There are many ways a game can immerse you. Deep character customization, a rich story, and tight mechanics are some of the most recognizable ways developers can bring players into their world. Unto the End from developer 2 Ton Studios is a game that pulls you into its world from the very start with a heartfelt parting moment between your character and his family.
After setting off into the snowy wastes, the Father soon finds himself in an underground cavern filled with strange creatures. The excellent sound and music design complement the minimalist graphical presentation. While the musical scores are subtle, the tracks creep up at precisely the right time in nearly every circumstance to draw you into each moment you hear it. The crunching of gravel and snow under his boots gives him notable presence amongst the dark locales and snowy terrain, along with his deep breaths of effort and exhaustion as you traverse dangerous platforming obstacles. It’s very important to consider all of this when you learn that there is no spoken dialogue in Unto the End.
While simplistic, the visual style of Unto the End pops with color and life. Snowy landscapes, dark tunnels, giant caves, and more await you in these perilous, wintery lands. It has a decidedly old-school feel with direct inspiration taken from the retro classic Another World, right down to the 2D platforming. Enemies and NPCs are varied and exciting to encounter, as not every new face is a foe — trading and even running away can be just as valuable as swinging your sword. It adds a layer of puzzle solving for the astute player, giving a non-combat option for those who don’t want to fight. It’s important to consider, as combat in Unto The End is brutal and unforgiving. Unfortunately, it’s also one of its weakest points.
While the Father has many options to mount a safe and calculated offense, it all becomes a bit formulaic when it’s your only option. For nearly every heroic moment of spontaneity that you experience, you will go against a foe that makes the tug-of-war nature of the combat rear its ugly head, lest you take a hit or two and meet your end. When push comes to shove, your optimal strategy is to block or maybe bait the enemy attack. This will lead to a string of attacks that must be blocked high or low until the enemy falls, leaving them open for a clean hit.
It seems as though Unto the End is trying for the feel of a Souls-like, but the game’s unforgiving nature makes feeling any meaningful progression an expert’s affair. There are no skills or level-up mechanics and the checkpoint system can be just as unforgiving as taking damage. It all adds up to an experience that’s much more on the trial and error side than it needs to be when the combat system feels so bloated.
That’s wholly unfortunate because Unto The End does such an excellent job of making you want to see it all. The expertly-timed musical notes, the meaty slices of your blade connecting, and the howling winds of the snow-swept lands grab you and never let you go. The interactions between the Father and the creatures he encounters are compelling when you first meet them and when you solve the riddles they pose. Watching your character bond and communicate without words with the various denizens of the land is a rewarding experience, especially seeing as most of them will simply attack you on sight. These moments and ones brought on by memories of your family are what the game does best.
The simplistic visuals are evocative of these feelings as well. The old-school style works well with the various weather and lighting effects to give the game its mysterious edge. Moving through caverns with only the guiding light of your torch is a different feeling from traversing the surface, where you have a clear view of your surroundings. During combat, you can only see in the dark as far as your torch’s light reaches, making getting cornered in the dark as unique of an experience as it is challenging.
The creatures you encounter are also visually impactful. From strange, snarling cave-beasts to titanic frost trolls, the creatures of this world add excitement and mystery upon each encounter. These moments are where the game shines the most, as choosing the correct way to approach each monster is vital. Some will charge at you, claw or weapon-first, while others will try to communicate. These interactions can lead to you getting extra items, avoiding combat, or finding new areas to explore if you follow the creatures’ trail. It makes the world feel alive and unique, at least for the first few run-throughs.
These experiences, unfortunately, become tiresome as the game goes on due to its brutal nature. Unto The End allows many avenues for failure, including permanent failure should you make a grave miscalculation. It’s easy to get yourself into unwinnable situations that force you to restart the game, which is an option offered in the main menu. You can lose your sword, torch, or bleed to death, which all contribute to this scenario. I also experienced a glitch that forced a restart as well. While interesting at first, this aspect loses its luster after the first few times and encourages more of a speedrunning mentality, which undermines the personal aspects the game puts forth.
Unto The End is a polarizing experience. The husband and wife team’s effort at 2 Ton Studios is impressive and has a lot of heart, meaning there is a lot to love in this retro-inspired adventure game. From the incredible sound design, to the beautiful graphics, to the unique design of the puzzle-solving, you can feel the love put into the project. The solid platforming ties it all together to create a showcase of these qualities that keeps you wanting more. Unfortunately, this feeling goes away when the deliberate nature of the combat undermines the smooth flow of the game. While learning the mechanics can be fun, mastery of them serves to cheapen the overall experience over anything else.
The checkpoint system’s brutal nature only makes this worse, as repeating the same clunky combat sequences is a grating experience. While you are encouraged to avoid combat and a couple of the bosses are fun, the way the game evolves makes you wish these gimmicky sequences never existed at all. When mastered, the combat becomes a fancy tug-of-war rather than posing any dynamic encounters. It’s a deflating feeling that clashes with the fantastic presentation and immersion that Unto The End does best. For that, I can only recommend it for the hardcore gamer looking for a different sort of reward for overcoming its stringent demands.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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While the sound design is gripping, the platforming is solid, and the puzzle solving is unique, Unto The End unfortunately suffers from a bloated combat system and harsh checkpoints. This tough-as-nails trial and error gameplay loop ultimately cheapens all of its best qualities.
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