It didn’t take long to understand that Unto The End was going to be different. From the early glowing press to the disclaimer at the beginning of the game, I knew this had a chance to be special. And it absolutely lived up to my expectations.
Unto The End is brought to us by the two-person team 2 Ton Studios. They were inspired by their own real-life excursions and wanted Unto The End feel to feel less like a game and more like one of their adventures. The beautiful hand-drawn world and the haunting and engrossing sound creates a remarkable atmosphere. With no HUD to guide you, the only thing on the screen is you and the intricately drawn world that is both beautiful in its simplicity, and terrifyingly realistic. The snowy landscape and dark caverns mix only with the sound of your footsteps, the howling of the wind, and the sound of the horrifying creatures that are always there but usually just out of sight. It manages to keep you feeling both extremely tense and somehow lonely at the same time.
When these creatures do appear on the screen, you’ll be treated with a punishing sword-based combat unlike just about anything you’ve ever played. The “soulslike” Salt and Sanctuary, another fantastic hand-drawn indie game, is known for some difficult combat. But in that game, you fought through levels of average-to-easy foes until you faced off against a boss that seemed impossible to beat. Of course, that was until you memorized its patterns and moves. In Unto The End, almost every enemy is crushingly difficult. You aren’t memorizing techniques or patterns here. Instead, you’re reading and reacting to your enemy’s every move. For a 2-D sidescroller, the combat here is surprisingly complex and punishing. You can block high, block low, duck, jump, dodge roll, shoulder charge, and even more. You can even fake a high attack causing your opponent to flinch and leaving them vulnerable to a low attack and vice versa. No matter what attack the monster across from you tries, one of those above options is the answer. In fact, the developer suggests that every enemy in the game can be killed in as little as 2 or 3 blows. This baffles my mind as some of my hardest fought battles I needed to hit them so many times I lost count.
This fighting mechanic is utterly unique to me and offers possibly one of the most rewarding adventures in recent memory. It’s a mechanic that not only discourages button mashing, it punishes it. It forces you to stay calm, so you can read your opponent and then perform precisely the counterattack that will work. I died so many times because I pressed a button to attack more than once. If the enemy blocks your first attack, and you’ve already pressed the button for the second, you’ll be exposed. And these things don’t miss.
What is so cool here is that there is more than one way to defeat these things but there are a million ways to die. The problem is that each of the monsters is as deadly and as smart as you. It is reacting to you and you need to react to it. In less than a second, you’ll need to decide if it is telegraphing a low or high attack. Is it a combo or a single strike? It does have a ‘Combat Assist’ mode that slows enemy attacks giving the player more time to read and react during fights. But I used this mode most of the time and it still was incredibly difficult for me. During one of the many frustrating combat sequences, I would inevitably check the settings to see if it switched back to regular mode. Unfortunately, it never did. It was always in the “easy” mode and still kicking my ass. But I’m old and don’t react as fast as I once did. Your mileage will vary to a degree.
While at times frustrating, I love how the combat is fantastically simple and yet so hard to do. When it’s mastered, it’s actually beautiful to watch, almost like a choreographed fight scene straight out of Hollywood. The flipside, of course, is that mastering this is going to take forever. I could seriously make a 2-hour video review showing only me dying over and over again. Everyone in my house is now afraid of me because I yelled at my TV so much playing this game. I will probably never master this combat, but my goal is to get good enough that through trial and error I hope to see the end of the game someday. That’s right. I haven’t finished the game so I can’t tell you how long it is or if the ending pays off the emotional simple storytelling.
If the swordplay and 2D hand-drawn world bear some resemblance to Ska Studio’s Salt and Sanctuary, then the stripped-down storytelling may remind you of Playdead’s fantastic Alone or its followup Inside. All three of them manage to tell a story that I couldn’t take my eyes off of with little more than sights and sounds. The emotions and weight of the story are told without words because they aren’t needed. You know you are a regular man who wants nothing more than to return home to his wife and son. You are outmatched and outnumbered in a world that is dark and full of terrors. You’re reminded that he’s just a regular man constantly throughout your playthrough. Your heavy breathing during combat, or the fact that you will drop your sword if your stunned and will literally fall to your knees when you are bleeding and tired. You are not a superhuman descendant of Eld, destined to return order to the world. You cannot stop one attack halfway through, just because you changed your mind. You need to stay calm and be precise or you will die.
There is no HUD, but there is a minimalist menu screen. Scattered throughout the world, you’ll find campsites where you can heal up and craft certain items. As you scavenge the land and your victims, you can use the bones, leather, sticks, and herbs that you find to create tonics and improve your armor at these campsites. Here you can craft torches and daggers if you managed to lose them. You can also get some much-needed combat practice using a flashback scene with your wife as your son keeps score. It’s a cool feature that manages to teach you how to play and helps tell the story.
While I think the combat difficulty will deter casual gamers, I predict Unto The End will be a critical smash hit. Gamers looking for a challenge amidst an engaging story in a hauntingly beautiful world should flock to this game, and I think they will.
Unto The End PS4/PS5 Review
- Overall - Must Play - 9/109/10
Unto The End features a read and react combat system that is crushingly difficult, but addictively beautiful and satisfying if and when you become adept at it. The disclaimer at the beginning suggests that you dispel any preconceived notions about what is to come, and that’s good advice. What is to come is an adventure that is totally worth taking despite the frustrations of the constant defeat coming your way.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using PS4 code on PS5.