UNTIL Dawn comes across as a video-game take on a typical teen-slasher flick, complete with psycho killer, screaming girls and dismembered body parts. But what an incredible B-grade experience it delivers.
It's not that the PlayStation 4 exclusive is the scariest horror game I've played. Rather, where Until Dawn succeeds is in its impeccable execution of scares, excellent pacing and clever take on genre tropes.
The game starts off like any bona fide slasher film - 10 teenage friends hang out at a creepy mountain ski lodge, oblivious to a mysterious man who lingers outside with a knife in hand. A cruel prank played on one of the teens goes wrong and she and her twin sister go missing after they run out into the night as a snowstorm rages.
A year later, the twins' brother gathers the remaining friends for a winter reunion at the lodge. Soon, things go bump in the night, and whether all eight friends survive the night depends on the player.
Like an interactive horror movie, I guide one of the eight teens at a time, participating in the mundane like lighting a lantern and deciding whether to side with Bimbo A or Bimbo B. I also time button presses to avoid falling to certain doom and scramble to aim a gun at an assailant and fire it in time.
Because the game often shifts control from one character to the next, I get to learn more about - and sometimes dictate - their motivations.
This works really well because I end up relating to them and feel that my actions matter - the jerk-jock became more likeable than his slasher-flick stereotype initially suggested because I had a hand in making him more helpful; a hasty decision based on a relationship with a friend led to another's shocking, gut-wrenching death.
If I replay a chapter and make different choices, which is possible after completing the game, new situations can play out.
All this while, an excellent attention to atmosphere and suspense building adds to the tension and delivers many a heart-pounding sequence.
Even cliche jump scares work, cementing how Until Dawn, like a love letter to B-grade teen horror movies, knows when and how to dole out the tropes to terrific effect.
A very able cast - which includes Hayden Panettiere, the likeable cheerleader from the Heroes TV series - delivers believable performances, with some smart dialogues and great motion-captured facial expressions to boot.
But some issues mar the experience. Fixed camera angles can be a bother and aspects of the plot in the second half don't meld too well with the first.
The game isn't too long and can be completed in nine hours - I took 11 - but the length feels just right and those hours are some of the best I've spent on a game.
Until Dawn is out now for the PlayStation 4 at $62.
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