detection is a bit iffy, being a little too wide at the character’s feet which makes you get stuck on objects that you’d think you could just walk past. This also extends to things your character holds like a burning torch which seem to lack collision detection, allowing you to put your character’s hand through walls. There’s also the performance issues which I noted previously which, whilst not degrading the game into a slideshow, are definitely noticeable. Still for a first crack at a game of this calibre it’s commendable that Supermassive Games was able to put out something with this level of polish, especially on a new platform for them.
Now being someone who’s avoided the horror genre it almost all its incarnations I don’t feel entirely qualified to give an objective view on how good the story is. Certainly it seems to share many of the tropes that you’d associate with a teen horror movie but whether they’re well executed or not is something I’ll have to leave up to the reader. To me it was a predictable narrative, one that attempted to use jump scares and triggered music to try and build tension. Whilst it didn’t bore me to sleep like so many horror movies have done I still wouldn’t recommend it on story alone.
Until Dawn is a great debut title for Supermassive Games on the PlayStation4 showing that Quantic Games isn’t the only developer who can create great interactive fiction. The graphics are what I’ve come to expect from current generation titles, making full use of the grunt available on the platform. Mechanically it plays as you’d expect with only a few rough edges in need of additional polish. The writer’s aversion to horror though means that the story didn’t strike much of a chord although it’s likely to delight horror fans the world over. In summation Until Dawn is a superbly executed game one that both horror fans and interactive fiction junkies can enjoy.
Until Dawn is available on PlayStation4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 7 hours.
This is the part of my game reviews where I usually wax philosophical about the genre, developer or some other aspect of the game I’m about to review. I’m not going to do that with this review, instead I’m going to state quite clearly that this review is only for those who have played the game. The reason behind this is simple, whilst I could do my usual spoiler-free affair I feel like I couldn’t spend more than a paragraph talking about it before I inadvertently walked in spoiler territory. So before you go any further I’d urge you to hope on steam, buy Gone Home and immerse yourself in it for the next couple hours. Then when you’re done come back here, and we’ll talk.
SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE POST. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The setting of Gone Home is one that will be very familiar to any Australian. It’s something of a coming of age ritual for residents of my home country to leave it for a year after finishing college to go abroad and see the world. For me that instantly set the tone for the game, pulling up memories of seeing friends off and then, usually a long time later, seeing them come back with so many stories to tell. It’s also twinged with a slight feeling of loss as I never did that, choosing instead to go straight into university, and it instantly felt like I’d been pulled back to those times. I was a young adult once again.
The atmosphere that Gone Home sets up initially honestly had me a little worried. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, consistently rating anything in that area lower, and whilst the recommendations I had received to play Gone Home couldn’t have been more exuberant the opening scenes did lead me to believe that I was, at some point, going to be spooked by something or walk in on some horrific scene that had befallen the occupants of this house. Still with none of it forthcoming I began to stumble my way through the house and this is where my usual drawing conclusions based on the evidence at hand seems to have led me astray, something I give the writers a lot of credit for.
In terms of lay out I was really quite impressed with the way Gone Home guides you through the environment. Now after I had rummaged through all the nearby cupboards I headed straight for the answering machine (which did nothing to allay my fears that I was walking into a horror scene) and then proceeded to continue exploring from there. I’m not sure how my experience with Gone Home would changed if I had decided to go upstairs first as it feels like much of the base narrative is set up in those first few rooms on the bottom floor. Indeed that’s where the beginnings of your father’s narrative begin and where you start to learn that Sam has been struggling at school due to her being the girl from the psycho house.
I think that’s what hooked me into Sam’s story initially as the experiences she describes in her notes, specifically the ones about isolation, really hit home. After primary school I was constantly bullied, from the moment I got on the bus to the second I got home, and so I instantly had this rapport with Sam’s character as I knew what it was like to be on the outside. It was made all the more poignant by the blooming unrequited romance with Lonnie which drudged up even more memories of my time in school.
This was when my overacting imagination started to lead me to conclusions that I desperately hoped weren’t true. You see after being in a similar position myself I knew what the potential outcomes where for this story and the most likely one chilled me to my bones. I remember one of the journal entries saying something to the effect of “I can’t live without you” which, given the circumstances that followed it, instantly led me to believe that Sam had committed suicide. I was panicked, I grabbed the attic key and moved myself as fast as I could to where it was, those glaring red lights feeling like an omen of epic proportions, indicating that someone had gone up but had never come back down again.
You can then imagine my relief as instead of finding a body up there I found the notebook, the one which had been playing in retrospect throughout the whole game. I’ve heard that a lot of people think that this is a hollywood ending, and it is in a way, however for me it’s much more of a bitter sweet moment. Sure I was extraordinarily happy that Sam and Lonnie had decided to follow their hearts rather than let the world tear them apart however I’m also someone who can still vividly remember the naivety of youth and the challenges that pair will face are only just beginning.
I think my favorite aspect of gone home is how the narrative starts off dark, which pushes you towards thinking it is going to be some kind of horror/ghost story, but the more you read and discover the brighter it becomes. You learn in the beginning that your father is a writer who has unfortunately hit on rough times but later on its revealed that his first book had been republished and, due to that success, he had written another novel. Your parents relationship seemed to be on the rocks although their absence in Gone Home appears to be because they’re celebrating their anniversary. They may be on a couple’s counselling retreat however, but that at least shows they’re willing to work on it.
I did wonder for a while whether or not the ghost/uncle sub-plot was necessary for the overarching narrative as it really is an aside to everything else in Gone Home. It did help to generate some tension at the start as you couldn’t be quite sure which direction the story was heading in however once you’re invested enough in Sam and Lonnie that sub-plot instantly becomes secondary. Now I admit that that was probably the writer’s intent all along and therefore credit is due to them because of it but, I don’t know maybe it’s just my aversion to the horror genre that is driving this feeling I have.
Gone Home is a beautifully written interactive story. It touches on so many issues that at least one of them will resonate with you and from there you’ll be dragged down into Sam’s world, echoing her every emotion. I have to give the writers credit for showing me one potential story path which I eagerly concluded was the most likely and then, at the last moment, they upended my expectations with a reveal that could not have been better. If you’re someone that favors narrative over game play then you really can’t go past Gone Home as it is one of the most well written games I’ve come across in a long time.
Gone Home is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total game time was just on 2 hours.
There’s a startling number of games that just fly under my radar every year. Whilst this usually comes down to falling back into my own personal crack habit of World of Warcraft there are also quite a few that, for one reason or another, never make it past a first cursory glance. Nowadays I usually put a strong emphasis on recommendations from friends in order to make sure I catch the gems that might have fallen through the cracks and it’s proving to be a good system. Alan Wake was one of these games that I hadn’t really given much thought to as the hype around it was fairly minimal. You could put this down to the developer (Remedy Entertainment) being quite a small shop with only 45 employees. Still their pedigree is undisputably solid as they are the originators of the Max Payne series, which was eventually sold on to Take Two. Could they develop a story as compelling as the one that brought them fame? Read on to find out!
You play Alan Wake, a best selling author who’s been unable to write a single page in over two years. The starting of the game is your typical thriller/horror scenario as everything seems to be going quite well. Alan and his wife Alice have decided to take a vacation to a quite country town called Bright Falls for a couple weeks. You get a glimpse of the celeberity writer life as you’re pestered by your agent, adored by fans and frustrated with your creative block. All of this makes for a perfect setting for everything to go utterly, horribly wrong as the story begins to unfold.
After a couple intense events you find yourself in a car crash, alone. After walking away in search of help you come across a manuscript page of a novel that is written by you but you can’t remember writing it. As you find more pages you realise that the story it’s telling is coming true and if you search enough you can find pages that predict the future. You then encounter one of “The Taken”, the primary enemy of the game. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen them though as you had a dream (the tutorial level of the game) where you encountered them before. The rest of the game is spent fighting your way through the darkness, following the story as it unfolds in front of you.
The game is very atmospheric, drawing you in and really giving you that feeling of being alone in a world that’s actively hunting you. This is one of the first games that manages to use darkness correctly as whilst the majority of it was played with the only light source being a small torch it didn’t feel like a cheap hack to hide the lack of detail (I’m looking at you, Doom 3). The torch also facilitates much of the combat as all enemies you encounter are surrounded by darkness that can only be burned off by light. Whilst its cool the first time around having to burn off every enemy’s impenetrable darkness shield before you can cap them does get a bit tiring towards the end, although the other light based weapons (flares and flash bangs) do make for some rather fun and varied tactics with taking out The Taken.
For the most part the combat and movement are pretty solid but there are some times when you’ll find yourself walking off a ledge or falling through a crack in the floor to your death. On the flip side there are also times when mashing the controller will get you out of situations that were physically impossible like say jumping off thin air if you press the jump button at the right time. The level of interactivity with the game’s world is also fairly low with most objects just being solid and immovable. It’s not that big of a deal really but coming off my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption where almost everything was interactive it felt a little cheap.
That brings me to one of my biggest criticisms about this game: the cut scenes. Now usually when I first start playing a new game it takes me a little while to get used to the kind of motion capture they’ve used but after a while it doesn’t bother me anymore. Alan Wake however had horrendous motion capture done for quite a lot of the cut scenes, especially with the lip syncing. There were many times where the characters would just hang their mouths wide open after saying something or just simply not move their lips while they were talking. Cutscenes are immersion breakers at the best of times but these ones served to dump me right out of the game completely. Hopefully Remedy notices this and it won’t be so bad in their next release.
The game is delivered in a TV style episodic form right down to the “Previously on Alan Wake” at the start of each new chapter. Whilst I like the style it almost felt like the game was telling you “It’s OK to go away and do something else now” but I only found myself doing that 3 times throughout the whole playthrough. The pacing of the game is quite good and the story grips you enough that putting it down is quite hard. Remedy also took the TV idea to its realistic extreme by including ads in the game for almost any product that would have them. I don’t usually mind them as long as their unobtrusive but there were definitely some moments where they were put in your way to make sure you saw them. I don’t really know how effective such ads are but they must work on some level.
Oh yeah I’d better go buy some Energizer batteries and a new Verizon phone (wait…).
So the game has some major flaws and is riddled with product placement, but is it still worth your time to play? I’d say so as whilst it’s a short by many people’s standards its still quite an intense journey through the dark world that your character has created. The ending was an unfortunate cry for a sequel or DLC (of which some has already been released) which was a bit annoying but almost expected in this day and age. For the cost of admission though the game delivers quite a fulfilling game that can have its flaws overlooked for the ambitous way it tries to capture aspects of games like Mass Effect and Gears of War with more non-traditional games like Heavy Rain. Since the DLC that was just released was free for those who bought the original game I’ll more than likely be sitting down to another helping of Alan Wake in the near future and I’m looking forward to it.
Alan Wake is available exclusively on the Xbox 360 right now for $88 (Collector’s Edition price!). Game was played on the Hard difficulty with an estimated 10 hours of gameplay total. I think I got about 50 of those coffee thermoses…mmm coffee….