Unto the End Review

Reviewed on PC

Also available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, Apple Mac and Nintendo Switch
Unto the End Review

Unto the End is a game that wants to break you. And if you’re a fan of challenging video games, you know that can be a good thing or bad thing.

Challenge alone does not guarantee satisfaction. Making something fun is what really drives players to overcome a challenge. In action games where challenge is the focus, tight mechanics and responsive controls are what underpin a satisfying experience. You should never feel that failure was beyond your control. Each penalty rightfully earned, and a lesson learned along with it.

I can’t say this is the case with Unto the End. This side-scrolling action-platformer from 2 Ton Studios revels in its brutal difficulty and punishing combat system, but its shoddy base mechanics fail to conjure any feeling but frustration.

It starts simply enough. A redheaded Viking-looking warrior – the player character – leaves his spouse and son to trudge out into the dangerous frozen wilds. You have scant tools at your disposal; a sword, a torch, a dagger, some healing herbs, and a lock of your spouse’s hair.

For what reason you go on this quest, you don’t know. Nobody speaks, emoting instead through simple gestures and grunts. Their faces bear no characteristics. They, like the player character, are little more than vessels to impress your own ideas.

Right away, veiling the goal of the main character really puts the player in the dark. This technique can work, if there are enough breadcrumbs to keep you piecing together the puzzle. But there just isn’t anything like that here. No discarded notes or cave paintings to latch onto, no conversations or guidance. Just a frozen wasteland, and the local population of primitive cave-dwelling creatures who attack on sight.

And once you begin to understand the brutal slog that lies ahead, it becomes doubly hard to justify pressing on.

Unto the End opts for the kind of slow, methodical combat style widely introduced to video games by From Software’s Souls series. These games are notorious for demanding the player pay close attention to enemy cues and openings for attack. They don’t allow for many mistakes.

What makes those games’ combat so difficult, on a granular level, is the inability to cancel out of attack animations. When you make a move, you have to commit to it – and all the consequences that may come.

But what makes these games fun is the strong connection to your character and the range of your potential. You have a familiarity with your moves and can depend on the countless different tools at your disposal. If all else fails, the RPG layer helps you find your playstyle and develop it, even if you hit a wall.

Unto the End clearly draws at least some inspiration from the Souls games. Any game involving bonfires and difficult combat is cursed to suffer this comparison. But the parts it borrows couldn’t have been executed worse.

The controls in Unto the End are slow, clunky, and unresponsive. Each action – everything from a sword swing, to a block, to simply changing direction – carries a degree of weighty input lag. And you can't cancel out of any animation, making each action a full commitment. While this does impart a sense of mass and fragility to the character, it makes combat needlessly difficult.

Your ability set, like your inventory, is slight. You have three low sword swings and three high swings, which can chain into each other, but always stop after a 3-hit combo. After that, a pause before you can perform another action. There’s a single throwing knife at your disposal, which becomes a stab at closer range, and you need to retrieve it from the enemy once it’s dead. Blocking is handled via directional inputs – up and down, just like your sword swings, each corresponding to an enemy’s attack.

You can roll left and right with the B button, or briefly duck by tapping it without directional movement. You can jump with the A button, either vertically or in either direction. Apart from exploration, the duck and jump serve the same purpose as the high and low blocks – jumping to avoid low attacks, ducking to avoid high attacks, and dodging to avoid an attack entirely.

The last available move is a shoulder check, meant to knock enemies to the ground. But it only seems to work at specific distances, and many enemies would block from the ground and teleport back to standing when I did manage to land a hit on them afterwards. I also found the enemy AI would frequently respond to a shoulder check by just dashing through you in the opposite direction a split second after you charge, and continuing to indefinitely.

It’s a combat system that sounds simple enough to be satisfying in one-on-one battles. But the clumsiness of your character, worsened by gangs of enemies and an inconsistent ruleset, all get in the way of this experience.

For example, sometimes rolling too close to a wall will cause you to collide with the wall, dropping whatever you’re holding in the process. In fact, any action that interrupts your roll will cause you to drop your weapon – such as an enemy landing a hit, or even just rolling into an enemy as they attack (there seem to be some invincibility frames in the roll, but few of them).

This forces you to scramble to pick up your weapon mid-brawl. And it takes about a full second for you to pick it up (unless you roll, which allows you to pick it up instantly). When faced with one or more enemies, this often puts you wide open for attack. Other honest mistakes, like going for your knife after you’ve already thrown it, start a 3-second animation where the character searches for his knife anyway. You’re totally frozen and helpless in these moments.

You’re fragile, too. Two or three hits is usually enough to kill you, depending on the size of your foe, their weaponry, the state of your armour, how injured you are, even whether you’re standing or prone. Against tougher enemies, just one hit can send you back to the last checkpoint. And this is thanks to a seemingly random element to combat damage – which we’ll get to in a bit.

In my experience, most failed encounters lasted less than 30 seconds. And you’ll fail a lot. Worse still, your attacks rarely stagger enemies, even though each hit you take stuns you and interrupts your attack. Several times I would land a hit as an enemy performed their own attack, but they carried through. The only reliable way of dealing damage is blocking three or more attacks in a row, which puts enemies into a brief stunned state where they’re vulnerable – but only from an attack that’s the opposite direction of the most recent block. And even that isn't a 100% certainty. Fleeing is an option I utilized as a last resort, as most fights aren’t worth the trouble. But you often don't have that option.

Because of this, battles become an endless test of trial and error. You try to figure out what initial moves will get you in the safest position, with the most foes dispatched. Soon, you’ll start each attempt the same way. Throw the knife at the rear foe, try to sneak a hit on the lead, dodge backwards to gain some ground. Duck the spear so it hits the guy behind you, throw your knife, shoulder check for a safe overhead blow.  

Enemy cues for attacks are quick and subtly different from each other. You have just a binary choice for what attack will come next, high or low, but little more than half a second to recognize it and time your block. No matter what, though, some attacks go through your block altogether, knocking you down and your sword out of your hands.  (An assist mode is available, which lengthens enemy attack cues, and I don’t honestly see how you could play the game without it.)

You’re often fighting in dark cave systems where the only light is your torch, or where foreground objects obscure your view of the battlefield. This effect seems like a play for the cinematic nature of the game, but in such unforgiving combat scenarios, it only gets in the way. If you take a hit and wind up behind a foreground object with an enemy, you might as well drop the controller. The enemies don’t make sound cues with their hits, so it's impossible to defend yourself in these moments.

But the worst offender, which is near game-breaking in my view, is Unto the Ends attempt at a quasi-dynamic damage system.

In this game, damage you sustain from each hit is seemingly random. Sometimes just two hits are enough to kill you. Other times, it takes ten.

After I first noticed this, I began walking into a one-on-one battle and letting the enemy hit me until I died, from full health and armour at a standing position. I did this 20 times. The hits to take me down ranged from 2 to 10, usually favouring the lower numbers. I’m convinced RNG is at work for the damage values, which really cheapens the combat system in my view. If either one or ten hits can kill you in an encounter, does that mean each battle has an element of luck?

Some hits also cause bleeding that worsens over time, causing you to randomly drop to your knees – whether you’re trudging alone on the path or in the middle of a heated encounter. When you do manage to survive a battle, you have to act quickly to stem the bleeding with herbs (there’s no way to properly heal wounds outside of the game’s scarce few bonfires) before you die in minutes.

There’s also no HUD readout of this damage – or for anything at all. You judge your damage by how bloodied you are, and how frequently your character struggles to stay standing.

So, you have minuscule timing windows… damage is largely random… and room for error is slim. How is this all supposed to come together into an enjoyably difficult combat system?

Unto the End occasionally attempts to sidestep the combat’s failings by presenting situations that can be solved peaceably. All of these encounters are with the same monsters that attack on sight. Yet, you’ll occasionally come across a passive monster that’s mourning the death of another and pays you no mind. Sometimes you’ll save monsters from other monsters. Others just watch you from afar and trade materials with you. Key items you find along your travels can serve as signals to these monsters that you’re a friend – or at least, not immediately hostile to them – which let you pass by without trouble.

This pacifism almost felt like the real point of the game – not the combat. Maybe instead, the game wants you to refrain from killing as much as possible so the monsters favour you and stop attacking. But in my two partial playthroughs – both of which ended at the same impassable encounter – how I behaved made no difference. Certain battles must be overcome to proceed, even if you were peaceful with the creatures moments earlier.

Unto the End doesn’t offer much aside from this unforgiving combat system. There’s some light exploration and resource gathering along your journey, which you can use to sidestep combat encounters through diplomacy or repair and craft new armour. But there are no puzzles to solve and few rewards to be found – and what difference they make is questionable.

Every so often, you’ll come across a bonfire which gives you a few options. Heal any bleeding wounds, use precious materials to repair your armour (which you must do before crafting new armour, which means fixing your armour often leaves you without resources to upgrade). You’re even able to transport to a memory long before the game’s setting where you can practice sparring with your spouse.

The game also features moments reminiscent of Limbo, where deadly traps and hazards come out of nowhere and take you out on the first shot. But unlike Limbo, these segments don’t always work seamlessly. I recall one moment involving a troll in a cave, where you have to shine a light to blind the troll and grab his key. But the troll only shields his eyes for a few seconds before charging, and won’t do it again even if you keep the light out.

If there’s one spot where I can hand it to Unto the End, it’s in the presentation. It has an appropriately muted colour palette, contrasted by striking white snow and dark pools of viscera. The 2D visuals, though simplistic in character design and texture work, utilize strong lighting effects and environmental elements to present a convincingly alien, hostile, and lonely world. Dank caves and icy ruins make up most of the scenery, but I was consistently curious about where the game was taking me. Some interiors are impeccably designed, even desktop wallpaper material.

One standout element of the presentation was the sound design. Each breath your character takes pierces through the silence of the frozen wastes and seems to grow more ragged as his chances of survival dim. The meaty wet sound of sword rending flesh, only after a dozen clangs of steel, sells the idea of each battle as a life-or-death struggle.  

The music isn’t much to talk about. It’s mainly just dark and droning sounds meant to put you on edge. I don’t think I heard anything I could call a song anywhere in this experience, though I don't see how one would fit, either.

Now, normally I wouldn’t expect to have performance issues with such a visually simplistic title, but alongside an apparent 30 FPS lock on PC (?!), Unto the End frequently slowed down during encounters with more than one foe. In a game that’s already so demanding about its brutally slow and precise control scheme… that doesn't score points. (I run an AMD Vega 64, and maybe there's a release patch that fixes this, but as of this writing, that's how the game performs in my review build.)

Unto the End clearly has a lot of thought, passion, and love behind it. It’s a project that feels totally uncompromised from the original vision. The art style and concept intrigued me, and I was excited to play it. I really tried to like it for a long time.

But even after two attempted playthroughs and well over a hundred deaths, Unto the End fails to come together in a consistent and enjoyable way. This game got under my skin each time I played it. It’s a desperate, numbing slog through a harsh unknown where you never feel prepared or comfortable.

You might be starting to think that’s the point. It’s a game meant to make you feel like you’re scraping by, barely overcoming odds that tower over you, without a moment of reprieve from the turmoil. Your only purpose shrouded in secrecy.

But with no goal, and often no enjoyable, even reasonable means of progress, Unto the End is just an exercise in misery that eats at your patience.

Unto the End is out on PC, MacOS, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch today.

Overall

Even with clear intentions and a striking presentation, Unto the End's borderline broken combat mechanics drag the experience down into a spiral of misery.

4

out of 10
Category review

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