For those of us who remember the very popular Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s and ’90s, Until Dawn plays on those old sinews and synapses of ours.
The survival horror game, originally pitched for the Playstation Move but converted to a PS4 exclusive, boasts a consequence-for-your-actions gameplay, referred to throughout the evolving plot as the Butterfly Effect.
Yes, that famous chaos theory flutters in and out, only it’s morphed into a collective First Nations mythology.
However, some of those aboriginal beliefs get mixed up throughout the story. Example, the Haida and Coastal Salish inspired totems that appear in the game as collectibles and landmarks are found on the West Coast of Canada, not in the Blackfoot dominated mountains of Alberta, where the frosty tale is set.
It’s certainly a small flaw in writers Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick’s otherwise outstanding story, which features eight high school friends reuniting on the year anniversary of a tragedy that is narrated like a television series.
Two twin, teenaged girls, friends of the octet, went missing in the mountains of Alberta after a prank gone wrong in the family lodge. Every decision you make, during the year anniversary parti à froid, impacts the story down the road.
Ah, and the road this game travels deviates from the script pleasantly. For horror film buffs it may seem like the token slasher film, pitting a bunch of horny, arrogant teens against the Psycho. But it’s so much more.
Tropes are plentiful, especially the characters: the final girl, Sam, played by Hayden Panettiere; the geek, Chris; the academic, Ashley; the jock, Matt; the bitch, Emily; the hero, Mike; the slut, Jessica and the party guy, Josh — who is the brother of the two missing girls.
I’m still struggling to figure out Peter Stormare’s role as the psychiatrist, Dr. Hill, during the wrap up of episodes.
Once you get deeper into the story, however, you realize the Saw-inspired antagonist is merely a front for a more menacing beast. If you’re familiar with Fessenden’s film work, you’ll know of Wendigo, released in 2001, starring Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber. The thriller plays on the infamous and predominantly Algonquin legend of a cannibalistic creature.
Fessenden even makes an appearance as the flame-throwing hunter of the wendigos. Note the plural, as the story uses three classic horror settings: isolated cabin, abandoned mines and the condemned sanatorium, and the mines factor in greatly with the wendigo.
Once the mask is lifted off the Jigsaw meets Leatherface villain, making the story a touch Scooby Doo-ish, the real ka-ka hits the proverbial fan. Now, that’s not to say the wendigo doesn’t make an appearance before the Psycho’s unveiling, as Jess is the first hapless victim of the wendigo.
Ironically, the gameplay is a little restricting given there are plenty of options — it’s not an open-world game like Red Dead Redemption, but more cause-and-effect like L.A. Noire. For example, a waist high fence, with a locked gate that is easily vaulted over, is avoided, multiple times by athletic characters.
Another problem is the lack of people getting hypothermia. It’s a given if characters are in a cold environment in tank tops, underwear and oh, a bathrobe, that they may catch more than a cold.
Regardless, I spent 11 hours straight playing the game, and wrapped up the denouement the next morning. Replay value is huge, as in my first run, 4(5)/8 survived. The fifth is bracketed because the one character makes like a caterpillar and transforms. (Obviously, that leaves it open for a sequel, and yes please!)
But for now, my goal is to ensure they all live.