Until Dawn is, by most measures, very bad. The voice acting is inconsistent and generally lousy, the is dialogue rife with lines no real person would ever say, and the plot is built on absurd horror tropes stitched together to create a Frankenstein monster of a game. It's so ridiculously awful, so dependent on hackneyed cliches, that you probably think it got that way through gross incompetence, or the developers couldn't afford enough monkeys or typewriters to fashion a decent script. And when the sun finally rises on whichever of its hapless teenage protagonists made it through the night, that might be Until Dawn's greatest accomplishments: making it look like all that hilarious schlock happened naturally. It's not for everyone, in the same way cackling at the screen during Friday the 13th III in 3D isn't for everyone. But for fans of campy horror cinema, the start of Until Dawn is brilliantly, perfectly terrible, and I can't wait to play the rest of it.
At first glance, Until Dawn comes off like a hot mess, but pay closer attention and you’ll discover that’s just a carefully crafted facade. Every overacted line about hunky beefcakes is placed to elicit the most shocked laughter, every trope is used in just the right spot (and even subverted, if you make all the right calls), and every illogical horror twist makes the future fuzzier, so you feel just as lost as the hapless teens you're trying to keep alive. It's meant to be campy and nonsensical, because there's a certain charm to being that bad.
If Until Dawn was trying to play horror straight and stern-faced ala P.T., then yes, it would be completely off the mark. But it's actually shooting for a completely different target, emulating the campy slasher and splatterhouse films of the 80s and 90s. Those films are meant to be creepy and gross, but what keeps you watching are the moments when things get downright dumb. When a group of teenagers split up to search for the killer who's stalking them (opens in new tab) or take on a troop of Nazi zombies in one-on-ten combat, it's the hilarity of the situation that keeps you watching until the next stupidly violent, completely absurd scene rolls out.
Until Dawn knows that, and uses every aspect of its plot to play up those familiar, ridiculous tropes. A group of randy teens traveling to an isolated cabin hours from civilization? On the anniversary that two of their friends disappeared, which the group was semi-responsible for? Only to discover that a mask-wearing killer is stalking the woods, the angry ghost of their friend is trying to talk to them, and the whole place is built on an ancient Native American burial ground? All of those things show up in Until Dawn's first hour. The first hour.
That isn't to say parody is all Until Dawn is going for. It's more Cabin in the Woods than Scary Movie, because the tropes it uses are handled with a genuine love for and understanding of how they work. Because anyone who's watched five horror movies has seen four and a half killers in clown masks, Until Dawn knows how to change the formula to throw you off. It tricks you into thinking you know what you're doing, only to change the rules and leave you as scared, confused, and horribly outmatched as those 'dumb' teens.
In addition to a strong sense of what makes slashers good, SuperMassive clearly knows how to weave its story with robust gameplay. Most of what you'll be doing moment-to-moment is exploring the area and making dialogue choices (to the point that you could comfortably call it an adventure game), but there are also mysteries to solve, relationships to develop and, most importantly, life-and-death calls to make.
Mysteries can be solved with mini-games that let you play detective and push you to investigate as much as possible. Relationships change dynamically as each character makes different choices (guided by you), which can alter their chances of survival later. All of that makes Until Dawn's story and gameplay feel like two parts of a carefully-crafted whole, where a hilariously stupid premise is perfectly balanced on a base of solid, fun game. Until Dawn is just as much a good game as it is a gushing love letter to a certain kind of schlocky horror.
If you truly don’t enjoy gushing blood and rising body counts, not to mention a heaping helping of illogical cause and effect, no force on Earth will get you to like this game. But if there's a warm spot in your heart for all things camp, if dumb horror tropes make you chuckle or wince, and if dialogue that is just the worst leaves you in stitches, there's the beginnings of something wonderfully awful in Until Dawn’s carefully made mess.