Years of horror movies have taught us the proper response to an invitation to spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods: No thanks.
If anyone followed that advice, we wouldn’t have “Friday the 13th,” ”The Evil Dead” or, well, “The Cabin in the Woods.” But the kids in “Until Dawn” (Sony, for the PlayStation 4, $59.95) have even more reason to stay home: The last time they went, two of their friends vanished.
A year later, eight teenagers decide to return to the site to try and get some closure on the tragedy. Of course, in this genre, “closure” means running around half-naked while an axe-wielding maniac chases you. “Until Dawn” steers right into the clichés, so you know that as soon as two of the teens start making out, at least one of them will end up on the wrong end of something pointy.
And yet, the story (co-written by horror vet Larry Fessenden) introduces some clever twists on those hoary genre tropes, then throws in a bunch more to keep you off balance. There’s a creepy psychiatrist. There’s an ancient Native American curse. There’s an abandoned sanitarium, and a 50-year-old tragedy that may explain all the mayhem. Don’t get too comfortable once you think you’ve pegged the psycho killer, because there are still many hours to go before sun-up.
“Until Dawn” benefits from a game, appealing young cast, led by Hayden Panettiere of “Nashville” and Rami Malek of “Mr. Robot.” Peter Stormare — from “Fargo” and too many other movies to list — also shows up to deliver his special brand of sublime creepiness.
The motion-captured performances and animation are solid throughout, and the lighting and sound designers at the British studio Supermassive Games have done a terrific job capturing the ambience of classic teen horror movies.
The gameplay is more reminiscent of “Choose Your Own Adventure” than action-heavy horror games like “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill.” At times, the game presents a decision — say, between firing off a flare gun or saving it for later — that may seem innocuous but could have fatal consequences hours later. There’s much chatter about the “butterfly effect,” and there are so many decision points that you’ll want to replay some scenarios to see how things might have turned out differently.
There are also occasional sequences where, in order to survive, you need to press buttons in synch with onscreen prompts. There’s no room for error: Mess up and you’re dead, and the perspective shifts to one of the other teenagers. Suffice to say that not everyone here gets out alive.
More trigger-happy gamers will find fault with the limited control you have over the characters, and there are scenes where all you can do is yell at the screen while the kids do something dumb. But isn’t that the same way you felt watching “Friday the 13th”? Three stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten.
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