Unto The End Review
Walking in a winter murder land
Too aggressive, surrounded, stabbed more times than Pop Up Pirate. Overcautious, knocked over, clubbed to death like a seal. Noscoped with a rock, bled to death from the head wound. Bludgeoned to death with a dead elk. Festive? These are just some of the many, many, many ways I met my untimely end in Unto The End.
The brainchild of indie devs – husband and wife team, Stephen and Sara – Unto The End is a 2D sword fighting game about stabbing things while not getting stabbed. Or hit by that frozen elk. You play a small man with a big beard, fighting your way through a frozen landscape filled with dangerous caverns and deadly monsters. Heavy stress on the dangerous and deadly there. You’re very much alone in this world and death lurks – quite literally – around almost every corner.
Unto is described by Sara and Stephen as a challenging combat adventure game. It’s very story-lite: while out hunting, you fell down a hole. Now you need to get back to your nuclear family plus dog. It’s simplicity has echoes of Genndy Tartakovsky's Primal, a show about a caveman which had zero dialogue, but still conveyed an emotionally affecting story. There’s zero dressing on top of the concept; you only have your sword and your wits to rely on during your journey home.
It definitely sits firmly in the Dark Souls camp of skill-driven gameplay. Doing this well in a 2D game is trickier than it sounds, and the Read-React system used here is – on paper – an extremely innovative solution. Rather than a blood-soaked massacre, combat in Unto is a very personal affair; you’re often only fighting one or two enemies at a time, and there’s a palpable desperation to almost every encounter. It only takes one or two hits to die, but this also applies back to your opposite number(s). You’re rewarded for deliberate, careful action; but there are also moments where – if you’re clever – you can bum rush an enemy, knock them over, and wail on them like a mincemeat piñata.
However, some of the most brilliant moments of the game come in-between the hacking and slashing. There are some interesting opportunities, which I won’t spoil here, to find alternative ways past certain enemies. It’s important to actually look at who you’re facing, because while you might assume everything wants to kill you, actually they are pointing at the ground as if requesting some sort of offering…
For a 2D game, the art and animation are sumptuous. The word hygge kept springing to mind, but that might just be because everyone and their mum is obsessed with the Scandi lifestyle these days (and you can fuck right off with your “hygge” wooden bowling pin). The art style is resolutely minimalist, but captures the snow-blasted landscape and creaking pines beautifully. The character animations are incredible, having an almost undeserving amount of weight for what amounts to a few coloured squares. If you stand still, a dusting of snow slowly collects on your beard and furs, scattering away when you move. It’s lovely stuff.
The sound design is also phenomenal. There’s not much – if any – music, so nothing gets in the way of the ambiance. The caverns are full of dripping water and half-heard echoes, while above ground is a washed out blizzard of snow and wind. Your only constant companion throughout is the ragged breathing of your own character, a constant reminder of your own fragile vulnerability.
There are issues. Sadly, these mostly revolve around the key selling point of the game: the combat. Now, look, I’m all for hard games. I’m not one of those people who’s like “GET GOOD OR GO BACK TO SIMS 3, SCRUB”, but I mean… holy shit, this game can be completely unforgiving and frustrating at times. The first problem being that the “tutorial” – a sparring session with your wife which teaches you how to fight – isn’t accessible until after your first couple of fights. Now maybe I missed one of the bonfires early on (yadda yadda Dark Souls), but putting the tutorial after dying multiple times to the first encounters seems a bit arse about elbow.
Also – and oh my God I cannot even – enemies should not be able to hide behind the foreground art (which is, of course, lovely), and one shot you in the noggin with a rock. Again: I’m all for skill-based combat, but dying to an intercontinental ballistic pebble for the fifth time, is SOMEWHAT FRUSTRATING.
There is an assist mode, which basically slows combat down to around half-speed. I was only able to play the game on this mode, because you need to have the reaction speed of a twelve year-old fighter pilot to survive some of the harder encounters. After a while, I did realise that a lot of my deaths were the result of poor planning. Realising I could use the throwing dagger to initiate, which also creates a pool of light from your dropped torch, was my first “a-ha!” moment. However, there were times when I felt like the dodge rolls weren’t quite pixel perfect, and a lot of times I would dodge but still end up dead in a single hit. There were many points where I had to very slowly and deliberately put my controller on the table, and resist the urge to yeet it through the nearest window.
Still, you know what: it was a fun experience. There’s enough unique stuff here to enjoy, and hopefully some tweaks will make combat a wee bit less like punching myself in my own face. Many, many, many times.
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